San Jose Mercury

49ers' search gains speed, turns toward college ranks
February 06, 2003

By Tim Kawakami
Mercury News Staff Columnist

The second and final phase of the 49ers' long coaching search kicked off Wednesday with a vastly different feel from the mixed-signals, snail's-pace Phase 1:

Bigger names, faster recommendations, fewer delays, the end in sight. Same high stakes, of course.

Once Wednesday's college-signing day passed, 49ers General Manager Terry Donahue quickly circled Oregon's Mike Bellotti, Oregon State's Dennis Erickson and Washington's Rick Neuheisel as prime contenders.

Donahue, back in the Bay Area after conducting his first interviews at his Newport Beach home, also considered, but apparently received relatively little interest from Oklahoma's Bob Stoops and Ohio State's Jim Tressel.

All in one day. A pretty busy day, eh? That's about one-twentieth of the time it took Donahue to whittle the list of NFL assistant candidates to three -- the 49ers' Jim Mora, the New York Jets' Ted Cottrell and Chicago's Greg Blache, all defensive coordinators.

The speed and assuredness of Donahue's college foray shouldn't be a huge surprise, though it varies wildly from Phase 1, which failed to electrify those eager to see a replacement for Steve Mariucci, fired Jan. 15 and hired Tuesday by the Detroit Lions.

Donahue, a longtime UCLA coach and former CBS college analyst, is beginning only his fifth NFL season, and many of his closest contacts remain within the college ranks.

He still thinks like a college coach: He patiently waited until after the signing day because he knew how NFL rumors could wreck a college recruiting class.

Meanwhile, Phase 1 ambles toward conclusion:

Cottrell met with team director John York on Wednesday; Cottrell, Mora and Blache have earned Donahue's blessing and are still candidates, pending York's final say, team sources said.

If York is wowed by any of the three NFL assistants in his one-on-one meetings, any of them could be hired by this weekend.

But York probably will hold off on a hiring until meeting the strongest college candidates, and the 49ers' timetable could stretch until late next week.

The team sources emphasized that the three Pacific-10 Conference coaches -- who might be joined as a finalist by one or two other college coaches -- have strong winning backgrounds and chemistry with Donahue, who coached at UCLA from 1976 to 1995.

Bellotti was in his first year at Oregon when Donahue was in his last at UCLA; Neuheisel played for, then coached under Donahue; and Donahue coached against Erickson when Erickson was at Washington State.

Erickson also won the 1991 national title with the University of Miami and was 31-33 with the Seattle Seahawks in 1995-98 before he was replaced by Mike Holmgren, who had been the 49ers' top choice to replace Mariucci. (Holmgren has tallied the same 31-33 record through four seasons in Seattle.)

A sidelight: A handful of sources, including another team's top executive, told me they believed that Donahue's Plan B scenario, after Holmgren, was to make a hard run at Notre Dame Coach Tyrone Willingham, whom Donahue admired during Willingham's Stanford tenure.

It's unclear if Willingham would contemplate bolting Notre Dame after only one big year. He probably wouldn't.

Willingham is making big money with the Fighting Irish, has a chance to win a national title or two in the next four seasons, and could handpick an NFL job when he felt his effort at Notre Dame was complete.

But whether or not Willingham would've listened, the sources said that York, a major Notre Dame donor, told Donahue that he cared too deeply for his alma mater and for what Willingham is accomplishing there to launch a bid to pull him away now.

If Willingham were still at Stanford -- if Notre Dame's initial pick last year, George O'Leary, hadn't lied on his résumé -- every person I talked to said that Willingham would be the 49ers' first choice.

Another sidelight: Stoops and Tressel, who both have Youngstown, Ohio, connections (York's hometown), might be among several top-line candidates who dropped out of consideration because they were leery of the situation and the abrupt way Mariucci's firing was handled.

Stoops, who is from Youngstown, and Tressel, who won multiple Division II national titles at Youngstown State, might not have rushed to join a hierarchy that includes the volatile York and two strong-willed former coaches: consultant Bill Walsh and Donahue.

Obviously, Donahue's doing the search, but what is Walsh's role? Will he continue to be a large presence at team headquarters? Will even the most proven coach be forced to run the offense Walsh's way and draft his kinds of offensive players?

Good questions . . .

Questions that several top candidates apparently have wondered aloud while declining to pursue the 49ers job, and questions that may weigh heavily on this franchise for many more days, months and years.

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