San Jose Mercury

Holmgren: 49ers can't say his name -- yet
January 16, 2003
Tim Kawakami
Mercury News Staff Columnist

For now, he is the unacknowledged presence, the coaching elephant crouching in the back of the 49ers' war room.

(Mike Holmgren: perennial 49ers favorite but current Seattle Seahawks property.)

He isn't the reason Steve Mariucci was dropped as 49ers coach Wednesday, and his name didn't -- and, by NFL rule, can't -- come up during the explanation of a firing that shocked everyone in the Marie P. DeBartolo Centre.

(Holmgren, Holmgren, Holmgren . . .)

The 49ers will begin by looking in other directions, and certainly they will seriously weigh the candidacies of Dennis Green (twice a 49ers assistant), Bob Stoops, Tyrone Willingham, Rick Neuheisel, Ray Rhodes, Mike Bellotti and several others.

Team director John York emphasized Wednesday that diversity will be part of the process, saying, ``No question, we are going to have viable African-American coaches on the list.''

Green, speaking on ESPN, where he serves as an analyst, said: ``I've always considered myself part of the 49er family. So I've got some interest in that job for a couple of reasons. It's a very attractive job.''

But each of those top-tier names has problems attached. And at this uniquely risky moment in 49ers history, the last thing the club's brass wants is more problems.

Green, however close he is to 49ers godfather Bill Walsh, has well-documented personal issues that the 49ers have historically avoided. Stoops, the Oklahoma coach, probably is too expensive. Willingham has committed to Notre Dame, York's beloved alma mater.

You can add current assistants Jim Mora (lost General Manager Terry Donahue's confidence this season), Greg Knapp (lost quarterback Jeff Garcia's faith) and Ted Tollner (a Garcia favorite) to the interview mix.

But none of these three seems like a guaranteed answer to a team suddenly in desperate need of unquestioned leadership.

So . . . they will keep coming back to Holmgren, drawn by his developing friendship with Donahue, his formidable football IQ, and those two Super Bowl trophies he helped the 49ers win while he was an offensive assistant (1986-91).

All the 49ers have to do is solve this conundrum: If Holmgren is the best man for their job, why would the NFC West rival Seahawks let him leave?

Here's why: The NFL's surprise moratorium on trading draft choices for a coach, put in place Tuesday to end the 49ers' negotiations with Jacksonville over Mariucci's trade value, might help the 49ers' quest for Holmgren.

That's assuming he could get out of his contract after Seattle's decision to strip him of his general manager title. And that Holmgren, a Bay Area native, wants to coach the 49ers and that he wouldn't demand broad personnel powers.

Those assumptions, I have been told, are correct.

If the 49ers couldn't receive draft picks in a Mariucci-to-Jacksonville scenario, does that loosen the restrictions on Holmgren leaving Seattle for the 49ers?

Holmgren's agent is Bob LaMonte, who last year almost had a deal in place that would have set up Jon Gruden as the 49ers coach in 2003 -- just when his Raiders deal was scheduled to expire.

Holmgren makes big money, of course, but the 49ers might be more willing to pay it than is widely assumed.

``I think that that's a wrong assessment,'' York said of the idea that the 49ers will go after low-profile, low-paid, entry-level guys.

York put on the line what little reputation he has with the 49ers faithful by firing Mariucci, and he didn't do it to go 7-9 next season.

What he does want is a football coach. Not a media star. Not a glamour man. Not a palace intriguer.

``We want a `ball' coach,'' Donahue said. ``We want a football coach. Someone who loves football and who wants to coach ball.''

This is where Donahue and Walsh were key players in the thought process. They have always believed that Mariucci showed more passion for burnishing his image than simply lining up and beating the opponent.

The fact that he was at the Winter Olympics while the scouts were preparing for the draft last February was not viewed warmly in headquarters.

Declining to throw the ball a few times to at least regain the 49ers' composure at the end of the first half Sunday in Tampa was not a proud and bold declaration of impending greatness.

When he didn't foresee that asking for more power this week was exactly the wrong thing to do, that ended it for him.

Do you think Mike Holmgren was at the Olympics instead of studying for the draft? Do you think Holmgren would have run out the clock, down 28-6? Do you think Holmgren would have sought executive power when his boss had expressed zero interest in ceding it?

The 49ers know the answers. They know Holmgren is the right man for this nervous moment. They just can't say it yet.

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