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Pat McPherson learned to coach from one of the best — his father

Pat McPherson, Bill McPherson

CHARLOTTE — There are days when Pat McPherson feels like he's channeling his dad.

They're coming more often now, like the morning near the end of OTAs, when the 55-year-old Panthers tight end coach had to reach for his new prescription sunglasses to read a practice script without holding it an arm's length away.

"It's so weird; it was funny because today was my first day I got these," McPherson said, holding them up with a look somewhere between amusement and dismay. "These sunglasses with the little reader bifocal things in them. And I was like, OK, now I really am my dad because that's what he used to wear. It's like, 'Oh no,' but there's also a little bit of that, 'damn it, I'm getting old.'"

There are far worse people for Pat McPherson to emulate on the practice field, since his dad was one of the best professional role models possible for a coach.

This week, McPherson will be in Canton, Ohio, where his father, the late Bill McPherson, will be presented with the Award of Excellence from the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The award recognizes groups in the sport that are not as commonly represented in the Hall, such as assistant coaches, trainers, PR directors, video guys, and equipment managers (former Panthers PR chief Charlie Dayton was honored in 2022).

Bill McPherson

And if you followed the league 40 years ago, you realize how deserving Bill McPherson is of that honor.

The elder McPherson was hired by Bill Walsh in 1979 and spent a quarter century in the 49ers organization as a coach and defensive coordinator, eventually moving into the front office. He was part of five Super Bowl champions during his time there, but left an imprint on people beyond the wins and losses.

"He was incredible," former 49ers defensive lineman Dennis Brown told NBC Sports Bay Area of McPherson. "He was a good man. He was like that strict dad. He was always in my face. He was always pushing me. I remember my rookie season, he was always following me around up in Rocklin [in training camp]. He'd say, 'Brown, I drafted you, don't make me be sorry — don't make me be sorry, Brown!'

"He always told me to go out and find something after football because he believed in me. When I came back and got involved with the team, he would say, 'I'm so proud of you. I always knew there was something else out there for you.'"

Bill McPherson had that kind of impact on a lot of people.

Mike Holmgren, Bill Walsh

When he was the 49ers offensive coordinator from 1989 to 1991, Mike Holmgren had to go against McPherson on a daily basis, and it was a chess match between great offenses and defenses.

"Every now and then I'd try to throw him a curveball in practice, something he didn't expect, and he'd just say, 'Michael, what are you doing?" Holmgren said with a laugh. "As a pure football coach, I never worked with anyone better. But he was also like a father figure to me. I was five years removed from coaching high school when I got there, and he took me under his wing.

"He was an imposing, big man, but he commanded respect without doing too much. He didn't yell, he just said it. Players loved him."

That paternal way rubbed off on a young Holmgren, who used McPherson as a tutor and a sounding board, and eventually a friend who'd share a glass of wine on the weekends.

They sat next to each other on 49ers team flights (McPherson at the window, Holmgren on the aisle) and that came in handy for many reasons.

Once on the way to a game, then-head coach George Seifert called Holmgren up to his seat to discuss a point of strategy. They disagreed on its likelihood of success, and eventually, the conversation grew heated. Seifert perceived the pressure of having a hot-commodity young offensive coach on his staff (Holmgren would become head coach of the Packers in 1992), so the conversation had some undercurrents.

"George exploded at one point and said, 'I know you want my job,'" Holmgren recalled. "I mean, everybody in first class, all the coaches heard it.

"When I finally got back to my seat, Mac patted my leg and he just told me to calm down, to relax. . . . It was a thing a father would do."

Bill McPherson had that kind of impact on people, and his son got to see it up close.

And since his dad coached the 49ers during one of the greatest dynasties in sports, Pat McPherson learned at a graduate level, every day. He'd work as a ball boy when he was a kid, and when growing into a standout linebacker at Bellarmine College Prep High School, he'd get pointers from guys like Ronnie Lott and so many other stars of his dad's defenses. It was not a normal upbringing (Pat was one of the few fortunate coach's kids who didn't have to move around every couple of years), and he doesn't take it for granted.

Pat was 10 when they moved back West after a year in Philadelphia (his dad went there to work for Dick Vermeil but wanted to return to his Bay Area roots), and getting back there and growing up the way he did, he realized eventually what a legend his dad was. After serving in the Korean War, Bill McPherson rose from the high school ranks to college in California (Santa Clara and UCLA), before following Vermeil to the Eagles in 1978 for a year.

"He coached everything and had a lot of success and influenced a lot of people, and he's getting recognized for his devotion and contribution to the NFL," Pat said. "But everything he did, he influenced so many people in the Bay Area for years and years. If you didn't know my dad, you knew somebody that knew my dad, that type of thing."

But that recognition wasn't always a good thing for a kid since it took the 49ers a few years to win their first Super Bowl under Walsh in 1981 (they went 2-14 in 1979 and 6-10 in 1980.

"The first couple of years, they weren't very good," Pat recalled. "So I was getting teased like crazy at school, but then they win, then they're going to the Super Bowl, and then everybody wants autographs. So I was like, I don't think so. Weren't you making fun of me a couple of years ago?

"But it was really cool because I was exposed to a lot. I had tremendous access to a lot of things. I was really, really spoiled in that regard, and it's cool because, like, I'll see Jerry Rice somewhere and give him a big hug, and Ronnie Lott was like a big brother to me."

