San Francisco Examiner

Goodbye, nice guy
January 14, 2003
Of The Examiner Staff

I like Steve Mariucci.

There, I've said it.

Oddly, it makes me feel like a member of a 12-step program or a sinner offering a whispered confession. But it doesn't change the way I feel about his future as coach of the 49ers.

In the aftermath of Sunday's gruesome 31-6 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Mariucci is not a popular man. The negative sentiment extends beyond local talk radio and the region's sports pubs. It goes all the way to the locker room and front office.

Whether Mariucci returns for a seventh season and beyond will be determined soon -- likely within the next week.

It shouldn't take that long. The fact is the 49ers would do well to cut ties to the charismatic but conventional coach.

He has one more year on a contract that paid him $2.1 million this season (19th-highest among the 32 NFL coaches) and is seeking an extension and a significant raise.

There is a scheduled sit-down with owner representative John York on Tuesday, but all parties would be better served to cancel it and open the door for teams with vacancies to come calling.

This is not a conclusion based upon the team's absolute failure to compete against the NFC South champions. Sure, they failed to score a touchdown in a playoff game for the first time since Jan. 4, 1987, but the 49ers entered this contest emotionally spent and physically reeling.

It's not to suggest Mariucci hasn't done an admirable job with a franchise that was severely knee-capped by overspending. Nor is it meant to say he isn't capable of running an NFL team, whether it is assembling a roster or strategizing for opponents.

Steve Mariucci is a good coach and an even better guy. But he's not the right fit for the 49ers.

A philosophical divide exists between the team's daring, pass-first identity and Mariucci's conservative, run-driven approach. You can't attend a game at Candlestick Park without hearing rumbles of discontentment from the crowd.

Even when he wins, he can't win.

It's not enough to grind out a victory. In this town, style points matter, whether you're hanging out at the Redwood Room or whipping up on the Seattle Seahawks.

Relying on short passes to Terrell Owens just doesn't cut it. Consistently opting for a Garrison Hearst run on first down is unacceptable.

Strategically, those moves will reap dividends -- 12-4 seasons, NFC West titles and playoff berths in four of six seasons.

But they won't earn the lasting favor of general manager Terry Donahue or consultant and franchise architect Bill Walsh. Nor will they do what matters most: Bring a Super Bowl championship to The City.

The 49ers were able to overcome their conservative mind-set last week, when they roared back from 24 points down to beat the New York Giants. Against the Bucs' top-rated defense, the strategy was doomed from the start.

That Mariucci curiously chose to run out the clock before halftime, despite being near midfield with 50 seconds and two timeouts remaining, only reinforced the belief that he plays not to lose.

"We just simply chose to get out of there," he offered by way of explanation.

Despite what he says, Mariucci won't return for a lame-duck season. Nor would many of his assistants, eight of whom are without contracts. If an agreement can't be reached with management to extend his current pact, he'll have coached his last game here.

Who do you bring in? Denny Green and Mike Holmgren, two names that have been bandied about, are not the answer. Defensive coordinator Jim Mora, popular with players and possessor of a head coaching pedigree from his father, might merit consideration. Before that, however, the Mariucci issue must be settled.

His hiring made a J-Lo courtship seem lengthy, so don't feel bad if his departure is just as swift. Give him a firm handshake and a gold watch. Then show him the door.

Tell us what you think on the new 49ers Clubhouse message board.