The Press Democrat

Mariucci returns to Tampa where it all began
January 11, 2003


Steve Mariucci returned Friday to this city on business for the first time since his memorable debut as 49ers coach 64 months ago.

He revisits the city that almost became his new home 11 months ago when he interviewed in Southern California for the jobs of Tampa Bay Buccaneers' coach and general manager.

When Mariucci did not jump at the Bucs' offer, requesting extra time to discuss the matter with his family, Tampa Bay management quickly struck a deal in the wee hours with the Raiders and immediately hired Jon Gruden.

Mariucci and the 49ers are back in the playoffs; Gruden led Tampa to its best regular season in team history and the Raiders earned home-field advantage in the AFC with Bill Callahan.

When asked if everything worked out for all sides, Mariucci replied in the affirmative. "I really believe that," he said.

Although the 49ers have played 10 of the 15 other NFC teams in the postseason, they will be lining up Sunday for the first time against the Buccaneers in the playoffs.

Still, in the Mariucci timeline, there is a significant thread that runs through this town. It seems this game was almost destined to happen.

In mid-February amid much discord with his front office, Mariucci agreed to interview with Buccaneers ownership after the organizations had already negotiated a deal that would pay the 49ers compensation if Mariucci left for Tampa Bay.

The 49ers would have received first- and third-round draft picks in 2002 and second- and third-round picks in 2003 and $3 million cash from the Buccaneers, who ended up dealing first- and second-round picks in 2002 and 2003 and $8 million to the Raiders for Gruden.

On Sunday, Feb. 17, Mariucci held six hours of discussions with Buccaneers executive vice presidents Joel and Bryan Glazer in Los Angeles. He also met owner Malcolm Glazer. The Buccaneers made Mariucci a huge contract offer, he said at the time.

"Without getting into the details because we had a private discussion behind closed doors, let's just say we went our separate ways," Mariucci said.

"It comes down to a long discussion about pros and cons and thinking through it, short-term and long-term. And when push came to shove, or when it was thought about enough and discussed enough, it was very evident that it wasn't going to be."

So when the 49ers play the Buccaneers Sunday in an NFC divisional playoff game at Raymond James Stadium, just remember that the team Mariucci is coaching against could have been his.

"The whole picture is kind of a funny storyline, but when it comes down to playing the game, it won't mean jack squat," 49ers center Jeremy Newberry said.

Mariucci came back to the 49ers, though he never left. That flirtation with Tampa, as well as earlier discussions with Notre Dame, made some skeptical when Mariucci continued to say he wanted to be with the 49ers for a long time.

Last February, team owner John York said it was apparent to him where Mariucci wanted to work.

"He had an offer to go to Notre Dame, arguably the most prestigious college football job in the country, and he turns it down and stays here with the 49ers," York said. "He had an opportunity to go down and be the general manager and head coach of Tampa Bay and he's still here. So there's obviously something pretty good about being the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers."

It was in since-razed Tampa Stadium that Mariucci officially began his NFL coaching career. He remembers it well.

"Fifth play of the game, Steve Young, concussion," Mariucci says, as if repeating words that have haunted him for years.

"Twenty-seventh play, Jerry Rice, blown out knee."

That day, Mariucci walked into his post-game press conference looking as if he could burst into tears at any moment. And it really had nothing to do with a 13-6 loss.

"It was a tough way to start a pro career," Mariucci said this week in a classic understatement.

With Young having sustained his third concussion in 10 months and Rice lost for the bulk of the season with tears to the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee, Mariucci first showed his penchant for being stubborn with the run game.

Receiver Terrell Owens, then in his second season, benefited from Rice's absence and began to make his name with a team-leading 60 catches for 936 yards and eight touchdowns.

Mariucci had to find a way to compensate for losing Young -- he missed the next week but returned to finish out the season -- and Rice.

Unexpectedly, Rice returned to action in the penultimate week of the season but sustained a broken kneecap while catching a touchdown pass in his first game back.

"That was the bad news, we had these Hall of Famers hurt," Mariucci said of his opener. "The good news is that this team really rallied around each other and put a string of victories together, 11 in a row, and clinched up the division and made a playoff run."

Mariucci's team made it to the NFC Championship game in his first season, ultimately losing to the Green Bay Packers at Candlestick Park. A victory Sunday will get his team back to that position, one game away from the organization's sixth Super Bowl appearance.

Mariucci said those are the thoughts that consume him -- not his contract status with the 49ers.

"I've been trained not to look back but to stay in the here and now, and coach this team right now the very best way I can," Mariucci said. "This team was first and foremost on my mind even before I took that flight (to meet with the Buccaneers), and it was first and foremost on the way back."

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