San Francisco Examiner

Mooch's start was rough
January 09, 2003
Of The Examiner Staff

SANTA CLARA -- Steve Mariucci's memories of his first regular-season game as coach of the 49ers remain vivid and lively -- and equally as painful, even now.

The wide-eyed Mariucci was plucked from Cal during the Niners' 1997 winter of discontent, after 49ers president Carmen Policy followed the directive of owner Eddie DeBartolo and fired coach George Seifert after the 49ers lost to the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game. Five days later, Policy -- certain the Niners needed a more offensive-mind coach -- hired Mariucci.

Nearly eight months later, on Aug. 31, Mariucci was standing on the sideline at Tampa Stadium, his stomach churning and nerves heightened as Steve Young and Jerry Rice went through their pregame rituals. Then the game commenced and disaster struck:

On the 49ers' fifth play from scrimmage, as Steve Young was being dragged to the ground, Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Hardy Nickerson's knee slammed into Young's head, leaving the Niners quarterback wondering what ZIP code he was in.

On the Niners' 27th play from scrimmage, Warren Sapp dragged Rice down by the facemask on a reverse. Rice's body twisted awkwardly, snapping ligaments in his right knee that would take a year to heal.

The injury count mounted. Kevin Greene -- the pass-rushing specialist who was one of the last great free-agent signings of the Policy-DeBartolo era -- hobbled off the field with a broken foot and reserve quarterback Jeff Brohm cracked a bone in his lower back.

Niners center Jeremy Newberry, whom Mariucci coached at Cal the year before, couldn't believe what he was witnessing.

"I was a Niner fan and I was like, all of my favorite players (are getting) hurt," said Newberry, who grew up in nearby Antioch and was in his final season at Cal as he watched the game.

With Young sidelined with a concussion and Rice watching on crutches, the game morphed into the kind of defensive battle that has defined the Buccaneers ever since they were transformed into a contender by former coach Tony Dungy.

The 49ers lost 13-6 and, in a matter of 60 minutes, Mariucci had encountered his first of many catastrophes that would beset him and this franchise that is still searching for its elusive sixth Super Bowl trophy.

"It was a tough way to start a pro career," Mariucci conceded Monday. "The good thing is we rallied around the other guys."

Indeed, the 49ers overcame that calamitous start to Mariucci's bumpy tenure, finishing 13-3 to win the NFC West Division title before succumbing to the Green Bay 23-10 in conference championship game on Jan. 11, 1998, at Candlestick Park.

Mariucci will be making his first trip to Tampa, Fla., since that excruciating debut, but this time, the stakes are superior. The 49ers and Bucs meet Sunday at Raymond James Stadium in the NFC divisional playoffs for the right to face the winner of Saturday's Philadelphia-Atlanta game for the conference championship a week later.

Mariucci can only hope that quarterback Jeff Garcia and Co. avoid absorbing the physical pounding the Bucs' defense -- the league's top-ranked unit -- delivered in the '97 opener.

The 49ers are coming off an epic 39-38 comeback victory Sunday over the New York Giants in an NFC wild-card game at Candlestick Park and are riding an emotional wave of confidence. San Francisco scored 25 unanswered points in the second-greatest comeback in NFL playoff history and, now, they will travel to Tampa Bay feeling like anything is possible. With a little luck, the 49ers could find themselves hosting the conference championship game Jan. 19.

"We know we're in for a dogfight down there," Mariucci said. "They have a very good team. It'll be a crazy crowd. They have a great defense."

Plus, the Bucs have had a week to kick back and watch the Giants and 49ers pummel each other. "They're fresh and ready to roll," Mariucci said of Tampa Bay.

Although Newberry wasn't a member of that 49ers squad in '97, he said the qualities Mariucci's exhibited that fateful season -- the scaling back of the passing game to protect Young, the reliance of halfback Garrison Hearst -- are the same traits the coach has employed to help the 49ers survive a run of injuries this season.

"I think it's a credit to him," Newberry said. "With those guys going down, you have to shift the focus of the offense. That's one of coach Mooch's strengths. He can tailor things around who's healthy."

The game is certainly not devoid of compelling story lines and the most prominent will be the Mariucci-Jon Gruden connection. Gruden was pried away from the Raiders one day after Mariucci met with Bucs owner Malcolm Glazer to discuss leaving San Francisco for Tampa Bay. Mariucci flinched and Gruden received the type of deal Mariucci dreams of getting from Niners owner representative John York: five years, $17.5 million.

The Raiders, as compensation for letting Gruden out of the final year of his contract, received $8 million and four draft picks. As for Mariucci, who has another season left on his contract at $2.2 million: He has tried to downplay his contract status for much of the season, insisting the matter will be resolved this off-season.

Mariucci and Gruden forged a friendship back when the two were in Green Bay working for Mike Holmgren. And Gruden's father, Jim, is a regional scout for the 49ers, so the week leading to the game is chock full of intriguing subplots that will be dissected and examined by national and local football scribes.

"We have a lot of respect for each other," Mariucci said of Gruden. "We're very competitive. We all want the same thing; we all want the ring. I know he's happy there. He's doing a heck of a job. It's home for him. As far as knowing each other, I guess there's some familiarity.

"Whether you think you know each other or not, throw it out the window and play ball."

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