Sacramento Bee

Mariucci's 49ers future soon will be very clear
January 13, 2003
By Mark Kreidler -- Bee Sports Columnist

TAMPA, Fla. -- Pragmatism, that's what is called for here. The 49ers have just followed one of their most inspirational games of the Steve Mariucci era with one of their flattest, and where that leaves Niner Nation is, yet again, full in the thrall of the Mooch Issue.

So, fine, let's get right to it. Let me spin you a set of circumstances and a prediction.

The 49ers' top brass is not enthralled with Mariucci, and perhaps it simply never will be. In the wake of Sunday's 31-6 drubbing by Tampa Bay in the NFC semifinals, a game that was as devoid of emotion as last weekend's magnificent comeback against New York was full of it, there is no reason to believe that status has changed.

You can ask a thousand questions about this, of course. You can ask whether a healthy San Francisco roster would have made any difference. You can ask whether the DeBartolo-York ownership axis' recent commitment to guarding the bottom line is going to prevent the 49ers from making the championship leap it seems to feel Mariucci isn't capable of leading.

You can ask, certainly, whether any coach could have done more than Mariucci with what he has had to work with over the past few tumultuous years -- and defensive coordinator Jim Mora is the first to ask it.

"Look at what this guy's been through in his six years," Mora said in the quiet San Francisco locker room. "Coaches have died, OK? (Offensive line coach) Bobb McKittrick died.

"We've lost great players. Changes in ownership. Changes in the general manager. An unknown quarterback from San Jose State and Canada comes in. A complete and total overhaul.

"We go 4-12, come back to 6-10, we go 12-4, 10-6 -- I mean, this guy, they ought to make him a damn saint."

Saint Mooch? It won't ever come close to happening. The bottom line -- and this is utterly separate from the emotional side of things -- is that Mariucci wasn't hired by any of the people currently in charge of the franchise, starting with the increasingly formidable John York, husband of Denise DeBartolo York and a man with a stranglehold on the organization right now.

York was as noncommittal as could be about Mariucci on Sunday afternoon. He declared the 49ers to have made progress this season, evidenced by their winning the NFC West and beating the Giants in that memorable first-round game, but never went so far as to place the coach in the middle of the credit circle -- the closest he came was to say that to "throw rocks" at the coach at this point would be "foolish." No kidding.

As to the future, York said he will call Mariucci on Tuesday and set up a meeting. Mariucci has one year remaining on his contract, and York was asked whether it was possible the coach could enter next season with the 49ers, yet without an extension.

"Well, I don't think that's a good possibility, but it's a possibility," York replied. "I don't think that's the way it should be. ... I'd like to have some direction that we're going with this team."

York is a hard-liner, but he's no fool -- he won't allow Mariucci to coach the 49ers on a lame-duck status. At the same time, it's clear that the franchise has little intention of locking itself into any kind of long-term commitment with a coach with whom it was willing to part a year ago, when Tampa Bay came calling.

Thus, the prediction: The 49ers will indeed offer Mariucci a contract extension. And it'll be the nightmare scenario for the coach: One extra year, at either a paltry raise or no raise. The club will essentially dare Mariucci to find a better situation elsewhere.

At the same time, the club will make it clear -- on the sly, of course -- that it is willing to entertain bids from other NFL teams for Mariucci's services. That falls into the area of compensation to let the coach out of his 2003 contract -- pure pragmatism for a bottom-line oriented ownership group.

Mariucci had a chance to take that Bucs job. He stayed -- a mistake, in retrospect. He followed his heart, knowing he wanted to coach the 49ers and that his family wanted to stay in the Bay Area. The Tampa job went to Jon Gruden, and Mariucci essentially gambled he could make the York group love him this season.

A year later, it is clear the love just isn't going to come. What that strongly suggests is that Steve Mariucci is soon going to be looking for another opportunity. And that, quite naturally, will lead Niner Nation to its next quiz: Who'll they find that is better?

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