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Article Title: An Irresponsible End To An Era
Article Date: Jan 20 2003
By Bryan Hersh
If the 49ers were simply trying to steal the Raiders thunder again, firing head coach Steve Mariucci was not the way to do it. Two short days after a 49ers playoff loss and a Raider playoff win, the 49ers declared that Steve Mariucci was no longer part of the organization. The move got the media coverage of a major conspiracy, and that could very well be fair, considering the many different sides to this story.
Steve Mariucci’s firing was apparently a long time coming. Owner John York seemed to have made the decision to fire the coach back in December after meeting with Mariucci’s new agent Gary O’Hagan. According to York, O’Hagan was demanding more power for his client, however upon further clarification from Mariucci, O’Hagan and those that were close to the coach, that was not the case at all. Mariucci made it quite clear that he had simply offered to take on some of the responsibilities of John McVay upon his retirements, should the team wish that to be so. This suggestion is of course no different, than Terry Donahue approaching York and explaining that he would be happy to work in whatever capacity York wanted him to.
The truth of the matter, at least the truth from where I sit, seems to be that the 49ers, for reason’s they’d rather not declare, likely that Steve Mariucci was not a coach hand picked by the current management team, simply wanted to part ways with Mariucci. His four out of six years with 10 wins or more, and 3 out of six years with 12 wins or more, and two NFC West championships were likely not even considered in the decision. Similarly it appears that the management didn’t consider this season an improvement over last, despite winning the division, going a game deeper in the playoffs and being plagued by a horrid amount of injuries. Mariucci couldn’t have convinced the team to extend his contract, despite offering to stay for less than market value. There was nothing that he could have done to convince York to keep him aboard in their morning meeting last week. The owner was fumed from the night before, giving Mariucci a tongue lashing over the phone, and had the press conference scheduled to fire the coach before the two ever met face to face.
We may never know the exact details of the events leading up to Mariucci’s departure from the club, but what we can clearly see, whether we are Mariucci fans or not, that this decision, and the process by which they fired the coach was not only discouraging to the team, but an outright disgusting way to sever ties with any human being - let alone one that held him self with such class and dignity, that he thanked the entire management for the opportunity they had given him, before retreating to his office to pack up his belongings. Mariucci, whether you like his coaching strategies or not, was a great person, and certainly didn’t deserve to have the situation handled as it was. And as he cleared his office of files, and personal belongings including a photo of his good friend, and former player Brett Favre of the rival Green Bay Packers, no one could blame the coach for wondering where he had went wrong. Truth of the matter is, he never did.
On initial review, Mariucci’s firing seems to have Bill Walsh’s hands all over it. Walsh is famous for the quick dismissal of players and staff members who are beginning to decline from the apex of their performance. While Walsh may have had a hand in the end to the Mariucci era in San Francisco (with the coach acknowledging that Walsh had contacted Jacksonville about a possible trade for draft picks), this dismissal didn’t not have Walsh’s finger prints on it. When Walsh would let a 49er hero go, be it Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott, Roger Craig, or even himself, there was always a Steve Young, or George Seifert to take their place. Even when Seifert resigned, the 49ers had Mariucci ready and lined up to continue the success of the franchise. This system was set up by Walsh and was simply the way things were always done in 49ers land. Not anymore.
Terry Donahue was taken by such surprise by the move, and the rapid pace of it, at the press conference to announced Mariuccis’s departure, he could not even provided an introductory list as to the coaches the 49ers would interview. The team was completely unprepared for this decision, and may very well end up worse off as a result of the lack of preparation. The choices of future head coaches out there are currently few and far between. And it’s hard to believe that any member from the team’s current coaching staff would be an improvement at head coach. While there is some potential there, most staff members are too young and inexperienced to make the leap to head coach. It’s hard to believe that any of these men would be more successful without the guidance of Steve Mariucci.
The speed and lack of organization, not to mention the apparent unilateral move by owner John York, who is not by any stretch of the imagination a ‘football man’, in this crucial decision regarding the future of the 49ers was made so irresponsibly, I am ashamed to call myself a fan of the entire team. Mariucci biases aside, decisions about the future of any business, let alone sports franchise, need to be made with calculations of cost and benefits. This was clearly not the case in York’s firing of the coach. If this is the decision making model that the 49ers will use for their future, it becomes extremely hard to argue that York isn’t ‘Bengalizing’ this team (as many fans and reporters have put it).
