San Jose Mercury

Despite 49ers' soap opera, Mariucci's job appears safe
January 03, 2003
By Mark Purdy
Mercury News Columnist

As you gear up for the NFL playoffs and the 49ers vs. the New York Giants, here is an important fact:

Sunday's game is not about Steve Mariucci's contract situation.

Not, not, not, not, not.


Got it?

Yes, I understand. That's probably different from what you have heard. But frankly, you have heard wrong. Informed people tell me that Mariucci's future contract hardly depends on the game.

Well, not people, exactly. One person.

He is Dr. John York, who happens to be the guy in charge. As the team director, chief owner's representative and husband of Denise DeBartolo, York is the man who will sit down with Mariucci later this winter and discuss his 49ers future. An extension will be offered. Terms will be thrown on the table from both sides, as occurs in any negotiations. Regardless, this Sunday is not a make-or-break showdown for Mariucci.

Strangely enough, York is more concerned about the actual football game with the Giants than he is about any peripheral issues. York lives in Youngstown, Ohio, but is in Santa Clara this week and attended practice Thursday. He was impressed by how focused and edgy the players were. In a stunning bit of logic, York noted that the Mariucci discussions should take place in a more non-intense atmosphere.

``We know we are going to end our season sometime this month,'' York said. ``If it ends in a win, that'll be great and it will be a very emotional time. If it's going to end with a loss, then it's also going to be an emotional time, although a different kind of emotion.

``However it ends, there will need to be a break for those emotions to wash out, before we can talk about anything else. I think that for Steve and I, it won't take a long time for those emotions to wash out. But we need to make sure they do before we go to the next step.''

York has uttered words to this effect more than once recently. Why no one seems to buy his story is a minor mystery. It probably has to do with how the Bay Area tends to watch the 49ers as a soap opera as much as a football team. How can you blame us? In the epic adventure that has spanned generations, the soap-opera aspects of the team have always been entertaining.

Last season, you will recall, the soap opera included Mariucci's job situation. His contract doesn't expire until after the 2004 season. But in late 2001, Mariucci and his representative (who has subsequently been replaced) made a tactical error by hinting behind the scenes that the coach deserved a new deal.

That strategy, of course, backfired when York wisely decided that negotiating an extension with two seasons remaining on a contract was not a good game plan. Mariucci's odd dance with Tampa Bay followed. When that crazy episode concluded with Jon Gruden winning the dream date, lessons were learned. For this season, Mariucci and York both adopted a sound soap-opera policy. They decided to avoid one.

My own feeling was that once the 49ers clinched the division title, Mariucci's job was never in jeopardy -- but that the amount of his next contract would indeed depend on the 49ers' playoff performance. In other words, if the team loses Sunday, Mariucci shouldn't expect much of a raise. And if the 49ers win the Super Bowl, the coach should get a significant salary bump.

But York says that's not the case, either. When he and Mariucci sit down, they will discuss many things.

``Wins and losses are important,'' York said. ``How you do in the playoffs is important. But so is the philosophy in an organization and the way the coach fits into all that is important. The best situation is for all of that to jell.''

As York notes, it would be folly to make any decision based solely on what the scoreboard says Sunday night. What if Jeff Garcia is hurt on the first series and can't play the rest of the game? What if injured cornerback Jason Webster can't play and rookie Mike Rumph -- drafted by Terry Donahue, not Mariucci -- is hung out to dry by the Giants' passing attack? What if the 49ers outplay the Giants but are jobbed by the officials?

Would it then be fair to judge Mariucci strictly and completely on Sunday's final score?

No. Of course not.

At the same time, if the 49ers show up in the same miserable way they did in last month's Monday night rout by the Eagles, that couldn't help Mariucci's stock. I don't think that will happen. Mariucci is one of the NFL's top five coaches. He is 2-1 in home playoff games with the 49ers. But after two sluggish weeks to conclude the regular season, when nothing was at stake, Mariucci is building up the steam.

York seems to agree.

``I thought Steve handled it very well after the loss in St. Louis on Monday night, in what he said to the team in the locker room,'' York said. ``He didn't say the game was meaningless. But he dismissed it in an appropriate way and said let's get on with it, we've got a job to do, there's lots of good things ahead for us if we want them. Steve has a way of taking a situation and making something out of anything.

``One reason I wanted to come out this week and watch practice was to see how the players were responding after Monday. Today, I thought they were up, strong and good.''

You can tell he is eager for Sunday. My advice for all 49ers fans this weekend: Don't think about Mariucci's contract, or the soap opera, or the ongoing epic adventure. Think about the football game, about the three hours of sweet and wicked competition that lie ahead, the way John York is doing. Who knows? You might even learn to enjoy it.

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