San Francisco 49ers: Top 5 head coaches in franchise history

The Niners have boasted some of the greatest head coaches in the history of the NFL, including one who revolutionized the game.
San Francisco 49ers head coach George Seifert (L) and former head coach Bill Walsh (R)
San Francisco 49ers head coach George Seifert (L) and former head coach Bill Walsh (R) / JOHN MABANGLO/GettyImages

The San Francisco 49ers are fortunate enough to have employed some amazing head coaches since being formed in 1946.

After a couple of turbulent years prior to 2017, the San Francisco 49ers finally landed a head coach in Kyle Shanahan who has gained a similar level of success compared to a number of his predecessors.

Shanahan is the latest in a lengthy chain of head coaches dating back to the franchise’s inception in 1946. The 49ers have seen plenty of coaches since then — some good, some bad and some legendary.

One of four Niners head coaches to take his team to a Super Bowl, and one of only three such coaches to make it to multiple Super Bowl apperances, Shanahan has certainly done enough to grace the top five.

Fortunately, this is a fairly easy list. San Francisco has employed a number of coaching greats in its storied history. Some were simply dominant. Others were capable of turning an underperforming franchise around in short order.

Others were simply ingenious.

But to determine the criteria for the five best head coaches in franchise history, Niner Noise needed to evaluate the following:

  • A coach’s winning percentage during his 49ers tenure
  • Scope of the team when the head coach took over
  • Accolades and awards
  • X-factors, implementations and other notable characteristics

So, without any further delay, let’s discuss the top five head coaches in 49ers history.

5 best head coaches in San Francisco 49ers history

Honorable mention: Buck Shaw (1946-1954)

San Francisco’s first head coach can’t be left off this list. The late Buck Shaw served as 49ers head coach from 1946 through 1954 and took the team into the playoffs in 1949. The year before, Shaw posted a 12-2 record with the Niners back when the team played in the All-America Football Conference.

Overall, Shaw owned a 71-39-4 regular-season record with San Francisco with a 2-1 record in the postseason.

Before helming the Niners, Shaw served as head coach of the Santa Clara Broncos as well as the Cal Bears (one should note this author is a graduate of SCU).

Santa Clara named its own football stadium, and current soccer facility, after Shaw.

Shaw took over the Philadelphia Eagles in 1958 and eventually won an NFL championship in 1960. He passed away in 1977.

Honorable mention: Dick Nolan (1968-1975)

The first Nolan to coach the 49ers had far better success than the latter. Yes, we are talking about former head coach Dick Nolan, who led San Francisco between the years 1968 and 1975. Not his son Mike.

The elder Nolan’s first two seasons with the Niners weren’t terribly impressive. But Nolan enjoyed a 10-3 1970 season with San Francisco en route to a playoff berth. The 49ers would go back to the postseason for the next two years, and Nolan would eventually finish his tenure in the Bay Area with a .505 winning percentage following a 54-53-5 regular-season record and a 2-3 record in the playoffs.

Nolan was known for developing the Niners defense during his stretch and was the first San Francisco head coach to post consecutive postseason appearances in franchise history, and he was named the 1970 Pro Football Writers Association's Coach of the Year.

Nolan passed away in 2007 at the age of 75.

No. 5: Steve Mariucci (1997-2002)

One cannot overlook a more recent 49ers coaching great in Steve Mariucci.

Mariucci took over San Francisco’s head coach slot following the retirement of George Seifert (don’t worry, he’s on this list, too) in 1997 and found immediate success with the Niners, posting a 13-3 record during his first season.

That year, San Francisco would lose to the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship game. But Mariucci and Co. would get their revenge the subsequent season.

Facing off against the Packers again, Mariucci’s Niners would go onto win a Wild Card matchup, thanks to quarterback Steve Young’s incredible last-second pass to wide receiver Terrell Owens: a play forever known as “The Catch II.”

Mariucci was also at the helm of the Niners during the 2002 season and oversaw San Francisco’s miraculous Wild Card comeback against the New York Giants with the 49ers winning 39-38.

But Mariucci’s frayed relationship with the York family and general manager Terry Donahue resulted in the head coach being fired on Jan. 15, 2003.

Mariucci would go on to coach the Detroit Lions for three seasons following his Niners dismissal before joining the NFL Network.

Still, Mariucci earned his stripes along with four playoff berths in San Francisco, ultimateley finishing with a 57-39 regular-season record, and he absolutely needs to be included on this list.

