NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Barely three years since being derided as a sorry parody of the franchise which once dominated the NFL, the San Francisco 49ers have a chance to claim a record-equaling sixth Super Bowl win on Sunday.
It has been 18 years since the 49ers last appeared in a Super Bowl - their fifth victory coming against San Diego Chargers in Miami in 1994 - and in that time the franchise endured some poor seasons.
Six straight years of losing records from 2003 tested the patience of even the most loyal of Niners fans but while change was to come, particularly on the coaching side, the franchise resisted the temptation to make it wholesale.
“It is really good to see that we didn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” chief executive Jed York said on Thursday.
“I think that is something that a lot of teams do - ‘well, we didn’t win anything this year, we need to fire everybody and get rid of them’. That is not my philosophy and I think it has paid off in that we have kept a lot of the pieces together. That is satisfying.”
Jim Harbaugh, who took over as head coach for the 2011 season, has rightly earned much of the credit for the transformation but York notes that plenty of things were in place before he arrived from Stanford University.
“I always thought we had talent on this team and that started with Mike Nolan and (former general manager) Scott McCloughan in 2005, really building the foundation,” he said.
”I think (coach) Mike Singletary did some great things for this team, bringing the most out of guys like Vernon Davis and Patrick Willis.
“Then Trent Baalke, who was a part of that, became the general manager, hired Jim Harbaugh and he really got the most of those guys and continued to add talent,” he said.
Certainly the playing talent has been in place for some time - running back Frank Gore was drafted in 2005, tight end Vernon Davis a year later and then linebacker Patrick Willis and offensive takle Joe Staley in 2007.
There is no doubt either, however, that the appointment of Harbaugh was the crucial decision.
”The coaching change was number one,“ defensive end Justin Smith told Reuters. ”We were able to get a lot of really high draft picks over the years, through really bad records unfortunately, and all that just accumulated into this roster and staff.
“They went out and got the best staff they could and it all came together.”
The impact that Harbaugh had his team made was swift - a team which had finished third in the NFC West with a 6-10 record in 2010 won the division and went all the way to the NFC Championship.
“It was pretty immediate - we had the lockout, went straight in to training camp and started installing their defense, offense and special teams and we had success pretty much right off the bat. It happened pretty quickly,” said Smith.
Now Harbaugh’s Niners have a chance to add their names to the famous wins of the past - the Super Bowl triumphs with quarterback Joe Montana and later Steve Young.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have the most Super Bowl wins, with six triumphs in eight appearances, and the Dallas Cowboys have five wins from eight, but the Niners are the only team to have appeared in multiple Super Bowls and won each of them.
York is not interested in historical comparisons.
“It is not about competition with the Steelers or trying to get number six. We aren’t trying to compete against the 49ers teams of the past,” he said.
“The only team we are playing against is the Ravens.”
Editing by Nick Mulvenney