Here is a link to my Friday column about 49ers general manager Trent Baalke. The full column appears below:

SANTA CLARA – Trent Baalke slipped quietly into the 49ers’ facility around noon on Thursday. The coaches and players were furiously preparing for the Seahawks and talking to media from all over the country, but Baalke had been on the road. On the road even this week.

He attended college all-star games in Tampa and L.A. Doing his job. Performing due diligence for the future as the present unfolds.

He used to go on the road more often, scouting prospects. Even now, in a typical week, he’ll pack his bag and fly somewhere a few days and be back in time for the game on Sunday.

But Thursday he was in his office, a neat, organized room way down at the end of the hall in the Niners’ headquarters, that hall library quiet, his office overlooking the practice fields — a sky view.

We had not talked in a while, although last Sunday in Charlotte, I was trying to book a plane ticket online to Seattle and I kept failing at the final step. I was getting frustrated and from right behind me in the press box, I heard that familiar Baalke voice — tires on gravel — “You have to hit re-select.” I hit re-select and it worked and later he told me, “I let you flounder around a while and then I had to say something.”

So, we were in his office and I wanted to ask about some players he had drafted. “He” was the word that stopped him right away. Then he stopped me. “This isn’t a one-man decision-making process,” he said, setting things straight. “I really like to stay away from that’s-my-guy mentality. It’s not what it is. It’s an our-guy mentality.”

He was issuing a disclaimer. He didn’t draft anyone. It was him and his scouts and the coaches. He has a horror of taking all the credit for the most loaded team in the NFL.

“I promise not to make it seem like you’re the one genius sitting in a room and there’s no one else,” I said.

“Well, there’s some you’re probably going to name that won’t make me the genius.”

Then he laughed.

“There’s one,” I said.

And now we both were laughing. And we were talking.

“Ultimately, the final decision does rest in my hands,” he said. “You take the good with the bad. In this business, you’re never going to be right 100 percent. The great Ron Wolf (Raiders, Green Bay), who I think is one of the best who’s ever done this, told me a long time ago — I was standing with him at a New York Jets practice and Bill Parcells was there as well — Ron looked at me and said, ‘If you’re right one out of four times in this business, you’re really good at what you do.’ I looked at him. It didn’t make a lot of sense to me, one out of four. Surely, you can bat better than that. But there’s a lot of truth to that.”

“I’ll name a player your people drafted,” I said, “and you tell me what the group thought of him.”

Baalke was OK with that.

“Colin Kaepernick.”

“Raw talent. That comes to mind. Passion. Tremendous competitive fire. A lot of things, but those stand out.”

“Aldon Smith.”

“Rare traits. Unique leverage, unique length, unique power. Just a lot of rare physical traits that you could see on film. And another guy with great passion for the game.”

“You smiled as you spoke about him,” I said.

“There’s a lot to smile about.”

“NaVorro Bowman.”

“Instincts, rare instincts for the football. Another guy with rare competitive fire. A guy that really enjoys playing the game, great passion for it. You could see that in his play. Tremendous physical traits. Ability to stay extremely compact in all of his movements. A guy that could be a three-down linebacker naturally.”

“Mike Iupati.”

“Just rare size and power are the two traits that stood out. He had dominance at that level (in college). When you evaluate a player at a smaller school — Idaho is a smaller school; it’s not the SEC or the Pac-12. Smaller-school guys have to dominate the competition. And he did like none other that I’ve personally scouted. A rare ability to just manhandle the people he went up against.”

“You were also smiling when you talked about him.”

“These guys are all easy to smile about. It’s hard not to like these guys.”

Baalke and I kept going. He hung in with me and I appreciated that.

“Do the 49ers have a particular personality?”

“Absolutely. I think that’s the trademark, that’s the profile of what we’re looking for. We’re looking for that in our coaches, in our scouts, in our football operations. We’re certainly looking for that in our players. The passion, the competitive fire, the will to win. Those are all things that you can’t hide and you can’t fake.”

“Would a synonym for that be ‘tough,’ a tough team? Or is ‘tough’ too limited?”

Long pause.

“I’m trying to give this some thought,” Baalke said. Sincere.

“Please,” I said. Sincere.

Another pause. He started to speak. Stopped himself.

Finally, he said, “I think you can fake toughness. It will get exposed over time. It will get exposed, the fakeness of it. I don’t think you can fake will. I think our guys show a tremendous amount of willpower. I think our coaches show a tremendous amount of willpower. Our support staff shows a tremendous amount of willpower. And they have to to survive here.”

“To survive in this place or in the league?”

“I’m speaking about the 49er organization.”

I said, “This is the only tough question. When you look back at the A.J. Jenkins draft pick, when it’s quiet at night and you think about it, what are your thoughts?”

“Well, first of all, those aren’t tough questions. That’s part of the business. What comes to mind is you’re constantly evaluating yourself, everything that you do, everything we do as an organization. When you look at the why’s — ‘Why wasn’t he successful?’ — time is going to play out. Time has a way of measuring everybody and everything that you’re doing. Just like Jonathan Baldwin (traded for Jenkins). Over time, we’re going to find out exactly what Jonathan Baldwin is. We’re going to find out exactly what A.J. Jenkins is as a player. It’s too early to say what went wrong. The bottom line is it wasn’t working here. We go through the why’s and I think, internally, we understand some of the things that went wrong. We’ll use that moving forward in future decisions.”

I mentioned former 49ers general manager Scot McCloughan, now in Seattle, helped build the current Niners — Vernon Davis, Frank Gore, Patrick Willis, Joe Staley. There are more. Does Baalke ever think about the odd circumstance of McCloughan having a hand in developing the rival Niners and Seahawks?

