San Jose Mercury

Mariucci has steered 49ers on right course
January 09, 2003
Ann Killion
Mercury News

When Steve Mariucci walks into Raymond James Stadium on Sunday, sees the pirate ship rocking and the cannons firing, maybe he'll think: ``This little slice of job-secure paradise could have been mine.''

Or maybe he won't. Ever since the 49ers skipped into their locker room with a date in Tampa, Mariucci has deftly avoided that subplot.

But the fact is inescapable: Forty-nine weeks before facing the Buccaneers in the playoffs, Mariucci was considering an offer from the Tampa Bay owners.

``The whole picture is kind of a funny story line,'' center Jeremy Newberry said this week. ``But when it comes down to playing the game it won't mean jack squat.''

Oh, but in 49ersland, everything means jack squat. Every nuance and rumor and suspected betrayal. That this week's opponent is Mariucci's former flirtation -- the team his bosses eagerly gave him permission to pursue -- and that he comes into the game with just one year left on his contract, is intriguing, at the very least.

It could mean a lot more if the 49ers lose, bringing Mariucci's playoff road record to 0-3. The rosy glow of Mariucci's finest hour could fade with a loss, despite the Buccaneers apparent superiority.

In a fair world, vindication should last more than a week. But in six years, Mariucci has learned that life in 49ersland is far from fair.

This week has been one of the better ones for Mariucci and, conversely, a lousy week for his critics. The ``Fire Mariucci'' chorus had died down to a mere whisper. It's hard to mount criticism when a team plays its heart and soul out for a coach and comes back from the dead, reaching deep into a place no one suspected it even had and finds a way to win.

Sunday's performance was clearly a reflection on Mariucci. The 49ers are a young team, but they believed in themselves, were motivated and proud and -- in crunch time -- prepared. What more do you want?

The Mooch haters want more. Then again, so did the Seifert haters. And the Walsh haters. Back in mid-1988, after losing in the first round of the playoffs for three years and struggling to a 6-5 record, Walsh was considered too old, too set in his ways. The critics just didn't have today's babble of sports talk radio to fuel their views. But when Walsh won his third Super Bowl two months later, such quibbles were forgotten.

If we can lift our microscopes from the minutia of third-and-four in Week 10 and look up at the big picture, this might be a fine time to consider what Mariucci has accomplished in his six seasons as head counselor of Camp Super-Bowl-or-Pink-Slip.

1997: He inherited a talented, star-laden team that was getting old. His first game, the 49ers last trip to Tampa, was hellish. Steve Young and Jerry Rice were seriously injured, the latter for most of the season. Mariucci didn't panic, and the team rallied to win the NFC West, losing the NFC championship to reigning Super Bowl champ Green Bay.

1998: Mariucci adjusted the offense to protect Young and a rehabilitating Rice, and the team led the NFL in rushing. The 49ers beat Green Bay in the playoffs, but lost in the next round in Atlanta, after Garrison Hearst suffered a gruesome injury on the game's first play.

1999: Young's career ended and the 49ers fell apart, to 4-12. Mariucci didn't panic.

2000: The 49ers were marginally better at 6-10, but -- thanks to payroll slashing -- resembled a day care center more than an NFL team.

2001: Mariucci's team surpassed all reasonable expectations and finished 12-4. The 49ers drew a trip to Green Bay that -- in the days before Michael Vick -- almost guaranteed a loss.

During that time, the men who hired Mariucci were ousted. The owner was under investigation. For a long time, Mariucci was the lone voice of authority and sanity. An ugly and acrimonious ownership transfer ensued. The man who will haunt all 49ers coaches for eternity -- Walsh -- returned. Seifert couldn't handle that. Mariucci has. He didn't panic. Walsh put in his own general manager, Terry Donahue.

Mariucci's work environment went from one of full support to one of out-and-out chaos to one teeming with unflattering whispers about him.

Through it all, Mariucci kept a smile on his face. He never cracked. He never blew up. One trait seems to drive his critics the most crazy: that he's a nice, sane guy. That he isn't mumbling to himself, huddled in some corner of Camp Super-Bowl-or-Pink-Slip.

He kept his players together, growing a new team. Remember the feud between Terrell Owens and Mariucci that threatened to tear the team apart? It has been a non-issue this year, thanks in large part to Mariucci defusing the tension.

The lack of respect is baffling to those around the league and in the locker room.

``I don't get it,'' Newberry said. ``He's been a winner ever since he got here. You can hold him up against Bill Walsh and George Seifert . . . Mooch doesn't have their Super Bowls, but he's a great coach. The rest of it is up to us, not him.''

The ``us'' isn't as talented as 49ers teams of the past. It's not as talented as this week's opponent, with its superstar defense. But the players believe in themselves.

``I'm proud to be their coach,'' Mariucci said, his voice cracking after Sunday's game. ``They give me their heart and soul every day.''

But if the 49ers lose Sunday, the chorus will start up again. They will want Mariucci's last game to be in the same city as his first. And Mariucci may look wistfully at that pirate ship and all it represents.

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