San Jose Mercury

For wrong reasons, 49ers steal spotlight
January 22, 2003
By Skip Bayless
Mercury News

SAN DIEGO - The 49ers are upstaging the Raiders' Super Bowl roll.

Last week, they knocked the Raiders to the bottom of the page by firing Steve Mariucci. Tuesday, midway through Super Bowl media day, 49ers General Manager Terry Donahue held a telephone conference with reporters to announce interviews with four possible replacements.

One catch, though. And it has nothing to do ``the Catch.''

The 49ers keep making news for the wrong reasons. The reporters gathered here from magazines, networks and major newspapers are whispering and writing about the 49ers because they've turned into a soap opera without a well-thought-out plot. It's as if the 49ers have become what the other Super Bowl team, the Tampa Bay Bucs, used to be.

The Yucks. The mismanaged laughingstocks. The franchise without much of a budget or clue. The 49-Cent-ers?

They just shattered several NFL Management 101 rules. They fired a successful coach without having a superior coach lined up. Now they've rehired offensive coordinator Greg ``Take A'' Knapp before hiring a head coach who might actually want to bring in his own staff.

Maybe, with former coaches Donahue and Bill Walsh overseeing, the 49ers don't need a head coach. Maybe Dr. John York will go Jerry Jones and try to coach from the owner's box. Or maybe this is simply all about slashing budget.

First up to be interviewed: defensive coordinator Jim Mora, whose unit was a disaster this season.

Up next: Three more candidates who'll make 49ers fans feel more like Cincinnati Bengals fans: New England defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, Philadelphia offensive coordinator Brad Childress and Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. Heck, new Bengals coach Marvin Lewis is more intriguing than these guys.

What happened to the organization always portrayed as so classy and clever under former owner Eddie DeBartolo? York, husband of Denise DeBartolo York, is sarcastically referred to by some staffers as ``the First Man.'' More and more national stories make Dr. John's front office look like something out of ``Dr. Strangelove.''

As a front-office source said: ``He can do some strange things.''

York assured reporters all along that he and Mariucci would not talk about the coach's future until a week or two after the season's final game, so their emotions could ``wash out.'' Then York lost his temper and decided to fire Mariucci during a phone conversation the night after the 31-6 loss in Tampa.

Again, I would have fired Mariucci for the same reason the Glazers, who own the Bucs, fired nice-guy Tony Dungy a year ago after his teams made the playoffs four of five seasons, including his last three. The Glazers didn't merely want to reach the NFC title game, as Dungy's 1999 team did. They wanted to win a Super Bowl.

But unlike York, the Glazers had a grand plan. They were going to do whatever it took to talk Bill Parcells out of retirement. He accepted their offer, then backed out. So they went to a spare-no-expense Plan B: Paying Al Davis whatever it took to get Jon Gruden out of his Raiders contract.

Look at them now.

York fired Mariucci for the wrong hair-trigger reason. Now York and Mariucci are slinging mud about which petty misunderstanding set off York. If only York had spoken for Donahue and Walsh by simply saying: ``We just think we can do better than Steve.''

Instead, in an account by perhaps the most respected NFL reporter, Sports Illustrated's Peter King, Mariucci makes York look like a football bozo easily manipulated by Walsh and Donahue. Of the Monday night call from York, Mariucci said: ``I've had crank calls that made more sense.''

Mariucci says Walsh set him up by trying to sell him on a Jacksonville Jaguars job he did not want, then whispering to York that Mariucci was at it again, seeking offers to use as leverage. Mariucci says Donahue baited his agent into a hypothetical request for what amounted to laughably more authority. Mariucci says York, whose budget belt-tightening has been widely publicized, blew up when Mariucci offered to pay for the belt buckles the team had always received for winning the division.

York responds that he decided Mariucci would never quite be in organizational harmony.

Peter King concludes: ``I think there are too many chefs in the 49ers kitchen, from the too-powerful and sometimes meddlesome Walsh, to Donahue, to the quick-tempered York.''

It's increasingly less clear who's choosing the coach. While Donahue has indicated that Dennis Green, a Walsh favorite, is not a candidate, Dr. John told that Green is ``at the top of our shorter list.'' Even with off-field character issues that might not sit well with Denise?

York also raved about New York Jets defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell, who has not impressed East Coast reporters as a strong head-coaching candidate. And in what sounds like a lame attempt to appease fans, York said Mike Holmgren would have been ``a good fit if things hadn't been solidified'' in Seattle.

The Glazers wouldn't have missed that boat, even though Holmgren makes $4.5 million a year.

Maybe Dr. John has a Parcells or a Bill Callahan up his sleeve. Maybe the fiery Mora would make a better leader than coordinator. Maybe, out from under Mariucci's shadow, Knapp will bloom.

Or maybe Walsh will reconsider at age 71 and agree to coach the team for a year or two. During Super Bowl week, that appears to be the only face-saving option for the franchise Walsh helped make famous.

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