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McKittrick was 49ers' 'rock'
Ann Killion
Mercury News

JANUARY, at a 49ers tribute for Bobb McKittrick, the ailing guest of honor walked up to a table of old friends.

``I want to say thank you for coming,'' McKittrick said, ``because I probably won't see you again.''

He was right. But then, he was just about always right.

That was McKittrick -- honest, brave, lacking pretense, speaking from the heart.

McKittrick, 64, died Wednesday morning at Stanford Hospital. He lost his battle against cancer of the bile duct, one of the few fights he ever lost. But as a doctor once told my family, ``It's always the best people who get the worst diseases.'' Those words seem very true today. McKittrick was as good a man as I've met.

We won't see him again, not in this lifetime. But the offensive-line coach's image is burned forever into the 49ers' tapestry: bullet-shaped head, ramrod-straight posture, arms sticking out of thin white shirt sleeves in sub-freezing temperatures.

``His spirit and standard of excellence will always be a part of the 49ers tradition,'' his dear friend Bill Walsh said Wednesday.

For 21 years, that spirit was the 49ers' anchor, their rock. The old football cliche is that the offensive line is the fundamental building block of a team. McKittrick was the fundamental building block of the 49ers. Not the architect -- that was Walsh. Not the craftsman -- that was Joe Montana. But the foundation.

He was there at the beginning. He was as basic as the offense he coached was complex. He was as unaffected as his franchise was elaborate.

He was a football coach. That's all. Nothing fancy, nothing inspired by genius or heaven-sent talent. Just a hard-working football coach. He never ran his own team, never seemed to much care about that. He had a job and did it well.

He was accused of dirty tactics. He shrugged. He was given anonymous free agents and 10th-round draft choices to work with. He turned them into Pro Bowl players, helped put Super Bowl rings on their fingers.

Sure, he had some moments in the spotlight -- Howie Long once threatened to punch him, which McKittrick took as an indication he had done his job well. Walsh demanded that he wear a jacket in Chicago when it was 26 below. His bare arms occasionally showed up on John Madden's telestrator. But most of McKittrick's work was done behind the scenes, without anyone drawing a big white circle around it.

His finest moments came in the offensive line's meeting room, where giant men squeezed into school desks and soaked up his knowledge. Or on the sideline as he squatted beside his players' bench, showing them Polaroid shots of their moves.

When I began covering the 49ers as a beat writer, back in 1990, I quickly learned what those who came before me had long known -- if you wanted an honest answer, you went to Bobb.

He would tell you, about a certain player, in his rumbling voice, ``Well, he's just not very good.'' He would tell you that Garrison Hearst was the best running back to wear a 49ers uniform in 20 years, that Roger Craig was second and that -- with no apologies -- Ricky Watters was not in the top two. He would tell you when the quarterback wasn't playing well and who was the smartest young coach he knew.

He had a unique perspective -- he had seen the 49ers' recent history develop in front of him like one of his Polaroids. He had integrity. He was genuine.

He didn't care if you wrote what he said -- it was the truth. His approach drove others in the organization -- this business with a finely honed image and a well-spun P.R. staff -- crazy.

I happened to see former 49er Tom Holmoe on Wednesday morning, before either of us knew McKittrick had passed away. Holmoe, speaking to my class of journalism students, smiled at the memory of McKittrick's honesty and how others in the 49ers' building would try to rein in his truth-telling, how it sent them into a panic.

But truth was important to McKittrick. In fact, McKittrick was the vessel that contained the truth of the 49ers, the secret of the team's success. That was something the general public didn't see in this man in red polyester shorts. They didn't know that within that bald receptacle were all the answers.

Whenever someone new was hired on offense, he locked himself in a film room with McKittrick. Mike Shanahan did it, Marc Trestman did it, Steve Mariucci did it. Jon Gruden used to sit outside McKittrick's door, collecting whatever pearls of wisdom rolled out on the carpet.

``He just captured me. I idolized the guy,'' Gruden said. ``I was like his shadow.''

Gruden pointed out that McKittrick's friend and professional nemesis, Fritz Shurmur, died last year. Let's hope there are enough cocktail napkins up there to hold all the plays being diagrammed.

After Walsh left the 49ers, McKittrick was the link. The bond. The starter dough. He probably knew Walsh's system even better than Walsh, he had boiled it down and served up the concentrate so often.

He was there at the beginning, through five Super Bowls and three head coaches. And he was there this season, when it started to end.

For those of us around the team frequently, it was hard not to draw a link between McKittrick's failing health -- this tough, robust man withering away -- and the decline of the team he had served for so long.

He came to work every day, never complaining, a fighter to the end. He was a loving husband to Teckla, for 41 years. He was a father and a grandfather. He was building a house in his beloved Oregon, one he will never live in.

He faced his battle the way he seemed to face most everything in life: with courage and perspective and integrity.

``I've had a great life,'' he said last summer. ``I'd be ashamed to say `Why me?' when there are so many others worse off than I am.''

Bobb McKittrick will be missed.

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