SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Tom Rathman is slow to hand out praise and quick to tell it like it is. San Francisco's intense, no-nonsense running backs coach played for the 49ers during their glory days, so he knows what it takes to get to the top and stay there.
He won two Super Bowls and wants another ring.
That's why Rathman demands so much from his players. It's their job to get first downs. It's their job to get in the end zone. And it's because of the 49ers' impressive play so far running the ball that quarterback Alex Smith was so successful in the passing attack during Sunday's 27-20 win against the New York Giants.
There's some wrath in Rathman.
"When we win, we want to dominate," Rathman said. "We want to take guys out. We want to hurt guys. We want to win. We just want to dominate, hit them in the mouth."
Rathman shares what coach Jim Harbaugh calls "tough love" with the men he leads. Two-time Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore not excluded.
During a drill in practice Wednesday, Rathman good-naturedly razzed diminutive rookie Kendall Hunter — he's 5-foot-7, 199 pounds — for his struggles pushing the blocking sled with one shoulder. Rathman then quickly gave him pointers on his technique.
"I'm not going to sugarcoat anything. If they're not doing it the way we want it done, they're going to get it, they're going to hear it," Rathman said. "That's just the standard that I'm used to."
It has worked to turn Gore into one of the NFL's elite backs.
Rathman is among a handful of coaches Harbaugh retained from Mike Singletary's staff when Harbaugh was hired in January. This is the coach's second stint in charge of the running backs with his former team after first working under Steve Mariucci from 1997-02. After leaving for three seasons with the Detroit Lions and then two with the Oakland Raiders, he returned to the organization in 2009.
The 49-year-old Rathman, a hard-nosed Nebraskan with calves the size of cantaloupes, played the first eight of his nine NFL seasons with the 49ers before finishing with the Los Angeles Raiders in 1994. The former fullback had 544 career carries for 2,020 yards and 26 touchdowns while also making 320 catches for 2,684 yards and eight TDs.
Rathman's coaching career began in the Bay Area in 1995 when he guided running backs at Serra High in nearby San Mateo — the same school where home run king Barry Bonds became a prep star — then he helped rebuild the Menlo College program as offensive coordinator the following year.
Now, he's making his mark with the team that drafted him in the third round out of Nebraska.
"I played here when the 49ers were outstanding in the '80s, early '90s. It was a high standard," Rathman said. "There was a certain standard that was upheld when you're in the locker room, when you're on the field, when you're out at practice, going out and executing in games. Those were the things that you try to teach these guys as they come in here. You want to hold them up to the standards that I was held up to when I first came in here. There's a certain way to do things and the bottom line is you've got to get your job done out on the football field. It doesn't matter what you're up against, you've got to do it. There's a certain way to do it."
Rathman took on fullback Bruce Miller as his personal project this season, transforming the rookie from defensive end to a reliable player on offense. Miller scored his first career touchdown on a 30-yard catch from Smith in the team's 19-11 win at Washington on Nov. 6.
"There's that link to that great era and where we are right now," Harbaugh said. "He does it in a very good way, respectful to both those teams that he played on and these teams that he's coaching. Always wise words from Tom. He's a ball coach. The thing I admire about him is he never takes a break coaching. He is coaching all the time. He's coaching in meetings, he's coaching on the practice field, he's coaching on the way out to walk-through, coaching in the lobby, coaching in the hallways here. His meetings start a half-hour before everybody else's do. It's just great to see the consummate team guy that Tom Rathman is."
Gore, who didn't practice Wednesday because of a right knee injury, sure appreciates it.
Gore had his franchise-record five straight games with 100 or more yards rushing end last week, when he got hurt and was held to zero yards on six carries — his first career game without a yard when he played. Gore has 7,196 career yards rushing and needs 149 to pass late Hall of Famer Joe Perry (7,344) for the most in franchise history.
"You teach technique, point courses, footwork, that put you in a position to execute your technique or your job," Rathman said. "Once you deviate off that, chances of winning go down. ... The bottom line is going off and executing. If they don't, then I'm going to get on them. I'm going to tell them the truth."
Some say the 49ers are showing more of a nasty edge this season. Rathman certainly influences that mentality.
"It's being a football player. I always thought we had a group of guys that had a lot of toughness in them, we've just never been in the situation we're in," Gore said.Comment on this story
The 49ers were able to open up their passing game as the Giants focused on stopping the run — a testament to how effective Rathman's unit has been during this 8-1 start and seven-game winning streak.
"No beating around the bush, he's going to call it how he sees it," Smith said Wednesday. "He's going to call everyone out. It's not like Frank's in there and because Frank's our guy he gets it easy, everybody's getting called out if you're not on your stuff. He's by far, hands-down, the best running backs coach I've ever been around. Understanding those guys, getting those guys ready to go, he just understands football the best when it comes to protections and pressures. He's just on it, a true professional."
Harbaugh and Rathman were players in the league at the same time. Rathman hasn't strayed far from his go-after-them approach as a player in his role on the sidelines.
"There's no question about it. I think his intensity is at 10," Harbaugh said. "If there's another rung, he's at the top of it. He'll probably find another rung. Knowing Tom, he'll find the 11th."