To make matters worse, this decision, made by a team that prides its self on being ‘classy’ was anything but. Not only was the six year coach, and friend of the organization and Bay Area very rudely terminated from his job, he was not even given the courtesy and time to notify his wife, speak to his players, or even plead his case before the announcement was made public. Further still, owner John York hid behind his General Manager, citing being tired and having other business matters to attend to, as the reason. York may have been tired, but flying in on the last minute to attend specifically to the Mariucci ordeal, certainly would have precluded any chance to make other business arrangements. This cowardly act should be looked down upon by 49ers fans and NFL fans. York’s behavior and emphasis on the 49ers flow chart of hierarchical power, have not only bruised what was once a great 49ers reputation, but has also made the head coaching position on the 49ers look less appealing to the few candidates that are still available.
You don’t have to be a Mariucci fan to recognize the injustice of the team’s actions. Unfortunately we can not go back and change the past and so we must look forward to the future, and hope that the mess created by an irresponsible owner can indeed be cleaned up.
A list of replacements for Mariucci is materializing. The list is created more from fans speculations than from the admission of the team, but at the very least is a starting point to what may be a very long search.
Mike Holmgren undoubtedly tops the list of potential replacements. The former 49ers offensive coordinator under Bill Walsh, former head coach of the Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers during the 90’s and current coach of the NFC West rival Seattle Seahawks would be one of few coaches out there that is one same level, or perhaps slightly better than Mariucci (a Holmgren disciple himself). The chances of prying away Holmgren from the remaining four years of his contract, without mortgaging the 49ers future seem extremely minimal. His large price tag is likely to be looked down upon by owner John York too, as York is looking to slash expenditures.
Dennis Green a former 49ers defensive coordinator, and head coach of the Vikings has already expressed interest in returning to the 49ers. Green turned down an offer from the Jacksonville Jaguars about a week prior to Mariucci’s dismissal. Many believe that Green turned down the offer because of something Bill Walsh may have expressed something to him. While Green would be a coach that is ‘close to home’ there are certainly problems with bringing him to the 49ers. Firstly he and star receiver already don’t get along, and Green was unable to manage Rand Moss while in Minnesota. Between his time with the 49ers and Vikings Green went to the post season 11 out of 13 years, but as a head coach was never able to advance beyond the playoffs, which was a big knock on Steve Mariucci. He too would demand a large pay cheque.
‘In house’ coaches are not likely to be an improvement on a fired head coach. Anything they could do as a head coach, they could have implemented in some capacity under the previous situation. Still the 49ers have a series of coaches that could potentially move up the ranks.
Jim Mora Jr the current defensive coordinator of the 49ers is another man being considered for the position. Mora is also interviewing for a lateral move to the Carolina Panthers. A promotion for Mora, the son of a former head coach, would be quite controversial with 49ers fans. His defenses were never widely feared or respected for that matter, though he does constantly earn praise from the organization. Mora’s game plans are usually amazingly innovative, or disturbingly boring. He does not appear to have the consistency to be a head coach despite being the most senior (in terms of position and experience) member of the 49ers staff.
Gregg Knapp the 49ers offensive coordinator does not appear to be a front runner for the position. Knapp’s play calling was highly unimaginative this past season, but whether that was a result of Mariucci’s game planning is undetermined. Knapp has less experience than Mora, but does have a good rapport with starting quarterback Jeff Garcia, and was a big factor in his development. The 49ers may want to keep Knapp around as a coordinator because he knows the system, but he appears to lack the experience to be a head coach.
Tom Rathman the 49ers running back coach would be a great candidate for the position if he had more experience within the system. One of the most explosive coaches on the team, he is well liked, and respected. Rathman desires the best from his players and has been known to chase them through practice drills. The former 49ers back is well versed in the way things are done with the team. He may favour the run though, and that could be looked down upon by the management, mainly Bill Walsh.
Receivers coach George Stewart is another possibility. Stewart has head coaching aspirations, and has worked on several different units in his time with the NFL. He has a good relationship with star receiver Terrell Owens, but is seen by some as lacking in player development skills. Likely an aggressive candidate, Stewart would be an intriguing head coach of the team. Like Rathman, it’s hard to believe he would be able to leap from Knapp for the position.
Quarterbacks coach Ted Tollner is not a West Coast Offense guy, and Jeff Garcia’s progress appeared to back track under his guidance, still Tollner’s name is being passed around as an interim coach for Mariucci. This situation is less than perfect, but would involve Tollner coaching for a year while the 49ers stake out their favourite candidate. General Manager Terry Donahue, who has coached at the collegiate level could potentially act in this role too, thought it is believed that these situations are less than ideal.
Gary Kubiak the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach of the Denver Broncos is another possibility. Kubiak has learned much form his head coach Mike Shanahan both as a coach for the 49ers and Broncos. He is seen as having an imaginative mind and good at player development. Kubiak stems from the Bill Walsh tree of coaches and is very familiar with the West Coast offense, and winning. He is seen as the next best thing to Shanahan who very unlikely to leave his sweet deal in Denver. Kubiak is seen by many fans as the best alternative for the 49ers.
