Mariucci 'saddened' by sudden dismissal
January 15, 2003
By Len Pasquarelli
There are two sides to every divorce. Two stories to be told in every breakup. Two ways to spin reality any time a long-term relationship ends.
So while his former bosses were conducting news conferences on Wednesday afternoon, telling anyone who would listen that Steve Mariucci was dismissed because of an unsuccessful power play, the one-time San Francisco head coach sat in his office and acknowledged to ESPN.com that the purported demand for more clout was all news to him.
And allowing that, when he walked into a Wednesday morning meeting with 49ers director Dr. John York, the last thing he expected to be when he left that session was unemployed.
"I'm surprised to listen and learn that (purported request for more power and the title of director of football operations) was an issue at all," said Mariucci amid a steady stream of players, including wide receiver Terrell Owens, who paraded through his office to share some hugs and some tears. "I guess I'm shocked to hear that part of it."
So were several of Mariucci's close friends and confidants, who insist that all he wanted to do was coach the 49ers, at least through the final season of his current contract in 2003.
General manager Terry Donahue, sent out to do the public dirty work at an afternoon press conference, claimed that Mariucci's suggestion for a bigger say in personnel decisions came at an "earlier meeting" with the agent for the head coach. That meeting, ESPN.com has learned, was in St. Louis on Dec. 30, hours before the 49ers' Monday night season finale.
The meeting, ostensibly, was for York and agent Gary O'Hagan to get to know each other better. There was, Mariucci and O'Hagan say vehemently, no discussion there of expanding the coach's role.
O'Hagan will not discuss the elements of that meeting. All he will say is that there was "never a negotiation and so there could never have been any kinds of demands." But at some point in the past month, sources contend, one of the high-ranking officials in the 49ers organization broached this question: If San Francisco were to consider a bigger role, would Mariucci consider it?
So according to the Mariucci side, it was the 49ers who initiated any talk -- no, call it small talk, really -- about a more far-ranging title.
In essence, it certainly appears from the outside, that Mariucci played by the rules the two sides established last summer. In August, it was agreed that all talk of a contract extension would be set aside until after the '02 season, and that discussions would re-open at that time. The 49ers can do any kind of a Nexus search they want, scour the Internet, and they won't hear so much as a syllable emanating from Mariucci or his representatives about a new deal.
Some time ago, Mariucci decided that, extension or not, he and his family wanted to remain in the Bay Area, even if that meant entering 2003 as one of the league's few "lame duck" coaches in recent years. Had there ever been a negotiation, and San Francisco offered an extension at below market prices, Mariucci was prepared to reject it, coach the 49ers in 2003, and then become essentially a free agent.
Things never reached that point.
"I'm just surprised and saddened," an obviously emotional Mariucci said on Wednesday afternoon. "I didn't see it coming. Really, I didn't. I have a lot of admiration for this place and I've invested a lot here. So, sure, I wanted to stay and finish what we had set out to do. It's hard to say goodbye to good people and there are good people here. The players. The coaches. Support staff like the secretaries and all. We were all in this together."
There apparently were indications on Monday, the day after the 49ers ended the season with an ugly 31-6 loss at Tampa Bay in the divisional round of the playoffs, that a strange end game was being set into process. Mariucci on Wednesday would not discuss it but, at some point Monday, club consultant Bill Walsh walked into the coach's office and informed him he had spoken to Jacksonville owner Wayne Weaver.
The intimation: If they could convince York, and the 49ers hierarchy to release Mariucci from the final season of his contract, the coach would then be free to pursue the Jaguars job, now the only vacancy remaining. League sources say that Mariucci was taken aback by Walsh's actions in contacting the Jaguars, and wondered if it was even legal.
Later that evening, York, perhaps recalling Mariucci's flirtations last year with Notre Dame and the Tampa Bay Bucs, nearly fired him. He didn't then but, obviously, the events contributed to the Wednesday finale. They helped set into motion a departure Mariucci didn't want to happen.
Mariucci made it clear Wednesday he wants to coach again. Reports have made him the sudden favorite at Jacksonville and, while "Mooch" declined to address that opening, scuttlebutt is he won't chase the Jaguars job. What he might do is sit back for a year, maybe do some television, recharge the batteries and come back after that.
Certainly he knows already that the itch he can't stop scratching is the need to coach again, to become part of the relationships inherent to the profession. There was, for most of a 15-minute conversation, a resignation in his voice. But when the subject turned to another gig, at another time, there was a hint of enthusiasm.
And there was a realization he will do it better the next time.
"I've learned so much from this place," he acknowledged. "Learned about the salary cap. Relationships. How to run a good organization, which this one has been. It's been, even with what happened today, a great experience.
"Next time around, because of this, I'll have a pretty good idea on how to do things even better."
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