“Do I think about that?” Baalke said. “I guess not from that angle. A lot of people have had a hand in building this team. It certainly isn’t just Scot and me. Coach (Mike) Nolan came here with the profile and the philosophy of how we were going to take over the NFC West down the road. We still follow what he was trying to build. What he had set out to build here is still in play. That’s why so many of the players are still here. They were the building blocks for this foundation and we have continued to build to that foundation.”

“Trent, what do you do that’s not football?”



“I don’t have any hobbies. Football is my hobby. To enjoy coming to work every day, to me, that’s a hobby. What else do I need?”

And then I left. Not along the silent hallway. Through a door in Baalke’s office onto a large redwood deck, down a flight of stairs to the practice fields. The fields right there.

For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at lowell.cohn@pressdemocrat.com.

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  1. Streetglide

    Interesting thing is AJ is starting to perfrom in KC and I think he will be a major player there in another season or so. They goofed by dumping him too early…

    January 17th, 2014 6:30 am

  2. Dan

    I like his response to the question about “toughness” . Good question, better answer.

    January 17th, 2014 8:21 am

  3. Michael Douglass-Harris

    Great article. Really insightful perspective from the mind of a GM we all seem to know too little about. Loved hearing his thoughts on some of the present players and that differentiation between toughness and will. Good stuff!

    January 17th, 2014 8:58 am

  4. Jack Hammer

    Thank you for taking us behind the scenes. It is very interesting to see how these guys think and build a “we” culture.

    The 49ers sure put an emphasis on guys who compete and have passion.

    January 17th, 2014 9:44 am

  5. Mark M

    I pretty much figured you were persona non grata in that office Lowell. Good to see the Niners allowing these interviews though asking him a lot of softball questions seems to have been the price tag.

    Baalke seems to be opening up about his failure with AJ Jenkins in a few interviews now. In the grand scheme of things, he’s done a good job though and I’m glad to see he’s recognized for it. But it would be good to be able to call a spade a spade which appears to have been the case with AJ, despite his massive 8 catch season in KC. I sometimes think these guys would deny that 2 + 2 = 4 if it somehow reflected poorly upon them.

    Ahhhhh, what would it be like to have your profession as your hobby!!!???? I’m most jealous.

    January 17th, 2014 9:55 am

  6. Stan

    Remember when Larry Kreuger said that it wasn’t Walsh but the then 49er GM who built the niners? He says the same thing about the Seahawks and Carrol!
    GM’s are a dime a dozen. Give anybody who knows football a pick at the best players in college. Easy. Its the HEAD COACH. He makes the decisions of how the pawns move.
    Singletary had pawns..and when it came to “end game strategy” is where he failed. Nolan,used the wrong pieces at QB at the wrong times.
    Coaches who win at all levels prove its THEM. No GM’s win at all levels. Only when they are handed Harbaughs and Belichicks.

    January 17th, 2014 10:42 am

  7. Stan

    And that talk that Rob Ryan isnt made a head coach because of his long hair? Same as winner at all place,Hue Jackson. They arent conventional.
    The American businessman would rather go out of business then hire somebody unique. How much talent we waste in this culture..

    January 17th, 2014 10:45 am

  8. Stan

    Lowell,I have a question for you…this is being billed as the NFC Championship. DO you see teams around the NFC proudly displaying division or conference titles? The Super Bowl is so huge..why not just say NFC finals?

    January 17th, 2014 12:01 pm

  9. Sondra Byullotch

    This is the best article that I can remember about the modern Niners. This is why you are the best there is.

    The story, the story, the story. Keep that in mind. I look forward to more.

    January 17th, 2014 12:14 pm

  10. ImpeGood

    Great article. Enjoyed the insights.

    January 17th, 2014 12:36 pm

  11. htwaits

    I enjoyed that. Thank you Lowell. We’ve got one of the great weekends coming up and you’ve got it off to a wonderful start.

    It’s the trip that counts, enjoy it.

    January 17th, 2014 2:46 pm

  12. Gopal

    Were mcloughans personal reasons for leaving the niners ever disclosed?

    January 17th, 2014 6:38 pm

  13. CohnZohn

    Gopal, Not publicly.

    January 17th, 2014 6:39 pm

  14. chris

    Whatever failure there was with AJ Jenkins…he more than made up for with Eric Reid.

    January 17th, 2014 9:16 pm

  15. CohnZohn

    Sondra, I agree. The story. The story. The story.

    January 17th, 2014 9:17 pm

  16. CohnZohn

    Mark M, I feel the same way about my profession Baalke feels about his, although recently I’ve found the travel very hard. I love writing. My office is downstairs in my house and some mornings I run down the stairs to start writing.

    January 17th, 2014 9:19 pm

  17. chris

    mcloughans personal reasons were said to be his family… though I know he did not get along with Mike Nolan or Mike Singletary… and i’ll bet a pretty penny that had more to do with it than anything.

    Baalke’s hire had a lot to do with the fact that he had a connection with Harbaugh… and was Jed York’s way of roping in jim harbaugh.

    January 17th, 2014 9:19 pm

  18. CohnZohn

    Dan, I take your post as a compliment. My job is to induce better answers than questions.

    January 17th, 2014 9:20 pm

  19. gsixty

    Cohn, Great article. I have to say, the Cohns have fabulous articles a few times a year, ones that just blow away all other articles and interviews done by any other beat writer. However, sometimes the articles are written with some perceived spite against the team just looking for some controversy that doesn’t exist. Still, finding one of these gems is why I still read the Cohns.

    January 17th, 2014 9:41 pm

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