Mariucci didn't see it coming
January 17, 2003
Former 49ers coach says York was angry from the start of fateful phone call
By MATT MAIOCCO
SANTA CLARA -- Steve Mariucci, the family man, had a free night at home two weeks earlier than Steve Mariucci, the football coach, would have preferred.
He had planned to spend Monday night in front of the television watching the latest in so-called reality television just a day after the 49ers were eliminated from the NFC playoffs.
"I was at home sitting on the couch with my kids watching 'Joe Millionaire,' " Mariucci said Thursday. "It was the first Monday night I was home in six months. What kind of show is that? The girls are going to get shocked when they find out."
Mariucci was in for a shock himself, for it was in a phone conversation Monday night when Mariucci's fate was set. Team owner John York traveled from his home in Youngstown, Ohio, to the Bay Area the following day, and promptly fired Mariucci as head coach of the 49ers on Wednesday.
Both men have varying accounts of the conversation that ultimately led to Mariucci's surprise dismissal.
York said his "philosophical differences" with Mariucci became so intense during that conversation that he had no qualms with the $2.2 million severance that he is prepared to pay him.
Mariucci said it was clear that something had changed even before the men talked, saying York clearly was agitated from the moment Mariucci picked up the phone.
In a 45-minute news conference Thursday held at a hotel just a half-mile from the 49ers' offices, Mariucci disputed York's assertion that he demanded more power in the organization. He said some of the problems the men had in the past -- including, possibly, his flirtations with Notre Dame and Tampa Bay -- were rehashed.
"Without getting into detail, there were things being brought up by John that we had discussed before that simply resurfaced, and I don't know why," Mariucci said.
York and general manager Terry Donahue said Mariucci wanted to take on some of Donahue's responsibilities while making a bid to assume the role of vice president/director of football operations that John McVay is scheduled to vacate if he retires, as planned, on May 1.
Team management contends that Mariucci's agent, Gary O'Hagan, requested an expanded role for his client in a Dec.30 meeting in St. Louis. Mariucci said O'Hagan broached the subject but did it in a non-threatening way.
"The conversation was an hour or two," Mariucci said. "There might have been a couple sentences about if John McVay were to retire at any time, whether it be this year or next year or whatever, if the organization would want Steve to assume or take some of the responsibility from him or if those responsibilities wanted to be divvied up."
That was the only conversation York and O'Hagan would hold about Mariucci's future. One day after the 49ers' 31-6 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in an NFC divisional playoff game, Mariucci was pulled away from his couch.
York was on the line.
Mariucci said York was angry from the beginning of the conversation and he did a lot more listening to the owner than talking.
"Believe me, there was nothing in that conversation that made him think one thing or another because he seemed to be upset as soon as I said, 'Hello,' " Mariucci said. "I don't know how or where that started. By judging the tone of his voice, he was angry and I don't know why."
York said Thursday he had "great concerns" after that phone call but was not thinking he was going to fire Mariucci when he dialed his number.
"I'm sure there was agitation in my voice, but I did not start off that way," York said.
After the phone conversation with the man who would ultimately make the decision, Mariucci returned to his family.
"I missed the whole show," he said.
He began to prepare his wife for the news she would hear two days later while listening to the radio in her car.
"I came back and told my wife that I can't promise what was going to happen," Mariucci said. "I was as baffled by the phone conversation and the tone of his voice that I could be."
One of the subjects discussed Monday night was the rumors that Jacksonville Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver was interested in Mariucci. However, Weaver had said his team would not trade draft picks to acquire any coach. Niners consultant Bill Walsh has admitted calling Weaver and that Mariucci was discussed.
A day later, the NFL issued a memorandum to all 32 NFL teams stating that trades for non-players would not be approved until March 31, at the earliest.
"I told him clearly that I had no interest," Mariucci said. "I didn't know anything about Jacksonville. I still don't. I had absolutely no interest at the time in coaching Jacksonville. My interest was with coaching the 49ers and I made that very clear to him."
Mariucci offered to fly to Youngstown to meet with York and his wife, Denise DeBartolo York. But York told Mariucci that he would be coming to the Bay Area to meet with him Wednesday morning.
"His mind was made up long before we met, evidently," Mariucci said. "But listen to me: Every team has an owner and it's the owner's prerogative who he would like to be his coach. That's John's prerogative. He knew I wanted to be, but it's his call."
Mariucci's immediate plans include taking a football recruiting trip with his son, Tyler, who completed his senior season as a quarterback at Valley Christian in San Jose. He said he expects to coach at some point in the future but is uncertain whether he'll sit out a year.
Asked if the most difficult part of his firing was the emotional impact it had on his family, Mariucci stepped back from the microphone. Tears welled up in his eyes and his voice grew soft.
"Yeah, it is."
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