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McKittrick succumbs to cancer
Eric Gilmore
Times Staff Writer

Longtime 49ers offensive line coach Bobb McKittrick died Wednesday morning at Stanford Hospital after a 14-month battle with bile duct cancer.

McKittrick, 64, was a fixture on the 49ers coaching staff the past 21 years, a span covering San Francisco's five Super Bowl championship seasons. He came to the 49ers in 1979 as part of former coach Bill Walsh's first staff.

"He was the most successful offensive line coach the game has ever seen," said Walsh, now the team's general manager, in a statement. "His spirit and standard of excellence will always be a part of the 49ers tradition."

McKittrick's spirit touched players and coaches throughout the NFL. He became known for more than just his skill at tutoring offensive linemen. He became known as a master of the 49ers offense and the man who devised San Francisco's running attack and blocking schemes.

"I learned more football from him in one day than I knew when I first set foot at 4949 Centennial Blvd.," said Raiders coach Jon Gruden, a 49ers assistant in 1990, referring to the address of the 49ers' Santa Clara facility. "I felt his energy, his passion every day. He's the best coach I've ever been around."

According to former 49ers offensive lineman Jesse Sapolu, McKittrick had a profound impact on many other of the NFL's best coaches, from Walsh to Mike Shanahan to George Seifert to Mike Holmgren to Dennis Green.

"Jon Gruden calls him his idol," Sapolu said. "You look at all these great coaches, they all came through Bobb McKittrick. Bobb was really the guts to the blocking scheme. To see him go down is really a sad moment for the players."

As coaches and offensive coordinators came and left the 49ers, McKittrick remained, providing a stable link to the team's past and serving as an invaluable resource.

"He's been through lots of offensive coordinators and been through three head coaches, and he has been the pillar of strength and stability," said 49ers director of football operations John McVay, who joined the 49ers front office in 1979.

McKittrick, a former Marine, long has been known for his legendary toughness. His legend grew even larger during the final 14 months of his life.

Despite his agonizing battle, McKittrick kept working, kept coaching.

"He never complained," said former 49ers offensive guard Guy McIntyre, who assisted McKittrick during training camp. "You knew he was in pain, but he was enduring it. He went about doing what he had to do.

"He was definitely a John Wayne type, true grit. He fought a great fight and had a great career."

McKittrick fought that fight day after day last season, missing work only when doctors ordered him to stay away or on those rare days when the pain became unbearable. Offensive line assistant Pat Morris assumed some of McKittrick's duties.

"The unbelievable courage he showed was just a glimpse of the depth of the man and what he stood for," said former 49ers linebacker Keena Turner, now a member of the team's front office.

"He's one of those guys who will be remembered for the respect he commanded, by the way he went about his work, the level of work he expected from himself. Those guys are rare."

McIntyre still remembers McKittrick standing on the sidelines during a 1983 game against the Chicago Bears on a bitterly cold, rainy day at Soldier Field.

"I can remember standing in Chicago freezing," McIntyre said. "He's out there shivering and obviously cold. He didn't put on a coat. That was just the mentality he had. He was going to give all he had. He wasn't going to let anybody outdo him."

Former 49ers running back Roger Craig said McKittrick motivated players with his toughness.

"Bobb was a true warrior from the first day I met him to his last breath," Craig said.

That toughness came through one summer at a training camp film session, of all places.

"He's sitting in his chair, running the tape machine," former 49ers offensive lineman Randy Cross said. "Then he's bending over running the tape machine. Then he's lying on his back running the tape machine.

"He passes me the clicker and said, 'Run the tape. I think I'm passing a kidney stone.' Then he walked to the dorms. Finally the trainers and doctors made him go to the hospital."

Although he was loved by his players, McKittrick often was loathed by opposing defensive linemen for the tactics he taught.

McKittrick taught a technique known as cut blocking, where offensive linemen attack defenders below the waist. His techniques were legal but drew the anger of defensive linemen who feared career-ending knee injuries.

After one game, former Raiders defensive end Howie Long became so enraged at McKittrick's tactics that he chased him up the locker room tunnel at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Long never caught him.

"He took a rap for teaching questionable techniques," Cross said. "I can tell you one thing, and I'd absolutely say this to anybody at any time, and that includes Howie Long: Bobb McKittrick never taught one illegal technique."

During film sessions when McKittrick saw a 49ers lineman cut down a defender, he had a pat response, Cross said.

"He'd say, 'Most guys don't make tackles when they're on their face.' It's true. They don't hand out any macho badges of courage because you don't cut block. But they do hand out Super Bowl rings."

McKittrick helped the 49ers win five of those, often turning undersized, overlooked linemen into blocking machines.

"Any time you are in charge of the running game with Bill Walsh as the head coach, that's a tough duty," former 49ers offensive tackle Keith Fahnhorst said. "He was able to keep some semblance of a balanced offense. But it had to have been hard.

"He's obviously developed a lot of players. He was not always given the most talented players, speaking mostly for myself. He had a way of motivating people, and he was a great technician, a great teacher, too."

McKittrick's coaching career began in 1961 as an assistant at his alma mater, Oregon State. He also coached for UCLA and the Los Angeles Rams before returning to Oregon State for graduate work in 1973. He was an assistant with the San Diego Chargers from 1974-78.

McKittrick, born in Baker, Ore., is survived by his wife, Teckla, sons Mike and Ladd and two grandchildren.

A private memorial service will be held Monday at St. Pius Church in Redwood City.

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