Pressure on Mariucci like a 49-ton weight
January 03, 2003
Brian Murphy, Chronicle Staff Writer
With those who are closest to him, with those players and coaches on whom he is counting for greatness in January, Steve Mariucci can still be Mooch. He can still be that bright-eyed, upbeat, slightly goofy charmer who lets you know that you and he are together, on this crazy, wildly pressure- packed NFL adventure.
Sometimes Mariucci, 47, will burst into the office of quarterbacks coach Ted Tollner, a 62-year-old man who has done his tour of duty as head coach already in a big-time college atmosphere, a man you'd think would tire of hearing the same thing autumn after autumn. But here comes Mooch, into the room, homey Midwestern accent and all, blurting: "Are you ready to beat the New York Giants, Ted? Huh? Are you ready? Come on!" It never fails to make Tollner smile, and make him feel that this head coach is withstanding the withering heat of his job just fine.
But those times are more rare now, in this sixth year of Mariucci's ride as head coach of the 49ers. More often now, Mariucci is quiet. More often now, Mariucci doesn't dawdle with reporters, making them feel like chums. He appears more subdued, less "Mooch"-like, less inclined to bounce around the Santa Clara practice facility and pipe up, as he used to in his heady rookie season with the team in 1997, "Is this fun or what?"
Truth is, it hasn't been as fun.
More often, boos come down from impatient fans at Candlestick Park. Callers to radio talk-shows are distressingly negative, wondering aloud why the 49ers haven't won a Super Bowl since 1994. E-mails to sportswriters howl about Mariucci's deficiencies, about a passing offense that produced quarterback Jeff Garcia's 10.1 yards per completion this year -- the lowest figure ever for a primary quarterback in 49ers history.
And then there is the other stuff. The dramatic, "Will Mariucci be fired?" stuff. The whispers, the intrigue, the cloak-and-dagger stuff that seems to have marked this job's atmosphere since Bill Walsh won three Super Bowls in the 1980s. Even back then, Walsh had so many fallouts with then-owner Ed DeBartolo that Walsh was told he was fired at least three times, and once didn't even know if he should come to the office the next morning.
Now, those close to the organization wonder: Is Mariucci the man team owner John York wants, long-term? Is Mariucci the man general manager Terry Donahue will back and support, even though Mariucci was hired by since-departed Carmen Policy?
RELATIONSHIP WITH YORK
Mariucci has one year left on his deal, through the 2003 season. He would like a contract extension on a deal that will pay him $2.2 million next year, only a middle-of-the-pack figure for NFL coaches. York has told Mariucci he will discuss the possibility of an extension after the season is over, but did say last month that Mariucci is not under a "win-or-else" edict for this Sunday's playoff game against the New York Giants. He added, on Thursday, that "this is a good team and perhaps a great team . . . but it is not Super Bowl or bust (for Mariucci)."
Remember, though, the landscape on which these two men exist.
Things changed for everyone last February, when Mariucci flew to Los Angeles to meet with the Glazer family, to discuss leaving the 49ers for a new job in Tampa Bay. Things changed because Mariucci, fresh off a remarkable 12-4 2001 season expected by no one, seemed willing to leave for greener pastures.
And things changed because the 49ers quickly gave permission for Mariucci to leave, and even began working on a compensation package for the coach's departure.
How can a man feel about his job when his organization so hastily readied itself for him to leave? How can a man feel about his relationship with his owner when that owner so freely would let him go? How can a man still bounce around and tell the public, "Is this fun or what?" when he does not know if he is even wanted?
LOOK AT THE NUMBERS
Mariucci has not changed -- his team won the NFC West and many of his players swear by him. Yet Mariucci has changed -- the world has wearied him some, and toned down his ebullience.
"I can understand," Mariucci said this week in his office, "why you would say that."
