San Jose Mercury

Why Mariucci was fired
January 16, 2003
By Mark Purdy
Mercury News Staff Columnist

It wasn't the money. It wasn't the won-loss record. It wasn't Steve Mariucci's personality. It wasn't even the last 40 seconds of the first half against Tampa Bay.

It was the flow chart.

That's the 49ers' story. And they're sticking to it.

Wednesday morning, Mariucci came to work at the team's headquarters in Santa Clara. By noon, he was just another outplaced Silicon Valley worker.

``Regardless of where we turned, we saw things in different ways,'' said Dr. John York, the husband of 49ers owner Denise DeBartolo and the team's highest ranking executive. ``He saw it one color, and I saw it another color.''

With the 49ers, however, the colors are always bloody and murky. Mariucci became the only NFL head coach with a winning record this season to be fired -- and the first 49ers coach with a winning record to be forced out since George Seifert, the previous coach.

Even so, Wednesday's move was a stun dart that struck the Bay Area's football-obsessed public right between the eyes. Last week, York, the team director, told the Mercury News he was pleased with the 49ers' division title this season and that he expected negotiations to begin soon on a contract extension for Mariucci.

Even after the firing, York said the dismissal wasn't a ``performance issue'' and rather was a matter of Mariucci questioning some elements of the franchise's structure, which features York at the top and General Manager Terry Donahue as Mariucci's immediate supervisor.

Donahue said Mariucci had requested a promotion to team vice president and wanted more involvement in personnel issues. Mariucci told reporters that was not the case; he had never demanded anything and in fact had not even begun to negotiate.

So what happened, really and truly? And why? Let me tell you what I know. Then let me tell you what I believe.

What I know is, Mariucci did want to coach at least the 2003 season with the 49ers, which was the remainder of his contract with the team.

What I know is, Mariucci believed he would not receive top dollar in negotiations with the 49ers and so was willing to work through next season, then take his chances in the coaching marketplace next January or February.

What I know is, York was not nuts about letting Mariucci become a lame-duck coach -- and even less nuts about letting the uncertainty about Mariucci's long-range future continue to fester.

``There's been enough noise around here for the last two years,'' York said. ``It's just too much noise. You can't be doing all this stuff and moving the team along.''

What I know is, York has his own definite ideas about the road that should be taken in ``moving the team along.'' And he wants no distractions on that road. Seifert once famously said the 49ers tended to ``cannibalize'' themselves because the franchise often chews up employees and spits them out. Mariucci's situation was more of a slow and simmering York family barbecue, beginning over a year ago when Mariucci flirted with coaching jobs at Notre Dame (college) and Tampa Bay (pro) before remaining with the 49ers (uh, oh).

What I know is, the erosion turned into a full-scale landslide during a Monday night phone call York made to Mariucci. York was at his home in Youngstown, Ohio, and said he originally dialed up Mariucci to discuss when might be the best time to begin talks on an extension, plus ``a combination of some other things.''

What I know is, at some point during that Monday night phone call, a conversational train wreck took place. After York hung up, he called Donahue around 9:30 p.m. and said, ``I'm going to get on a plane and get out there and resolve this.''

Then, after stewing about it during Tuesday's flight, York resolved to dismiss Mariucci. That is what I know.

Now, let me tell you what I believe.

I believe that during the train-wreck phone call, those flow-chart issues were indeed discussed. Most likely, they involved who would have the final say over assistant coaches and how much say Mariucci might have in positions filled during the draft.

But I believe the topic that sent York's temper flaring was the specter of Mariucci leaving for another NFL position, probably in Jacksonville, but perhaps in Detroit or Green Bay. I believe Mariucci might have brought this up in terms of how much much control he might have elsewhere and how he hoped the 49ers would listen to his ideas for improving front-office procedures.

I don't believe Mariucci demanded to become a team vice president. I do believe that to Mariucci, bringing up those topics was just his informal way of telling York what issues might arise when the real negotiations started. And I believe York took these topics as anything but casual conversation. After going through the business with Tampa Bay last winter, York was steaming at the thought of more such nonsense. That is what I believe.

Wednesday, when I asked York whether another NFL team's coaching vacancy was discussed in the Monday train-wreck call, he answered in the affirmative but downplayed it. York's story is that he met with Mariucci's agent in St. Louis on Dec. 30, before the Rams-49ers game that night.

Mariucci's agent, Gary O'Hagan, had never met York personally and wanted to establish a relationship. But during their visit, O'Hagan allegedly brought up Mariucci's desire to have more influence on team decisions. The next day, York flew to Santa Clara and met with Donahue and team consultant Bill Walsh, among others, to talk about Mariucci's situation.

Whatever occurred in those discussions, combined with whatever occurred during Monday's phone conversation, was enough to make York pull the trigger.

Meanwhile, back to the telephones. Over the next few days, you will hear many names mentioned as Mariucci's successor. But he will be tougher to replace than some think. The next coach had better compile at least a 23-12 record over the next two seasons, because that was Mariucci's record over the last two seasons. Only two other NFL coaches have done better than that -- Andy Reid of Philadelphia and Mike Sherman of Green Bay.

Needless to say, neither of them is available. Mariucci now is. And York is on the clock. With Donahue's help, the doctor will now conduct his own coaching search. The new man will obviously be someone who understands flow charts.

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