Tom Rathman to this day embraces the approach of his first running backs coach at Nebraska.
Exactly what was Mike Corgan's approach?
"Chewing your butt if you weren't hitting somebody," Rathman said Tuesday. "As a fullback, if you didn't hit somebody on literally every play, you could hear him grumbling in the background."
Rathman had little time for nostalgia Tuesday morning. As the San Francisco 49ers' running backs coach — a position he's held since 2009 — he had the Baltimore Ravens in his thoughts. He had Super Bowl XLVII on his mind. Perhaps you've noticed that in America, the Super Bowl elicits more than background mumbling. It consumes the masses. It creates megastars, icons.
It might make a participant recall his roots, if only for a few moments.
The 50-year-old Rathman gladly talked about his days as a Nebraska fullback (1981-85), playing for Corgan as a freshman and later for Frank Solich, who spent 15 years as a Husker running backs coach. Corgan and Solich were no-nonsense, tough-minded, demanding. They coached with a style prevalent during football's formative years.
The style never really left the game, at least not among those who perform at a high level.
Corgan, who died in 1989 at age 70, reminded a lot of folks of Bob Devaney. Corgan was an original. A throwback. Half Irish. All rugged. He was "a real aggressive individual as far as his approach to football," Rathman said. "That was always my approach as a player. He helped direct the focus."
Rathman had similar praise for Solich.
"Frank had played the game, so he knows what it was all about," Rathman said.
This is what it's all about in Rathman's world: He expects exactness, consistency, productivity and toughness. Above all, toughness. Fans of a certain age won't remember Rathman. That's too bad. He also was an original. A throwback. Rugged, but with supreme athleticism. Relentless.
He coaches relentlessness, emphasizing the notion of "winning every snap." Some players will challenge that notion, he said.
"All I know is you can always win the next snap — always," Rathman said. "If you just keep winning the next snap, and that's all you're worried about, and you're exact, you'll have success."
It sounds simple enough. But not everyone possesses Rathman's elite physical talent, not to mention his passion for football and drive to succeed. He grew up near Fonner Park in Grand Island, playing sandlot football at nearby Memorial Park. Not only was he a standout football player at Grand Island High School, he was a state champion high-jumper.
He arrived at Nebraska in 1981, mindful of the Huskers' tough linebackers, especially the veterans he would face in practice.
"Steve Damkroger," Rathman said flatly. "Steve Damkroger was the man."
Damkroger embodied hard-nosed football. His icy glare in the media guide spoke volumes.
"He was the heart and soul of that defense as far as being a thumper," Rathman said.
Rathman could thump you. He also could run away from you; he averaged 7.5 yards per carry in 1985. He was drafted by the 49ers in 1986 when Bill Walsh was head coach. Rathman went on to play for teams that won Super Bowl XXIII and XXIV.
"We're talking about going from Tom Osborne to Bill Walsh," Rathman said. "I don't know if you really need to say anything else."
Jim Harbaugh obviously has some idea about what he's doing. Rathman said the 49-year-old Harbaugh relates on the same level as players, yet maintains status as a leader. What's more, Harbaugh takes advantage of "a great mind for game-planning," Rathman said. "And he has an unbelievable staff."
Rathman shoots you straight. No B.S. He's also a confident sort. He says he is a better coach than he was player. He looks back at game film from his playing days, "and it's not as good as you'd like," he said with a chuckle. He sees imprecise footwork. He fails to finish a block. His shoulders aren't parallel to the line of scrimmage. Yeah, the little things.
Many successful people say it's attention to detail that separates the good from the great.
"You learn from your experiences as a player what is possible and what's not, as far as getting your job done," Rathman said.
Getting your job done with toughness is non-negotiable in Rathman's realm. Has been since the 1980s.
"I learned the importance of toughness in Nebraska, and I've spent my whole career — as a coach and player — striving for it," he said.