Turning to Tollner?
January 17, 2003
Niners' quarterbacks coach could replace Mariucci

Don Banks - Inside the NFL

Spawned by a surprising announcement, the 49ers' head coaching search may result in a surprising conclusion.

Though the search barely has begun, league sources close to the situation insist that San Francisco quarterbacks coach Ted Tollner soon will surface as the preferred candidate of 49ers general manager Terry Donahue, perhaps as a one-year, inexpensive fill-in until the team could pursue Seattle's Mike Holmgren or another high-profile candidate in 2004.

Tollner, 62, an old friend of Donahue dating from their days as collegiate coaches on the West Coast, just completed his first year coaching 49ers quarterbacks. By going with him as Steve Mariucci's replacement, the 49ers would, in essence, allow him to baby-sit the job for a year -- two at the most -- until they had their choice of upper-tier candidates.

Holmgren had his GM duties stripped from him this offseason, but has been given at least one more season to turn the Seahawks into a playoff qualifier. The former 49ers offensive coordinator has long been seen as a potential candidate to become the team's head coach.

The 49ers' search is expected to shape up as a battle of wills between Donahue and team consultant Bill Walsh, with team director John York also figuring heavily in the decision. All are said to have their own ideas on how the search should be conducted.

Donahue has long been rumored to be interested in making his return to coaching with the 49ers, but he took himself out of the running immediately upon Mariucci's firing Wednesday. Tollner is seen as his surrogate, a short-term option who would have no qualms with Donahue exerting considerable influence in what would normally be the head coach's domain.

"Terry has always wanted to coach that team, but with Ted in place, Terry could back-seat drive without any interference," one league source said. "For Terry, it would be like being the GM and partially the head coach."

Meanwhile, Walsh, the franchise's patriarch figure, will be pushing the candidacy of Dennis Green, the former Vikings head coach and two-time 49ers assistant. Green served on Walsh's staff in both 1979 and again from 1986-88. Because of his ties to Walsh, his mentor, Green started off Wednesday as the presumed front-runner in the search.

But don't assume that Green is a slam dunk for the job. York, the owner's representative, is said to not be a fan of Green's, and also is looking to hire a head coach who wouldn't command anywhere near the $3 million per year that Green would likely seek.

Sources in San Francisco say York was not going to pay Mariucci a dime more than $3 million annually as part of any contract extension. Green, who is owed $2.8 million for not coaching Minnesota in 2003, is in the same salary range.

The 49ers are said to be in the midst of an organization-wide budget cutting, which is another factor in Mariucci's departure and Tollner's expected candidacy. If hired, Tollner would be among the league's lowest-paid head coaches, well under $1 million per season, and perhaps have his salary tied to the number of wins that the team produces in 2003.

Expect Southern Cal head coach Pete Carroll to surface as yet another candidate for the 49ers' job, although it's likely to be a behind-the-scenes push on his part due to the Trojans' recruiting efforts. Carroll, the two-time former NFL head coach, was the 49ers' defensive coordinator in 1995-96 and is from nearby Marin County.

Carroll, who coached both the Jets and Patriots in the NFL, is expected to aggressively lobby 49ers officials for the opening, but he is considered a longshot candidate.

Green made it clear to the 49ers on Wednesday that while he was seeking significant input on personnel matters in recently pursuing the Jacksonville job, he would not require the same level of authority in San Francisco, given his trust in the 49ers' front-office structure. With both Walsh and Donahue on hand, Green would be content to coach the team and have a say in personnel decisions, but not total control.

"This thing could shape up as a battle between Bill and Terry," a league source said. "Eventually we'll see who has more influence with York. Bill wants a legacy pick with Green. Terry wants his guy, and is probably going to carry the day. Ultimately they'll be a little pushing and shoving between them, with the whole thing playing out in a week or so."

If Green doesn't wind up with the 49ers' job, Walsh is going to have some egg on his face. On Sunday in Tampa, Walsh was quoted questioning how Jacksonville could have failed to strike a deal with his former protégé. Green interviewed with the Jaguars last week, but pulled out of the running for the job three days later after realizing he was not the team's top choice.

"Dennis Green is as good as they get," Walsh said after the 49ers' season-ending playoff loss to the Bucs. "How could that not happen with him in Jacksonville? Oh, boy, I'm so very disappointed in that. I feel so disappointed about that, because I spoke to Wayne [Weaver] at length about him many times.

"Wayne liked Dennis very much, so I don't know what could have occurred to keep [his hiring] from happening. It's a sad thing."

So with Walsh being Green's biggest sponsor, how would it look if the 49ers too passed on naming him their head coach? Rest assured Walsh would put his spin on that potential scenario, but that doesn't mean it would sound believable.

Tollner has major college head coaching experience, having led USC from 1983-86, where he competed against Donahue's UCLA teams, and San Diego State from 1994-2001. He also has served as USC's offensive coordinator (1982) and had NFL assistant stints in Buffalo (1987), San Diego (where he was offensive coordinator from 1988-91) and with the Los Angeles Rams in 1992-93.

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