It was wrong time, place for Mariucci's demands
January 15, 2003
By John Clayton

The eternal struggle within a front office is over power.

Coaches want a louder voice in personnel issues. General managers want the ability to not only pick the players on a 53-man roster but to have a voice in who plays. With a salary cap and free agency, the tender balance between GM and coach can be dicey.

Steve Mariucci's departure from the 49ers is a classic example of how fragile that balance can be. In many ways, Mariucci was an outsider in the San Francisco operation. He was hired by Carmen Policy, who left to run and own part of the Cleveland Browns. The 49ers' success since the 1980s was developed by former coach Bill Walsh, who groomed Terry Donahue to be the general manager while he worked in the background as a consultant.

So you had two factions in the power structure -- the Mariucci camp and the Walsh camp. Mariucci was the coach only. Donahue and Walsh worked together with the rest of the organization on personnel. Despite the natural tension of having two different styles, the two sides worked together to get the team through a tough adjustment period.

The 49ers of the late '90s recovered from salary cap hell and set the standard for how to navigate through those tough times. After two playoff seasons, Mariucci and the Walsh camp went through the tough decisions caused by being $28 million over the cap after the 12-4 season in 1998.

Walsh's hard personnel decisions and Mariucci's upbeat style of coaching enabled the 49ers to go from a 4-12 cap-starved team to a playoff team in 2001. The 49ers won the NFC West this season. It was a magnificent success story.

But this was re-evaluation time for all involved. Organizationally, the 49ers are going through change. Change in this case can't be bad because as much as pro football is a sport, it is also a business. Under Eddie DeBartolo, the 49ers put all of their resources into players. While that was nice as far as winning, it was terrible for the bottom line.

In a league with a salary cap and shared revenue, the 49ers -- under DeBartolo -- were not bottom-line conscious. After DeBartolo sold his football interests to his sister, Denise, the 49ers worked toward operating under a budget. That process actually took four years of planning. This will be the first offseason of its implementation.

Change creates anxiety. President John York knew that there would be an offseason adjustment period. Having a budget doesn't mean that the 49ers aren't going to spend on players. They still have one of the bigger player budgets.

Walsh and Donahue, but not Mariucci, have been working in sync with York on the budget. With the budget in place, it was time to address where Mariucci fit in.

All agree that Mariucci is a quality coach. His record is 59-42. He's taken four 49er teams to the playoffs. His coaching staff is considered one of the best in the league. But York and Donahue had to see if they were on the same page with Mariucci before extending his contract past the $2.25 million salary on schedule for 2003.

That's where things broke down. Sources within the organization say that Mariucci wanted to be considered for the title of vice president of football operation along with being the coach. Sources closest to Mariucci, however, said that he was happy with just being the coach and he was only responding to hypothetical ideas of getting more power. Because there had been no new negotiations on a contract, there had been no demands for addition power.

Titles sometimes may be meaningless, but many times they translate into money. Having dual roles of coach and general manager allowed Mike Holmgren and Mike Shanahan to cross the $4 million-a-year plateau.

A year ago, Mariucci was tempted by the money and power of having the dual roles in Tampa. He would have been a $4 million major player in this league, but in the end, he turned it down because his family wanted to remain in the Bay Area. The Bucs bit the bullet and traded two first-round choices, two second-rounders and $8 million to Oakland for Jon Gruden.

The flirtation with the Bucs' job hurt Mariucci organizationally. His fine coaching job this season put him back in a position for York to make an offer about an extension. But one thing wasn't going to happen. York wasn't going to allow Mariucci to do anything more than just coach.

It's not that Mariucci is wrong. The timing was bad. For the first couple years of this decade, NFL owners were handing out dual titles and big coaching contracts like candy at Christmas. Nearly half of the teams had head coaches in full charge of the football operations.

Things are changing this year. Mike Holmgren lost his general manager duties in Seattle, but kept his salary and status as coach. Tom Coughlin was let go as the single person in charge of the Jaguars. Bill Parcells had to take a job as coach only for Jerry Jones in Dallas.

The reality of things is that as much as Mariucci is the perfect coach for one of the youngest starting lineups in football, it probably was time for him to move. Had he accepted an extension for $3 million a year, that wouldn't have changed the feeling that he was an outsider in the organization. The person who hired him is still in Cleveland.

Should he go to Jacksonville, Mariucci might get more money than in San Francisco. He might get a little more power, although owner Wayne Weaver wants a sharing of the power between a coach and a personnel director.

As for the 49ers, they can go a number of different directions. Dennis Green is a perfect candidate as long as he casts aside his desires to run the front office, too. Looking internally, the team could go for Jim Mora Jr., the team's bright young defensive coordinator.

The San Francisco job is a prize. The 49ers are a playoff team with a solid, young roster and an organization committed to winning. Mariucci is a winning coach who won't be out of work long. Jacksonville is a good fit because the Jaguars are coming through the salary cap process that the 49ers completed.

Jobs changed. Mariucci brought the 49ers through some tough times. Wherever he moves, he won't feel as though he's an outsider. Still, it's just a shame that a successful front office team that worked well enough to have such success couldn't stick together.

But that's the NFL, which stands for Not For Long.

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