Contra Costa Times

49ers dump Mariucci
January 16, 2003
York's 'philosophy' explanation is a tough sell

By Neil Hayes

John York hosted a conference call Wednesday to explain why he fired Steve Mariucci that was more telling than he intended.

Because of a glitch in the phone line, the San Francisco 49ers owner representative gave his reasons for canning a coach who has won 23 games the past two seasons while the team's radio highlights were audible in the background.

Here he was trying to convince the media he did the only sensible thing while radio voice Joe Starkey was delivering the greatest hits from the Mariucci era.

"There were major issues and minor issues," York said. "They dealt with philosophy. Steve saw things in one color and I saw them in another."

Meanwhile, in the background, a breathless Starkey is counting down the yard markers as wide receiver Terrell Owens sprints toward the end zone.


It made an already tough sell that much tougher and contributed to another wacky day at 49ers headquarters, the type of day longtime observers of this franchise have come to expect.

Sift through all the spin control and double talk and it boiled down to York claiming Mariucci wanted more power and Mariucci denying it.

This had nothing to do with general manager Terry Donahue or consultant Bill Walsh. York claimed it was his decision and his decision alone, and that statement should frighten the 49er Faithful.

This will be remembered as the day York put his personal stamp on this team. He is firmly in charge, making decisions that not only impact the business side but football operations as well.

It's every owner's right to fire a coach -- it comes with the sky box and master key -- but keep in mind that at this stage in their respective careers, Mariucci is a far more proven NFL commodity than York.

The man who claims to be making the critical decisions for the 49ers does not have a football background. He does not subscribe to the win-at-all-cost mentality that helped his brother-in-law Eddie DeBartolo collect five Super Bowl trophies.

York is a businessman. He sees no reason why a professional football franchise can't be run like any other business. Some employees fear his cost-cutting moves will turn Camelot into K-Mart.

In other words, you're being asked to trust the instincts of a man with less NFL experience than your average nickel back.

In the end, the paying customers are putting their faith in an owner who sent Donahue down to break the news to the media while remaining upstairs at team headquarters to attend to his other business interests.

It's not often that a professional sports owner's presence is required. But an owner should be present when firing a popular coach, especially when that coach was considered the right man for the job until he wasn't.

Al Davis is the most reclusive owner in sports, and even he makes himself available for milestone events such as coaching changes.

"I didn't feel it was necessary for me to come down at that point," York said.

Regardless of what you might think of Mariucci as a football coach, his steady hand guided the franchise through the most tumultuous six years in its history.

He deserved a better sendoff than he got. He deserved to leave with his head held high, but ended up ducking into the back of a black van and being spirited away as if he had been abducted by a cult or had entered into the witness protection program.

Before the last purge, outgoing coach George Seifert acknowledged that the organization "tends to cannibalize itself," after especially painful losses.

It's comforting to know that still holds true despite the countless changes the 49ers have undergone in the six years since.

"This was something I felt was necessary for us to move forward," York said.

As the conference call concluded, Starkey could be heard narrating Mariucci's resume in the background: "TOUCHDOWN! 49ERS!"

Either forward or backward. With York in charge, we don't know.

Tell us what you think on the new 49ers Clubhouse message board.