San Francisco Chronicle

Company line doesn't hold water
January 16, 2003
Gwen Knapp

IF THE 49ers had to fire one of the best coaches in the NFL, they shouldn't have attributed the decision to a difference in philosophy. They shouldn't have written down in a statement, and repeated several times out loud, that performance wasn't an issue.

The only philosophies that matter in football are the ones that enhance or diminish performance. So if the 49ers really, really wanted to dump Steve Mariucci on philosophical grounds, they should have cited the theories behind his play-calling in the last 50 seconds of the first half of Sunday's playoff game in Tampa, Fla.

They should have said that he was too conservative, too timid, too unassertive to take this team to a higher level. The 49ers had the ball at their own 31, and Mariucci ran one play for a 9-yard gain, then trotted his team off into the locker room, letting at least 35 seconds of a precious possession evaporate.

In those seconds, Mariucci revealed his greatest flaw as a coach. In a game of daring, he is as risk-averse as an actuary.

So what if the Buccaneers had the 49ers so soundly beaten that the final possession of the half wouldn't have made a difference? Those 50 seconds weren't a chance to win. They were a chance to fight. No team should ever give that up.

Mariucci did. He thought his offense needed to recover from the shock of Tampa Bay's incinerating speed. The team was near midfield, relatively safe from the explosive craftiness of Warren Sapp, Simeon Rice and Derrick Brooks. Still, Mariucci walked away from the fight.

That was his great sin, and now general manager Terry Donahue and team owner John York would have us believe that the same man wanted to play hardball in contract negotiations, that he went for broke when his entire future was on the line.

It doesn't add up. Mariucci is as conciliatory as they come in the NFL. He says he never insisted on an eventual promotion to vice president of football operations. He backed down on the same request a year ago, and he switched agents because his old one was too vocal and demanding.

York said there had been too much noise about Mariucci's differences with Bill Walsh, his differences with Donahue. He said it had to stop. But this is San Francisco, where football is soap opera. There will always be noise.

For six years as the 49ers' head coach, Mariucci handled many, many difficult situations with uncommon grace. Most recently, he and Terrell Owens made an unlikely peace.

The front office all but vanished during Mariucci's second season in charge, and the team kept on winning. In his third year, Steve Young was knocked out of the sport, and Bobb McKittrick, the revered offensive-line coach, worked on the staff while very visibly dying of cancer.

McKittrick's simple piece of advice when Mariucci took over the team was this: Planes fly over the practice facility all the time. Coaches always try to talk through the noise, and no one can hear them. Don't do it. Often after McKittrick died, when a plane flew overhead, Mariucci would turn silent, point to the sky and say: "Bobb."

Yes, it's a little sappy, but that's Mariucci, a wee bit more Phil Donahue than Bill Parcells. He acted the same way when Garrison Hearst made anti-gay remarks earlier this year and, as coach, he had to offer apologies for the team. Mariucci was humble, thoughtful and (dare I say it?) sensitive.

Sensitivity isn't a hot commodity in football, but that wasn't the philosophy that purportedly earned Mariucci a pink slip. It was the opposite. It was rampant ambition. He wanted too much authority, or so we were told.

That should never have been the issue. It should have been about his record:

Four playoff teams in six years, including the last two, when the 49ers absolutely, without a doubt, overachieved.

Mariucci's players, for the most part, were devoted to him. They played hard for him. They might play harder for a coach who is more intimidating, but that's only speculation. A similar guess? If a tougher coach succeeds here, he is very likely to end up demanding more than Mariucci would have dared.

The 49ers had a winner of a coach who was also a charismatic public figure. They were ahead of most teams in that regard. He was a tad too soft, but they evidently didn't see that as the problem. They didn't really know, for better or worse, what they had.

Possible successors

-- Dennis Green - former Vikings and Stanford head coach; 49ers receiver coach under Bill Walsh

-- Jim Mora - current 49ers defensive coordinator

-- Ted Tollner - current 49ers QB coach; former USC and San Diego State head coach

-- Pat Morris - current 49ers offensive line coach

-- George Stewart - current 49ers wide receivers coach

-- Tyrone Willingham - current Notre Dame and former Stanford head coach

-- Mike Mularkey - current Steelers offensive coordinator

-- Jack Del Rio - current Carolina defensive coordinator; Hayward High school graduate

-- Pete Carroll - current USC head coach; former 49ers defensive coordinator

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