Sacramento Bee

Shocker: Mariucci is out
January 16, 2003
By Mike Triplett -- Bee Staff Writer

SANTA CLARA -- In the end, it seemed, the 49ers' front office was too crowded. So Wednesday, coach Steve Mariucci was removed from the equation.

After spending the better part of two years denying a front-office power struggle, the 49ers fired Mariucci, citing his desire to expand his role.

Team owner John York and general manager Terry Donahue said Mariucci, 47, was not dismissed based on the team's performance. He was released from the final year of his contract, York said, because the two did not share a similar business philosophy.

"You can't have that much difference all the time between the owner and the head coach," explained York, who said there were "major and minor" differences, the biggest being Mariucci's desire to add vice president of football operations to his title down the road. "We need to go find a head coach that fits into our structure."

Mariucci, who chose to avoid the local media until a scheduled 10:30 a.m. news conference today, told he was stunned by the decision and that he would have been content to remain just a coach.

"I'm just surprised and saddened," said Mariucci, whose six-year tenure included a 57-39 regular-season record and a 3-4 postseason mark.

"I didn't see it coming."

The team is expected to take its time naming a successor, unlike when Mariucci was hired the day after George Seifert was fired in 1997. Donahue said the team will put together a preliminary list this week because the coaching switch was "not something we prepared for."

Former Minnesota Vikings head coach and 49ers assistant Dennis Green jumps out, along with several current 49ers assistants, including defensive coordinator Jim Mora.

In the biggest understatement of the day, Donahue said of a new coach, "Clearly we're going to want someone that understands and fits into the structure that John York has established here."

What went wrong

York, who took over ownership with wife Denise DeBartolo York in January 1999 -- more than a year after Mariucci joined the team -- comes from a business background and believes in a defined organizational structure.

He said the foundation for Wednesday's announcement was laid last season, when Mariucci and his former agent, Don Yee, were angling for a contract extension and mentioned the coach's desire to expand his role down the road.

York was further disturbed, he explained, when he met with Mariucci's new agent, Gary O'Hagan, in St. Louis two weeks ago. According to York, O'Hagan strongly suggested Mariucci's desire to replace John McVay as the vice president of football operations when McVay retired.

The final straw, York said, came when he spoke with Mariucci on the phone Monday night, and Mariucci again expressed his desire to have more involvement with team operations. Though Mariucci did not demand it, York said, "The fact that it keeps coming up makes it clear it's his desire to have an expanded role."

By the time York and Mariucci met Wednesday morning, even though Mariucci pleaded with York to change his mind, York had made his decision.

"I tried to listen to what Steve had to say, but my mind was made up," York said.

Sources close to Mariucci told The Bee the coach felt there never was any negotiation, and that the 49ers clearly wanted to fire the coach.

Mariucci told he was shocked the idea of him wanting more power caused his demise.

"I'm surprised to listen and learn that was an issue at all," said Mariucci, who sneaked out of the 49ers' practice facility Wednesday afternoon in the back of a black cargo van, past waiting media, while his assistant followed in Mariucci's car.

York was not present at the noon news conference, saying he was "washed out" and "emotional." In the afternoon, he spoke to the media via teleconference.

York was agitated when told of Mariucci's comments.

"If this is going to be a 'we said, they said,' I'm not interested in that," York answered. "I know what Steve asked for last year, and I know what came up in conversation this year with his agent."

Despite the still-unfolding drama, Mariucci's dismissal was not entirely unexpected. He was hired in 1997 by former owner Eddie DeBartolo, when York, Donahue and Bill Walsh were not with the team.

Although York signed Mariucci to a five-year contract extension in 1999, the team's hierarchy has never been in the coach's corner publicly.

Criticism crept up about Mariucci's conservative style and his being "too nice." That's ironic, since he was ultimately fired for being deemed too aggressive.

More likely, 49ers management had been itching at the chance to bring in their own guy.

Mariucci had one year remaining on his contract that was scheduled to pay him $2.2 million. York said the coach will still receive the money, as per his contract. The reason the team did not allow Mariucci to coach one more season is that York didn't want it to become a distraction.

"There has been enough noise around here the last two years about Steve being the coach and Steve vs. Bill and Steve vs. Terry and 'Do we love Steve?' " York said. "It is just too much noise."

What's next?

The 49ers did not seek compensation from another team for Mariucci's services because the league issued a moratorium this week on trading draft picks for coaches -- the way the Raiders and Tampa Bay did with Jon Gruden a year ago.

Instead, Mariucci becomes a free agent. But he will likely take a year off. The only other current NFL opening is in Jacksonville, but the Jaguars told the Associated Press that they do not consider Mariucci a candidate.

"His agent told us that Steve's interest right now is taking some time off and doing some broadcasting," Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver told the Associated Press.

Mariucci, a popular players' coach and a charismatic leader, would seemingly have his pick of jobs in 2004.

The few 49ers players milling about Wednesday were stunned and disappointed that Mariucci had been fired. Likely, that blow could be softened by hiring from within -- although keeping the players happy is clearly not management's top priority.

Donahue didn't mention names when discussing the coaching search. Green was a natural assumption because of his 49ers ties. Green was fired in 2001 after nearly 10 seasons in Minnesota. He spoke Wednesday on ESPNews, where he currently works as an analyst.

"I've always considered myself part of the 49ers' family," said Green, who was an assistant coach under Walsh at Stanford in the late 1970s and in San Francisco in 1979 and from 1986-88. "I've got some interest in that job for a couple of reasons. It's a very attractive job."

Green, also represented by O'Hagan, withdrew his name from the Jaguars' search last week because they were not offering the title of general manager. But Green said he would be willing to be "the head coach and the head coach only" in San Francisco.

Mora, who is under contract, did not return a call. No assistant coaches have been fired, but several do not have contracts beyond this month. Donahue said when the new coach is hired, he can evaluate the assistants.

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