San Jose Mercury

Regular guy Cottrell merits some serious consideration
February 06, 2003

By Skip Bayless
Mercury News Staff Columnist

Open your mind to Ted Cottrell.

Give him genuine consideration, as the 49ers appear to be doing. Forget for a moment your dashing images of coaches past. Forget Bill Walsh's white-haired genius and George Seifert's silver-haired cool. Forget Steve Mariucci, blue-eyed boy wonder. Forget West Coast ties and flair.

Cottrell shatters your mold. He's a South Philly guy who has never really worked anywhere but in the East and the AFC. He's 55, has never been a head coach on any level and never played or coached offense. He was a linebacker at Delaware Valley College, played two years for Atlanta and did graduate work while coaching at Rutgers.

He could stand to lose a couple of pounds. He has lost a little hair on top. And, as he said Wednesday evening at 49ers headquarters, his idea of offense is ``to keep the defense off the field.''

Yet if you talk to people around the NFL who know Cottrell, you realize he's by far the most qualified candidate on the announced list to replace Mariucci. New York Jets defensive coordinator Cottrell vs. 49ers coordinator Jim Mora or Chicago Bears coordinator Greg Blache is no contest.

Depending on the availability of college coaches, Cottrell might be the front-runner.

Cottrell is a teacher, a motivator, a game-planner -- a coach's coach. He's as ready as any NFL assistant to be a head coach. By all accounts, after 19 years as an NFL assistant, he's the most qualified minority candidate. 49ers director John York deserves high marks for giving Cottrell a second interview and what Cottrell termed ``a genuine shot.''

As Cottrell recently told the New York media: ``We aren't telling people to hire us. We just want a fair, equal shot and they can go from there.''

Gut feeling: This man would make a fine head coach.

Yet, perhaps myopically, I still view the 49ers' vacancy right up there with Tampa Bay's a year ago. This team had six Pro Bowl players and could have had seven or eight. Obviously, the 49ers could use another cornerback and receiver, but most of all this team needs the spark and vision of a new coach.

The relentlessly cheerful Mooch made losing too comfortable. He and Mora often misused the healthy talent they had. This team is only a couple of players and a shrewd, dynamic head coach away from competing for a Super Bowl.

Yet, as I've said all along, I wouldn't have fired Mariucci unless I had that next-step coach in mind or hand. That man, of course, could have been a well-known minority coach. But that man doesn't appear to be available -- or York isn't offering enough money or control to turn his head or pry him loose.

But could York get lucky with Cottrell? Is he just the whip-cracking defensive demon to take this team over the top? Could he throw the switch the way Jon Gruden did in Tampa? Could he shape up the defense the way Gruden finally was able to make chicken salad of the Bucs' offense?

I honestly don't know. Donahue and York can't know, either. You never know when a coordinator becomes a head coach.

Can he manage the clock? Under pressure, can he make sound decisions on when to punt or go for it or when to go for two? Can he command an entire team and consistently punch the right psychological buttons?

San Diego defensive end Marcellus Wiley, who played for Cottrell at Buffalo, endorsed him last year when he interviewed for the Chargers' vacancy. Wiley said: ``He has a great dynamic between being respected by players and scaring the mess out of his players. He definitely put a pep in my step.''

Music to our ears. But would this old-school disciplinarian win over or completely lose Terrell Owens? Tough question.

Would Cottrell be a better fit for the 49ers than Marvin Lewis would have been? Probably not -- and several sources who know the new Cincinnati Bengals coach say he would have jumped at the 49ers' job. He accepted the Bengals because he had no idea York was going to fire Mariucci. Neither, of course, did York.

The all-time great Baltimore defense coached by Lewis carried the Ravens to a Super Bowl championship. As respected as Cottrell is for the jobs he has done in Buffalo and with the Jets, he hasn't reached the ``star coordinator'' status of Lewis or Monte Kiffin or Buddy Ryan.

Would Cottrell be a better fit than former Stanford and current Notre Dame Coach Tyrone Willingham? Probably not -- but sources in touch with York say Willingham is not an option.

After just one season running a premier college football program, Willingham needs to honor his commitment and try to improve on a late-season collapse that marred a 10-3 year. Under fire for mismanaging the 49ers, York probably shouldn't invite the wrath of his fellow Fighting Irish alums by raiding his school of its coach.

I'm still not convinced Willingham would be a better NFL coach than Mariucci. It's possible Willingham, whose personal magnetism is beyond question, is a better recruiter than strategist. Still, he has this over Cottrell: He has been a head coach on a big stage.

Could Cottrell prove to be better than Mooch? Possibly, not probably. For sure, though, he would shatter the 49ers' mold. The guy from South Philly was wearing an open-collar shirt, slacks -- and cowboy boots.

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