No. 4: Jim Harbaugh (2011-2014)

Former San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh should receive all the credit for turning a talented, yet underachieving roster around when he took over coaching duties in 2011 after what had been a dreadful stretch under former coaches Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary.

But Harbaugh also holds the accolade of being the second-most winning coach in 49ers history. His .695 winning percentage stands just behind George Seifert in the ranks of San Francisco head coaches.

Harbaugh also took the Niners to three-consecutive NFC Championship games between 2011 and 2013 and made it to the Super Bowl following the 2012 season.

One of his more notable decisions as head coach was to replace quarterback Alex Smith with up-and-coming QB Colin Kaepernick after the former suffered a concussion midway through 2012. With Kaepernick under center, Harbaugh and the Niners appeared poised for an elongated stretch atop the NFL ranks.

Things started to unravel in 2014, though, as stories of internal power struggles between Harbaugh, then-general manager Trent Baalke and the front office eventually leaked out into the public.

Harbaugh and the 49ers “mutually” parted ways following an 8-8 finish to 2014, and the former head coach went on to take the same position at the University of Michigan before returning to the NFL ranks with the Los Angeles Chargers in 2024.

No. 3: Kyle Shanahan (2017-present)

Unlike Harbaugh, Shanahan didn't have the luxury of inheriting a talented roster when he took over dutiese in 2017 alongside newe general manager John Lynch.

Instead, the tandem gutted nearly two-thirds of the roster they inherited and set to work trying to build a perennial playoff contender.

By 2019, the work paid off, and Shanahan would take the Niners to their first Super Bowl since 2012, ultimately losing a heart-breaker to the Kansas City Chiefs, one of two Super Bowl losses San Francisco has suffered to KC during Shanahan's tenure so far.

That said, Shanahan brought aboard his intricate and innovative offense that fully maximized the talents of star players. Coupled with an elite defense, the 49ers between 2021 and 2024 were regularly viewed as top Super Bowl contenders, appearing in three consecutive NFC Championship games and ranking toward the top in many an offensive category.

Owning a 64-51 regular-season record, most of the losses coming during the rebuild years of 2017 and 2018, and an 8-4 postseason record, Shanahan has forced his way into the No. 3 spot on this list with only two Niners coaching greats ahead of him.

No. 2: George Seifert (1989-1996)

Seifert was fortunate enough to take over a 49ers team already laden with an abundance of talent. And it also helps Seifert was the hand-picked successor to coaching great Bill Walsh.

To say Seifert inherited a great team is one thing. But Seifert ran with the Niners in every sense and compiled the greatest head-coaching winning percentage in franchise history: .766. The 49ers posted an incredible 98-30 regular-season record during his tenure, which lasted from 1989 through 1996.

During that span, the Niners reached the postseason an amazing seven times and came away with two Super Bowl victories at the end of the 1989 and 1994 seasons.

Seifert is currently only one of 13 NFL head coaches with multiple Super Bowl victories. He also served on the Niners staff during each of San Francisco’s five Super Bowl championships.

The defensive-minded head coach stepped away from the Niners at the conclusion of 1996 but came back to coach the Carolina Panthers between 1999 and 2001. Following a 1-15 record in 2001, Seifert stepped away from the NFL ranks for good.

Still, Seifert’s efforts in San Francisco make him the second-best head coach in franchise history.

And it shouldn’t be a surprise to see who is No. 1.

No. 1: Bill Walsh (1979-1988)

Winning Percentage: .609

San Francisco’s top head coach of all time shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. And it’s no shocker to see Walsh atop this list.

The late-great Hall of Fame coach took over a struggling and dysfunctional franchise in 1979. And his first few years with the organization didn’t go so well either. Walsh’s first two years with San Francisco resulted in sub-.500 records.

But all that changed in 1981.

Walsh had selected quarterback Joe Montana in the 1979 NFL Draft. And 1981 would be the season in which Walsh and Montana would thrive en route to a memorable NFC Championship win and the franchise’s first title crown in Super Bowl XVI.

San Francisco would go onto win two more Super Bowls during Walsh’s tenure.

Walsh is credited for implementing the West Coast offense: a scheme devised by short, precise passes based on proper footwork and timing.

And the Niners offense would reflect this.

San Francisco’s top head coach retired from the position after the 1988 season, although Walsh would remain in various steads with the red and gold for a number of years afterwards.

Walsh would be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993 and passed away in 2007.

But his legacy continues to live on.

Read more from Niner Noise