Ted Cortell the Jets defensive coordinator is considered another candidate for the position. Cortell has coached with Chiefs, Bills and Cardinals in the past, and has done a very good job with the Jets defense in the past year. As with any defensive coach, the 49ers would likely insist that the offensive coordinator be familiar with the West Coast Offense. The 49ers have not yet contacted the Jets for permission to speak to Cortell.
Brad Childress the offensive coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles would be another candidate for the position. Childress coached with the Colts before joining the Eagles in 1999. The coach did an excellent job with the Eagles this season, with aggressive play calling even with starting quarterback Donovan McNaab injured. Childress and the Ealgles however, looked foolish in the NFC Championship game against the same Tampa Bay team that defeated the 49ers in the playoffs this year. He too is familiar with the West Coast offense.
Mike Mularkey the offensive coordinator of the Steelers has previously coached with Tampa Bay. Mulrakey has done wonders with Pittsburgh’s team, adjusting the offense to non-traditional quarterbacks: Kordell Stewart and Tommy Madox. He has done so quite successfully, however the lack of familiarity with the West Coast Offense will likely severely hamper his ratings with the 49ers.
Lovie Smith the defensive coordinator of the Rams would have been one of the hottest candidates to take over at coach prior to this season. His time with the Bucs allowed him to learn under Tony Dungy and then completely reverse a failing Rams defense. Smiths’s who joined the Rams for the 2001 season had a pretty poor performance from his defense this past season, and thus may need to wait his turn before showing the consistency teams look for in a head coach.
Tom Coughlin who was recently dismissed from the Jacksonville Jaguars head coaching position is certainly looking for a new job. He is a very demanding coach, who is not well liked by his players. He is essentially the anti-Mariucci which can be seen as extremely scary. Coughlin never got the best out of the talent he had with the Jaguars, it’s hard to believe the 49ers would see him as an improvement to Mariucci.
Current television analyst Jimmy Johnson, famous for the success he had as a head coach of the Cowboys, and with the Dolphins always seems to pop up as a possible head coach when an opening arises. Johnson is a great coach, but considering his hatred for the 49ers organization, and the mutual feeling back to him, it’s hard to believe he would even be considered for the 49ers position.
Strolling through the college ranks produces four candidates who don’t appear to have aspirations to move into the NFL just yet. Pete Carroll, the former defensive coordinator of one of the best 49ers defenses in their history, and former head coach of the New England Patriots and New York Jets, is currently the head coach of the USC Trojans. Carroll has matured since his earlier days in the NFL, and is highly regarded at USC, so highly in fact that it’s hard to believe he would want to return to the NFL.
Tyrone Willingham head coach of Notre Dame is another top collegiate candidate. Willing ham spent time as the head coach of Stanford where he compiled a 44-36-1 record in seven seasons. He signed a six-year contract in December of 2001 with Notre Dame, but could likely break it if he were to move into the pro-ranks. Willingham worked very closely with Bill Walsh while at Stanford, and Walsh does have high regard for the coach. He also worked for the Vikings and Dennis Green. Willingham would likely be a great candidate to make the jump to the NFL, but like all head coaches in this category, would likely demand a large salary.
Bob Stoops was named the AP’s coach of the year in 2000. Currently at the University of Oklahoma, Stoops has denied interest in moving up to the NFL level. That of course was prior to the 49ers position becoming available. Born in Youngstown Ohio, Stoops is knows the Debartlo family very well, and was actually suggested by Eddie Debartlo to the team over a radio show. From a very well respected family, Stoops has done a great job coaching in Florida, Kansas State, Kent State and Iowa. He is a defensive style coach, in his fourth year at Oklahoma.
Fiesta Bowl champion head coach Mike Bellotti of Oregon is known as being a ‘nice guy’ but he’s also known for running a great football program. Bellotti is a very imaginative offensive coach that builds a strong team from the foundation up. Over the past seven seasons his teams have averaged over 400 yards and scored more than 30 points 73 times. Each season he just seems to have a team that scores more touchdowns, constantly setting new school records.He has experience coaching at California state and is thus familiar with the area.
There are certainly more candidates out there, but this list seems to have the most realistic view as to the coaches the 49ers will consider for their head coach vacancy. Whoever they chose will have enormous shoes to fill, not only on the football fans, and in winning the players over, but in being a great person to the community is Steve Mariucci was. Thanks for the memories Steve, we wish it didn’t have to end so soon, and so ugly.