SANTA CLARA — As a player, Mike Singletary always knew exactly where to go. It was no different when he decided to seek a career on the sidelines.

"Bill Walsh was the first person I called," he once said.

Starting this Sunday, Singletary will follow in Walsh's footsteps when he makes his debut as the head coach of the 49ers. Though no announcement was made by the team, several news outlets reported that the Hall of Fame linebacker would take over for Mike Nolan, who was fired Monday after a 2-5 start and a 17-38 career record.

Now in his sixth year as an assistant, Singletary gets the opportunity he has been waiting for since those early mentoring sessions with Walsh.

"There were times that I would fly out from Chicago, have dinner with Bill, then turn around and fly back home again," Singletary recalled in a 2006 interview. "That's how much I respected him."

Because the team made no formal introduction, it is unclear why the 49ers chose Singletary over offensive coordinator Mike Martz, who, as an assistant and later as head coach, helped lead the St. Louis Rams to five playoff appearances and two Super Bowl appearances.

Whatever the circumstances, Singletary is eager for his chance, which begins with Sunday's game against Seattle. And at least one former teammate thinks he can succeed.


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Tim Ryan, a former Chicago Bears defensive lineman and a San Jose resident, said Singletary's reputation as an NFL star will give him instant credibility in the locker room. It also helps, Ryan said, that Singletary was one of the more studious superstars he ever saw.

"He was a Hall of Fame player because of his Hall of Fame preparation," Ryan, now an analyst for Fox Sports, said in a phone interview. "I'd see him in the film room, and he was the first guy in and the last guy to leave.

"I also saw what kind of a leader he was on the field. He had to handle some big egos — Dan Hampton, Wilber Marshall, Richard Dent, Steve McMichael — and he was able to harness all those guys. "... Mike is not the kind of guy who will back away from a challenge."

Surprisingly even-keeled in his demeanor, Singletary is popular among the linebackers he coaches with the 49ers. His star pupil, Patrick Willis, was the defensive rookie of the year in 2007.

Singletary is exacting with Willis. The two can often be seen on the practice field long after the other players have gone.

"He demands a lot. But what he demands is based on the expectations that he has," Willis said near the end of training camp. "When it comes to him, he's been there and done that. He's a Hall of Fame player.

"Hard on me? No, I'd say he's a coach that wants perfection. And it's a blessing to have him coach me the way he does."

Contact Daniel Brown at dbrown@mercurynews.com.