Season over, speculation lingers
January 14, 2003
49ers pick up the pieces
Coach, players express confidence in future
Ron Kroichick, Chronicle Staff Writer
As cardboard boxes piled up in the lobby and luxury cars sped away into an uncertain offseason, another image leaped to the forefront on The Day After in 49ers land: coach Steve Mariucci dancing through his final news conference of the season.
It was an uneasy little number, full of nervous energy and forced smiles and empty answers. Mariucci is The Story now, in the aftermath of Sunday's 31- 6 playoff pratfall in Tampa and in advance of his long-anticipated summit with club owner John York.
That summit did not occur Monday, not with York back home in Youngstown, Ohio, and Mariucci at 49ers headquarters in Santa Clara. York, speaking after the game on Sunday, said he might call Mariucci as early as today to begin conversations about his contract.
Mariucci has one year remaining on a five-year deal that will pay him $2.2 million next season. He, York and general manager Terry Donahue agreed in training camp to postpone discussion of an extension until the season ended.
Given 24 hours to digest how that happened -- emphatically, as Tampa Bay rolled into the NFC Championship Game -- Mariucci said he plans to coach the 49ers next season. He also sounded as if he wonders whether York wants him beyond 2003.
Asked if he wants to pursue a contract extension with the 49ers, Mariucci said, "Sure I do. If it's the right thing for the organization, having us for the long term, then we're really going to talk about it. I'll find out from John if that's what he wants to do."
Speculation is sure to intensify in the weeks ahead, especially with word filtering out of Jacksonville that the Jaguars apparently are interested in Mariucci. That seems like an unappealing alternative, but there's nothing like an outside suitor to accelerate the process (in either direction).
Mariucci acknowledged he could enter next season without an extension and just plow ahead into the final year of his deal with no long-term resolution. At the same time, he said he's never done that before and he knows of only a few NFL head coaches facing a similar situation.
Translation: He favors long-term security over an '03 season of swirling, endless questions about his future.
Mariucci was reluctant to put a timetable on this whole thing, but he eventually said he hopes to have it resolved in two to three weeks. The contracts of eight 49ers assistant coaches (including offensive coordinator Greg Knapp) expire at the end of this month, and they no doubt want clarity about their boss' future before making any decisions about their own.
As for the players, most of them did not linger to contemplate the coaching saga. They arrived early and bolted quickly, after Mariucci held one last team meeting.
Fullback Fred Beasley voiced strong support for Mariucci, saying his departure would hurt the 49ers "a lot."
"We don't really look at Mooch as a coach; to most of us, he's a father figure," Beasley said. "There shouldn't be any question about his future here.
"It's bothersome to a lot of guys. He's a great coach and a great guy. He's been here through thick and thin, and he got us back to where the 49ers used to be. We're getting there."
They seemed to be getting there, certainly, even if this 10-win regular season contained an abundance of rocky moments. Then came the epic playoff comeback against the Giants, a stirring reminder of the glory days.
Then, finally, came Sunday's meltdown in Florida, a messy reminder of shortcomings at wide receiver, in the secondary and along the offensive line.
"There's a step left to be taken," Mariucci said. "I told the team the two best teams in the NFC are playing next week. But we're getting closer. We know we're closing the gap on the Rams, and we'll find out next year if we're closing the gap on Tampa Bay and the Eagles."
That much is certain: The 49ers play the Bucs and Eagles during the 2003 regular season. The question is, will Mariucci roam San Francisco's sideline?
Tell us what you think on the new 49ers Clubhouse message board.