It is against this bizarre, dysfunctional backdrop that Mariucci leads his team into the playoffs. Here he sits, days before kickoff, wondering why this undercurrent of negativity has defined this season, when this sheet of paper in front of him says otherwise.
He holds forth the paper. It is a list of NFL teams who have made the playoffs since 1997, the year Mariucci was hired. Only Tampa Bay and Miami have more appearances than Mariucci's 49ers. It is also a list of coaches who have made playoff appearances since 1997.
Only Tony Dungy, with five at Tampa Bay and Indianapolis, has more than Mariucci's four. It is a list of wins by NFL teams in the past two seasons. Only Green Bay, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have more than the 49ers' 22 wins.
Mariucci talks openly of the team still carrying $14 million of "ghost money," unavailable cash because of salary-cap hits from since-gone players. He talks of his team's youth -- the 49ers' defense opened the season as the fifth-youngest in the league.
But in plumbing the reasons for what he admits is a strange air of discord from outside the organization, Mariucci thinks the then-joyous romp of a 12-4 2001 season may have skewed the perception of a team the coach says has its best days still to come.
"I'll tell you why it's different," Mariucci said. "It wasn't fixed last year when we went 12 and 4. But by going 12 and 4, we set expectations back to those Super Bowl levels. I mean, I got it every day of my life in the summer."
Here he lapses into other voices, mimicking the words he heard.
"Next year, 14 and 2 and the Super Bowl!" Mariucci nearly shouts. "I mean, that was the mind-set. Of my neighbors. Of my mailman. Of my friends. By my kids! I mean, like: Super Bowl next year! We're on our way."
"And that's awesome. That's why we do this. But that's why this year is so... " and his thought trails off.
"Do you know how hard it is to win 12 games?" he asks. "Have you done any research? There are some organizations that have never won 12 games. Ever! In their life. It's hard to win 12 games in a season, especially in a salary cap era. OK? We've done it three times (in six years).
"But what happens is, when you do that, you want more. We all want more. We try to make that realistic and doable year after year after year. That's our mind-set.
"Because this is the 49ers . . . this is 49erland. This is a different deal. "
THE BLUES AND THE GRAY
It has taken its physical toll, life in 49erland. Mariucci admits to nervous eating, and has gained noticeable weight. ("It's 12 pounds of thick skin," he joked.) The gray hairs on his temple continue to multiply, and Mariucci says he won't color them. "No way," he said. "I earned these. I'm going au naturel."
These are the fruits of worry, of a job where the thought of not winning a Super Bowl -- being the first coach here since Fred O'Connor in 1978 not to -- consumes him. He says he understands, and has always understood since his first day on the job, when broadcaster Gary Radnich stuck a camera and microphone on him and said: "Do you realize if you go 8 and 8, you're outta here?"
Donahue said last month that if Mariucci goes into next year with only one year left on his contract, "it's not the end of the world." With the question put to him Thursday, York acknowledged the awkwardness of the situation. "I recognize the perception that one year remaining on a coach's contract raises some degree of speculation regarding his future," York said. "And because of that, we need to really think about having a coach with only one year. In business, people have a 'last year' all the time, and it's expected. In sports,
for whatever reason, that has come to mean the organization doesn't embrace the coach.
"We do embrace our coach."
York remains a tough read, sometimes enigmatic even to those high in the organization. Mariucci's post-Tampa Bay move was to fire his agent and hire a new one, IMG's Gary O'Hagan, with an edict: Don't negotiate through the media. Lay low.
The elephant in the living room remains. Did the Tampa Bay incident indicate a coach who was disloyal to his boss? Or a boss who was less than traumatized at the thought of Mariucci in Tampa Bay?
Perhaps it will not matter, in the end. Perhaps Mariucci will stay next year, when he thinks this young team will be even better, and begin to be worthy of grand hopes and dreams, the sort of things that define the 49ers.
"I love coaching this team," he said. "I love working for this organization.
Our job is to add to that trophy case. And we're getting there.
"We're getting there."
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