San Francisco Examiner

Players respected Mooch
January 17, 2003
Of The Examiner Staff

SANTA CLARA -- Defensive end Sean Moran was making his daily visit to 49ers headquarters, where he figured he would get a quick workout before returning to his abode to relax.

But then, before he could get out of 4949 Centennial Blvd., the television trucks began to pull up and reporters started to gather. Suddenly, the seven-year veteran knew something was amiss.

Then, Moran was given the news: Steve Mariucci, the 49ers' coach who played a pivotal role in luring the free agent to San Francisco last off-season, was fired in a bizarre twist of events that caught everyone off-guard.

Especially the players who had worked so hard for Mariucci, a man who had a way of forging a special relationship with his charges. Except Terrell Owens, that is.

"I was extremely shocked," Moran said. "I had no idea it was coming. I don't know what it is. He got us to the playoffs and we won the division. If that's not success, I don't know what it is.

"But I understand it's a cut-throat business."

Mariucci was fired by owner representative John York after it became clear that Mariucci wanted the level of authority the franchise was unwilling to give to its coach. Mariucci, who had a 57-39 record in six seasons with San Francisco, led the Niners to their first NFC West title since 1998 and helped the team stage the second-greatest comeback in NFL playoff history when his 49ers overcame a 24-point deficit to defeat the New York Giants 39-38 in the NFC wild-card game.

But Sunday, the 49ers suffered the second-worst playoff loss in team history, falling to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31-6 in an NFC divisional playoff game.

Players met with Mariucci on Monday and assumed he would be back for the 2003 season. Mariucci had one season left on his five-year deal and there was no reason to believe that his contractual issues wouldn't be resolved.

Boy, how wrong they were.

Offensive lineman Dave Fiore was particularly shaken by Wed-nesday's abrupt events that sent a tremor through the organization.

"I played just about my whole career for one coach," said Fiore, a seven-year veteran. "I think he's done great things for the organization."

What troubles Fiore most is that back in '98, when team president Carmen Policy abandoned the organization to run the expansion Cleveland Browns and the NFL forced former owner Edward DeBartolo to surrender control after he became embroiled in a riverboat gambling scheme, Mariucci was the lone identifiable force.

Mariucci stayed and fought through the bad times, endured salary-cap problems that resulted in back-to-back losing seasons for the first time in over 20 years. Yet, the franchise, Fiore said, seems to have forgotten the way Mariucci fought through the mess.

"Almost everybody in the building left (the team) with all this uncertainty," Fiore said. "But he stayed."

Defensive end Andre Carter, the former Cal star who the 49ers took in the first round of the 2001 draft, was recruited to Berkeley by Mariucci. He rushed to the team's headquarters in his SUV, apparently to see his coach, but refused to talk.

"No comment, man," Carter said hastily as he walked briskly into the building. "I'm chillin'. It's the off-season."

Cornerback Ahmed Plummer emerged after meeting with Mariucci for the final time. He viewed the entire soap opera with a keener sense of perspective.

"I was surprised," Plummer said. "It was unexpected. He's definitely a great coach. He knows how to motivate his players.

"It's tough when you have to have change. But you just have to have confidence in the organization that they'll bring in the right person for the job. As players, you just have to be professional about it. It might hurt, but you have to move on.

"There's nothing we can do about it."

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