But dad was still dad, and when you grow up playing linebacker for a legendary coach, you get coached.

Pat recalled seeing his dad wearing a cowboy hat and pacing from end zone to end zone during his high school games, partially because it was hard for him to sit next to his wife, Elsie.

Bill McPherson

"My mom, 100 percent Italian, hard-working mom, and she knew just enough football to know what's going on and get pissed, so she's screaming and yelling," Pat said with a laugh. "And dad's like, OK, I don't want to be next to your mom, and I don't want to be next to all these other parents that don't know what's going on."

Bill McPherson kept a close eye on his son's playing career throughout high school and college (like his dad, Pat went to Santa Clara, where he was a team captain and a linebacker), and was always trying to keep his son from getting too excited.

"Keep it cool in the motor pool," Pat recited, offering one of his dad's old army sayings from Korea. "He would always tell me not to peak too early because I was a pretty excitable kid. When I was playing high school football, man, I would just be running around getting fired up and all that kind of stuff out there; I would be like a madman running around, and then the games would start, and I'd be a little bit too amped up."

Pat was good enough as a player to get a tryout with the 49ers, but his dad made it clear he was going to get coached the same as anyone else.

"You're my kid, but you're a guy," he laughed and remembered his father telling him. "and you're going to be in the [worst] room in the camp because you're a free agent; you're probably one of the last two or three guys that got asked to camp."

When he was a high school and college linebacker, his dad taught him tricks, told him there were times when he could slip behind a pulling guard and make a play in the backfield if it was taking too long to develop — the kind of play you make with recognition rather than pure athletic talent. But Pat found out in 49ers camp those gaps closed up in a hurry, and trying to steal a play with your eyes that you couldn't make with your feet wasn't going to work.

"So I kind of got some bad habits, maybe running through on a couple of things," Pat laughed. "And so we get to 9-on-7 and the inside run drill, and I tried to run through like that, and I almost got through, but somebody blocked back on me and got me.

"And so Dad goes, 'What are you doing trying to run through there?' I said, I thought I could make it, and he just said, 'Here, you'll never make it.' So I knew I couldn't do that anymore."

Pat McPherson

Those kinds of small tips were helpful as a player, but the bigger lessons helped pave the way for his son to coach, even if they had a familiar ring.

"If you're going to do this coaching thing, these seasons get long, and you can't be way up here because then eventually you're going to come way down here," Pat recalled his father telling him when he was getting his start with the Broncos. "You've got to just be right in the middle of the whole way, and you can only do that if you just kind of pace yourself and don't peak too early."

Of course, the younger McPherson always had trouble keeping his enthusiasm in check, and he realized it after he got an MBA and felt compelled to justify it by applying for jobs in the business world.

Pat recalled the day he ducked out of practice with the high school team he was helping because a friend got him an interview with IBM. He was stuck in a waiting room — wearing a suit he didn't want to be wearing — when he picked up a Time Magazine with Jim Carrey on the cover. While he waited for his interview, he read the comedian's story about his saxophone-playing father struggling to make ends meet (they lived in a car at one point) but being happy pursuing his music.

"He said life's too short not to do what you're passionate about, and it was like somebody just slapped me over the head," McPherson said. "Like I don't want to work for IBM, I want to coach football. So I went through the interview, and it was like Charlie Brown's teacher; I didn't even know what I was saying. It's like, I don't want this job; I bolt out of there and go to practice that afternoon. And I pulled out this crazy tie-dyed shirt, and I was running around like crazy, just having all kinds of fun with the kids. And this one kid says to me, 'Coach you seem pretty amped up today.' And I said, 'I'm feeling a little crazy today.' And they ended up putting that on a T-shirt.

"But I knew from that day on I wanted to coach, and I didn't care what level, to be completely honest with you."

Pat McPherson

That energy is one of the things that drew Dave Canales to McPherson, as the Panthers head coach has talked about his passion and his attention to detail as one of the reasons he brought him here after they worked together for 13 years in Seattle.

Those are lessons Pat McPherson learned from a good source.

And as he sat in his office and thought about this week and what it means, he gets emotional when he talks about his father. Bill McPherson passed away during the early days of the COVID pandemic in 2020, which kept Pat from being by his father's side when he died at 88.

So this event will give Pat a chance to celebrate his father's memory again as he's recognized for a glorious career. But it will also be about the relationships he built with players like Brown and coaches like Holmgren, two of the many he impacted over the years with the 49ers.

It'll be good to hear the stories this week in Canton.

But when Pat comes back here for training camp, when he puts on those glasses or says one of the old sayings or thinks about the people he crossed paths with, those memories will come flooding back to him, and you'll see one of the guys Bill McPherson impacted the most.

Asked what lesson from his father stands out the most over the years, Pat McPherson pauses and his voice drops.

"You know, I don't know if it's as much as things that he said, as much as the things that he did," the son said. "I think from a pretty young age, I realized that my dad probably forgot more football than I'll ever know. But I think the key to his success forever was the fact that he made it about relationships and the way he treated people. Treat everybody fairly like a dad.

"As much as I can, that's probably the biggest part of what I try to do, which is build a relationship with these guys. I'm like, OK, you don't work for me, I don't work for you. We work together. I'm only as good as you are, and you're only as good as I am."

It's an important lesson — for football, or life.

And Pat McPherson learned that from one of the best.

Pat McPherson

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