San Jose Mercury

Faith in York dwindling with team's future in limbo
February 05, 2003
Ann Killion
Mercury News Staff Columnist

The bad news keeps coming for the 49ers. Now Detroit has leapfrogged ahead of them on the list of ``NFL teams with direction.'' Lions owner William Clay Ford had a plan: He fired his coach in order to pay top dollar to the man he wanted, Steve Mariucci.

Back here, at the Newport Beach 49ers, everyone's still wondering: Do the owners of the 49ers know what they're doing? Does John York have a plan?

The future of the 49ers hangs in the balance. York is about to make by far the most important decision he has faced since assuming control of the team. Way more important than decreeing that employees stop drinking so much bottled water.

However, there are a lot of people in 49ersland who aren't confident that he will make the right decision.

York has lost the faith of not only many fans, but also many members of the 49ers family. In speaking to many current and former 49ers in recent weeks, it is clear to me that York has divorced himself from much of the 49ers' legacy, which was the most valuable thing he inherited when he took over.

``It's really frustrating to see the organization slowly dismantled from the inside,'' said one former star 49ers player. ``I have a lot of anger as a former player.''

On Tuesday, the 49ers narrowed their list of head-coaching candidates to Ted Cottrell, Greg Blache and Jim Mora. Please hold your applause.

Thus far the coaching search has been -- to put it mildly -- bizarre. Terry Donahue has been bringing candidates to his home in Newport Beach to interview them about a job in San Francisco. The owner has been in Ohio. The quarterback has denounced the process as ``embarrassing.''

Meanwhile, back at 4949 Centennial Blvd. there is confusion.

Hey, didn't we used to be the 49ers? A jewel of the NFL?

With Mariucci's hiring in Detroit, there's some hope that the coaching chaos still can turn out well. Relieved of having to pay Mariucci his full 2003 salary, the 49ers could use those resources to hire a well-regarded college coach. There have been signs that after today's collegiate letter-of-intent signing date the search may be expanded. Of course, that raises an ugly ethical question about pursuing a man who just asked high school seniors to commit their collegiate careers to him.

But ethical concerns may not even be an issue. The early bets are on York hiring as cheaply as possible. And the truth is the job isn't that attractive for big-name coaches.

The 49ers aren't exactly what they used to be.

York has gained a reputation around the league as a meddling owner with a short fuse and little knowledge of football. His poorly handled firing of Mariucci only reinforced that image.

But, by and large, he has gotten a free pass. He irately confronted Mercury News beat writer Dennis Georgatos in December -- after a story about the 49ers' internal cost-cutting -- which is the kind of thing that used to score Eddie DeBartolo Jr. front-page headlines. York later apologized.

Until the Mariucci firing, York's most public shortcoming has been the dormant stadium issue. After years of evasive responses, inaction and the underwhelming leadership of team president Peter Harris, there was finally news on the stadium front during Super Bowl week.

NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue told the Mercury News that the 49ers may have to start at square one in trying to secure funding for a stadium deal. The 49ers said, through spokesman Sam Singer, that they are considering a new location at Hunter's Point Naval Shipyard but haven't made the plans public because ``no one's really asked us.''

Now that's effective public relations.

``The Yorks are committed to building a new stadium, but there's no timeline at all,'' Singer said Tuesday.

Further discussion of the stadium last week quickly devolved into name-calling of DeBartolo. That's pretty much a mainstay of York's management strategy -- if there's a problem, blame the exiled brother-in-law.

If the 49ers ever do try to build a stadium, it would be pretty handy to have the team legends on board to help sell the idea to a skeptical public. But, right now, many of the past's brightest stars are estranged.

``There's a feeling he wants to alienate anyone who was involved with Eddie,'' the former player said.

Some insiders hope the Yorks sell the team to a committed local group. A final payoff to DeBartolo is due this summer, eliminating the former owner from the picture and clearing the way for all profits from a sale to go to the Yorks. Recent budget cuts and stated goals of turning a profit could be a sign that a sale is forthcoming. But Singer insists there are no plans to sell the team. So it's onward into an uncertain future. The forthcoming coaching choice will be York's signature move. He inherited the other football decisions: Bill Walsh returned in 1999 because he thought that DeBartolo would regain control of the team. Walsh handpicked Donahue, whose impact as a general manager remains to be seen.

But this next decision will have York's fingerprints all over it. And that's what has the residents of 49ersland so worried.

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