Team goes from class to crass
January 16, 2003
By Mark Kreidler -- Bee Sports Columnist
SANTA CLARA -- It was just so remarkably ignoble. The summary firing of Steve Mariucci as the 49ers' head coach Wednesday had the markings of the work of an inferior organization, in a lesser time, with lowered expectations, on utterly uncertain footing.
And that makes it official: Eddie DeBartolo has left the building.
The 49ers' of DeBartolo's time never would have pulled as lame a job as the one the San Francisco brass just did. DeBartolo's last coaching-related act, his theatrical overthrow of George Seifert nearly six years ago, was a fit both of competitive hysteria and football frustration. Eddie whacked George, in favor of the untested but undeniably bright Mariucci, because he was trying to force the 49ers forward as a franchise.
There was no such hint of forward progress in the air here Wednesday. Instead, two of San Francisco's top executives, first general manager Terry Donahue and then owner John York -- two men who inherited Mariucci from Eddie D.'s reign -- explained that Mariucci was fired for absolutely no reason related to his coaching.
To repeat: Mariucci wasn't fired because he can't coach. He wasn't fired because the 49ers were thrashed by Tampa Bay 31-6 in the NFC semifinals Sunday. (For those keeping score at home, it wasn't the worst playoff loss in team history; that would be a 49-3 humiliation on Genius Bill Walsh's watch in 1986.)
Mariucci wasn't fired because last season's 12-4 gave way to 10-6, nor because of his reluctance to let quarterback Jeff Garcia pursue a more vertical, downfield-passing offense, nor because of his play-calling in general nor the defensive lapses nor the special-teams breakdowns nor, really, any of it.
"This is not," Donahue reiterated, "a performance issue."
Nope, Steve Mariucci just became the first coach in 49ers history to get fired because of where he fits on the flow chart. It is the perfect summary of the new era of business-first ownership by York and his wife, Denise DeBartolo York.
For weeks, York has spoken of taking the 49ers in a more businesslike direction. (In sports-speak, that means operating the franchise as cheaply as possible without having fans bail out on their season tickets all at once.) But few could have seriously anticipated the dispatching of the coach for reasons completely unrelated to his coaching.
In a nutshell, the problem for York was that Mariucci had expressed an interest in adding responsibilities beyond coaching. As far back as February 2002, when Tampa Bay was courting him briefly, Mariucci had let the 49ers know that eventually he would like to assume a football-operations front-office job besides the one on the field. The 49ers, York's 49ers, reacted as though a live snake had been stuffed down their trousers.
But rather than deal with it and move on, York, a man with a solid business background and absolutely no sports expertise, couldn't get past that one. He admitted as much Wednesday -- hours after Donahue, the only member of the San Francisco brass to show his face in public, admitted it for him.
York saw Mariucci's continued interest as a threat to York's way of running things. Mariucci, based upon his agent's comments, doesn't remember expressing his interest quite so stridently for it to achieve the status of deal-breaker.
In fact, he pleaded for a chance to continue on a coach-only basis during a conversation with York on Wednesday.
And there is, of course, one much darker explanation, which is that York's decision on Mariucci was puppeteered by Walsh himself, a man who continues to exert a frightening amount of leverage over this franchise.
But, in any event, the larger question is this: Why should anyone trust John York's model for running a football team? Whether one agrees with the firing of Mariucci, it's mildly shocking to consider that the move had nothing to do with the game on the field and everything to do with the game inside the oak-paneled rooms.
Donahue said "business philosophy" was the factor at play here, not "football philosophy." That must come as a great comfort to the next head coach of the 49ers, be it Dennis Green or anyone else: Screw up the business model, and you're the next to go.
The conversation swirling around Mariucci has been both instructive and, for any dug-in 49ers fan, incredibly depressing. For weeks, if not years, fans have been debating Mariucci's offensive strategies, his intestinal fortitude, his coaching acumen. Even those who concluded the man should be fired did so in an environment of assuming the 49ers could then go one better.
Imagine their surprise to discover, as of Wednesday, that doing better on the field isn't the point of the drill. Eddie DeBartolo is so long gone you can't even sense him around here anymore. We're living in York's world now.
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