Marcio Jose Sanchez, Associated Press
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.
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