San Jose Mercury

Coach, not the team, has toughest choices
January 14, 2003
By Mark Purdy
Mercury News Staff Columnist

Gee, bummer. Steve Mariucci and John York seem determined to behave like grown adults over the next two weeks.

Drat. It would be a lot more fun if they brought out the paint guns and began splattering each other with fuchsia watercolors.

Won't happen. In fact, it strikes you that throughout the torrent of words and rumors and speculation regarding Mariucci's future, the most mature people have been Mariucci and York.

That should continue as Mariucci, the 49ers' coach, and York, the team's director, negotiate Mariucci's potential contract extension. The two men are supposed to talk briefly today. But that's only to set up when they are going to sit down for serious discussions.

The prediction here is, when the heavy business does take place, the toughest decisions will be Mariucci's to make -- not York's, as is commonly thought.

Based on conversations and interviews with people closest to the situation, here is the approximate dialogue that will take place:

York: ``Congratulations on a fine season, Steve. You won us our first NFC West title with my wife and I in charge. We appreciate that. You gave us a thrill with the playoff victory over the Giants. We appreciate that. It was an ugly loss at Tampa Bay, but you were coaching a triage unit, not a healthy football team. We appreciate that.''

Mariucci: ``Thanks, John. I appreciate that you appreciate that.''

York: ``And forget this flap over you sitting on the ball at the end of the first half in Tampa. I pride myself on looking at the big picture. I live in Youngstown, so I'm not affected by the talk-show idiots in the Bay Area. I was watching the Raiders-Jets game later, and I noticed that Bill Callahan also sat on the ball just before halftime instead of trying to score. No one said anything, because the Raiders went on to win. That's what it's all about, right? Winning. That's what we want here next season.''

Mariucci: ``I couldn't agree more.''

York: ``Well, our contract says you owe us one more year of coaching. And we owe you $2.25 million for that next year. Right?''

Mariucci: ``Right.''

York: ``Well, we certainly intend to honor our end of the deal. And would you like to discuss a contract extension?''

Mariucci: ``Yes, I would.''

York: ``What did you have in mind?''

Here is where Mariucci must make his first difficult decision. He said Monday that he will be willing to take a little less money to keep coaching the 49ers. The market rate for top-tier NFL coaches is around $4 million per season. Mariucci has a fine record the past two seasons, among the three best in the NFL. But he has never reached a Super Bowl. So he's not a top-tier coach. He's a slight notch below that, just like the team he coaches. Mariucci knows that.

Mariucci: ``Well, I don't want to sound greedy. But my representative and I think that maybe three more years at an average of $3.25 million would work.''

York: ``I respect that. But we were thinking more along the lines of $2.5 million per year. Remember, we have a value-added situation for you here. We've got a proven front office, with Bill Walsh and Terry Donahue. We've drafted players you've helped develop. We have the facilities to help you win. And we have a team we think you could coach to the Super Bowl. There aren't many franchises like this one.''

Mariucci: ``I understand that. But . . . ''

York: ``Of course, if you really think that you are worth more than $2.5 million per year, you're welcome to have your agent check out other teams. But if another team wants to sign you, we'd like a No. 1 and No. 2 draft choice in return.''

(Incidentally, this is why even if the 49ers actually thought Mariucci had to go, York was never going to fire him. Mariucci's contract for 2003 can be used as a bargaining chip with other teams. Why would York throw that away?)

Mariucci: ``Just so I'm clear about this, you don't mind if my agent calls another team?''

York: ``We let you do it last year with Tampa Bay, didn't we? But is that something you really want to do?''

And here is where Mariucci must make his next tough call. Jacksonville has the only appealing coaching vacancy left in the NFL. Does he want to flirt with the Jaguars, whose owner has said he will not give up draft choices for a coach? Let's assume Mariucci realizes it might be a worthwhile risk to coach the 49ers in 2003 under the current deal, then become a free agent next winter when there could be more openings.

Mariucci: ``John, you make a good point. We're building something here. My family likes it here. Assuming we can tweak a few things, including my assistants' salaries, I see no reason I shouldn't stay with the 49ers. But couldn't we talk about a little more money in the extension?''

Now, this is where York gets to make an interesting decision. If Mariucci leaves, York might want a proven replacement, such as Mike Holmgren or Dennis Green. The 49ers would have to pay someone like that at least $3 million. So maybe York does raise his offer a bit. Or maybe not.

York: ``Steve, I'm going to have to think about that. We might be able to get you another half million per year. But if not, you'd still have the option of coaching out your contract for next season, and we can talk again next winter. Let's meet again tomorrow and decide exactly what we'll do. OK?''

Mariucci: ``OK. Is this fun or what?''

And the next day, when York and Mariucci meet, the resolution will be . . . sorry, can't tell you for sure. But if you are doing a pie chart at home, draw it up this way:

Make it 50 percent of the pie that Mariucci returns with a contract extension. Make it 44 percent that Mariucci coaches out his contract for the remaining year. Make it 5 percent that he leaves for another NFL team with the 49ers receiving draft picks or other compensation.

And the other 1 percent? Label it this way: ``You never know.'' Because even though York and Mariucci are determined to keep this civilized, it's still the unpredictable NFL. And you never know when the paint guns might appear out of nowhere.

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