San Francisco Chronicle

S.F. needs tough guy from outside
January 16, 2003
Ira Miller

STEVE MARIUCCI'S warm and fuzzy leadership was just right to shepherd the 49ers through the rebuilding process, but his approach would not have led to a championship and the 49ers made the right move Wednesday in firing him as their coach.

Provided, of course, they hire the right replacement.

They should take a hard look at Jack Del Rio, the Carolina defensive coordinator, and Mike Mularkey, the Pittsburgh offensive coordinator. The 49ers need an outsider to shake things up. They have become too comfortable. Del Rio would be the best choice because he could keep intact an offensive system that has been largely successful.

The 49ers need toughness from a coach right now, and Mariucci could not provide that. He wanted too much to be loved. He wanted the players to love him. He wanted the media to love him. He wanted the fans to love him.

Forget the "philosophical differences" explanation, that's just the ham- handed way the 49ers always seem to make their big announcements.

Mariucci was fine when the 49ers' roster was filled with kids following the big salary-cap purge. His college-like, rah-rah approach kept their spirits up and got them to play hard. But with the team developing over the past two seasons, his soft handling of the roster and his poor game-day decisions became too big a liability.

He was flexible, which was good. But he was neither tough nor particularly innovative, and the next coach needs to be both.

Del Rio, who will be 40 in April, took over a Panthers defense that ranked last in the NFL a year ago and, in his first season as coordinator, coaxed them to a second-place ranking, behind Tampa Bay. The Panthers were the NFL's best team at stopping the run and at sacking the quarterback.

Players say Del Rio, who attended Hayward High and played 11 seasons with four NFL teams, is tough, but they like him. When Del Rio coached the linebackers in Baltimore, Ray Lewis thought he deserved more credit than he got for the Ravens' championship defense.

Brian Billick, the Ravens' coach, gave Del Rio a strong endorsement Wednesday, saying, "I think he's got it all -- a commanding presence, immediate respect from the players, a great mind for the game."

If the 49ers hire Del Rio, they should get someone like former NFL quarterback Bill Musgrave as their offensive coordinator, because he runs the West Coast offense. Musgrave now is coordinator at the University of Virginia.

Mularkey, 41, who was drafted by Bill Walsh as a tight end in 1983, had a nine-year NFL career although he never played for the 49ers. He has been the Pittsburgh coordinator for two seasons and did a terrific job. His flair for innovation showed with his handling of Kordell Stewart, who became an MVP candidate a year ago, and rookie Antwaan Randle El this season.

Kevin Gilbride, who preceded Mularkey as the Steelers' coordinator, tried to make Stewart adapt to his rigid offense. Mularkey revamped the playbook around the players, utilizing Stewart's running ability and play-action passes to get him outside the pocket.

Randle El and Hines Ward, converted quarterbacks, figured prominently as wide receivers in the Steelers' snazzy offense, which utilized a lot of so- called gimmick plays including direct snaps and passes off double reverses.

Pittsburgh, which ranked 18th on offense in 2000, was third and fifth the past two seasons under Mularkey. He is known as low-key but, according to players, could raise his voice in meetings and was not afraid to crack a whip.

Hiring Mularkey would represent a change in direction for the 49ers because he has no experience in the West Coast offense. But that offense has gone through so many changes in recent years it is hard to recognize from Walsh's original and, at any rate, 49ers quarterback Jeff Garcia is not particularly well suited to it.

The Walsh offense is based on timing and discipline, but Garcia thrives on chaos; he rarely sets his feet. They either need to gear the offense more to Garcia's skills, or develop a more disciplined quarterback.

Other names will surface. Many within the NFL expect GM Terry Donahue to try to take the coaching job himself, which would be a mistake in an era when more teams are splitting those duties. Other speculation centers on Dennis Green, the former 49ers assistant and Stanford and Minnesota Vikings head coach.

Green is a proven winner, but he is a Walsh guy, he's high-profile and would command a big salary. With John York trying to cut costs and Donahue trying to solidify his own power base, they are not likely to agree on a high- priced Walsh protege as the next coach.

Mariucci's biggest failings (besides the way he had the 49ers lay down in the last half-minute of the first half in their playoff loss to Tampa Bay) were his handling of Terrell Owens and the offense in general. Still, he is not likely to be out of work for long.

In recent weeks, Mariucci acted like a coach begging for his job. As reported in The Chronicle two weeks ago, Mariucci compiled a list of playoff appearances and records in recent years to compare himself with other coaches. And this week, he made a big show of announcing the offseason and minicamp schedule, as if that would make everyone believe things were routine.

Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher, speaking of his own travails when his team started the season 1-4, said Wednesday, "The minute a coach and his assistants begin worrying about their job security is the beginning of the downfall. It is a fact of life in the NFL, but if you let it affect you, it's going to be inevitable."

Fisher wasn't talking about Mariucci, but he might as well have been. Now we wait to see how smart the 49ers are about replacing him.

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