The curtain falls on Mariucci era
January 24, 2003 at 12:00 AM
It was right after Wild Card Weekend after the San Francisco 49ers posted a miracle comeback in the second half 24-points down to the New York Giants. That is when the San Francisco 49ers under Steve Mariucci made history the second largest deficit for a comeback by a professional football team to obtain victory. When all was so utterly lost and the end was so near, the San Francisco 49ers regrouped and moved on inspiration to come out victorious 39-38 over the New York Giants in front of their home crowd.
Steve Mariucci had accomplished a milestone in John York’s mind and in Terry Donahue’s and Bill Walsh’s. A milestone to his employment as active head coach of the 49ers that is, based on the notion that he had to somehow improve upon his last exit from the playoffs in 2002 against the Green Bay Packers.
Shortly after this and moving on to face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the divisional playoffs Mariucci knew that the pressure for winning was immense and very critical to securing his job status as head coach of this franchise. Unfortunately the San Francisco 49ers that appeared at Raymond James Stadium that day was a far cry of what had appeared back at Candlestick Park.
The team was again banged and bruised up and had just gone through a momentous and exhausting ordeal in coming back from a 24-point deficit to win. So in reality they were mentally and physically drained in many aspects. Injuries existing already were playing an important factor but facing an even more qualified team such as the Buccaneers magnified those areas. On top of that as the game got underway more critical injuries accord that rendered the team too vulnerable and opened the door for Tampa Bay to exploit the situation.
We lost that game by a resounding margin of 31-6. We were practically eaten alive as the secondary struggled to adapt after losing two starters and turnovers as a result of an overly aggressive and attacking defense took their toll on Jeff Garcia and our offense. It was a game that will be forever burned into my mind, as the ugliness of it all was overwhelming.
Owner John York was expected to have an adverse reaction to the loss as the goal was not met in advancing on to the Championship game for the third round. Mariucci rumors began to spread throughout the sports world that Mariucci was still vulnerable to being terminated because anything less than the Super Bowl would warrant that. I for one totally believed that Mariucci would still be retained, as he was responsible for another winning season and winning the coveted division title at the same time.
But on that Sunday after the game John York addressed the team as a whole and gave everyone every indication that the season was not a bust. Rather the season was meaningful and held real value, which by in far in my eyes was the same that I believed. When you factor in everything that took place this season and the endless array of injuries that devastated it, you have to come to the conclusion that accomplishing what we did was a great accomplishment.
"It was more of an encouraging thing," linebacker Julian Peterson said of owner representative John York’s address. "He never came at us like, 'Y’all stink and "Y’all the worst team in the country.’ He never came at us like that. It was just positive stuff and to look forward to next year.
Remember of where w were at just last season riding a Cinderella season of going 12-4 as a record and defining ourselves as a legitimate contender, to winning our division this season and a winning record of 10-6. Mariucci believe it or not was a main factor in all of that; he directed and guided this team through endless controversy and salary cap hell.
"Three years ago, you guys were all writing that we were written off, that we wouldn’t come out of the grave for years," York said. "We came out last year and we were a shock. This year, we win the western division for the first time in I don’t remember how many years (since 1997), and we win our first playoff game." "If you look at it in a context of where we were, we’ve had a very good year."
The critics and skeptics this season targeted Mariucci all season long with the endless mind games of ripping him up as being ultra conservative and unable to maintain a team with such diverse personalities. But he proved all of them wrong and brought the team despite all of the endless injuries into contention this year and won a division crown at the same time.
Right here as stated you would think that John York was implying that everything is OK. But in reality it still wasn’t as just 24 hours later he would explode in a moment of fury over the phone with Steve Mariucci implying to him it was time to move on. Mariucci had indeed accomplished a lot scoring 11 wins; seven losses, a NFC West title and an amazing comeback from 24-points down to beat their opponents the New York Giants in the playoff opener.
But what became more and more apparent over the course of Mariucci’s six-years as head coach was his relationship with the front office and with John York himself. They’re always seemed to be questions and little digs here and there that presented themselves as problems or dissatisfactions. All of these instances apparently were registered with John York over the tenure of Mariucci’s leadership and recorded away for future reference as if all of his business decisions and matters of handling were being scrutinized in many ways.
York himself defended Mariucci right after the game as questions from the press continued to hound him on the matter of extending his contract. It came to a head when York spoke up against all the negative rhetoric that was being implied that his job security was still very much in question.
"To sit here and throw rocks at the coach after winning a division championship, and winning a playoff game, I think that’s foolish," said owner John York.
The facts speak for themselves, as Steve Mariucci has always been a focus within the successful organization that he represents. Many have come calling on him for his services and he has expressed both flattery and interest to varying degrees. Notre Dame, Stanford and Tampa Bay have expressed interest with Tampa Bay offering the world including a general manager/head coaching position. This was expressed and granted by John York himself in a written statement allowing Mariucci to hold talks with Tampa Bay.
But deep in his soul his heart remained with San Francisco, he wanted to carry on what he had started here regardless of the prestige, power and money involved. Maintaining family and social bonds was much more important to him and he delivered on that with high hopes he would be rewarded for his loyalty.
Little did Mariucci know though that John York would hold this expressed interest in these jobs against him psychologically? Both Cincinnati and Jacksonville later on expressed rising interest in his services as well. But never pursued on those notions only expressed them. The flirtation with other positions with competing franchises angered York into believing that Mariucci was paper thin in maintaining his stature as a head coach right here in San Francisco, that his job was merely just about the money and power.
There has never been a question at least in Steve’s mind that he didn’t want to stay with San Francisco. Certainly many successful coaches in the NFL are looked at by others and sought after for their services. Mariucci happened to draw a great deal of interest from both the college ranks and professional ones as well. But one thing ha always been apparent and that is his desire to remain with the 49ers and have an extension done sooner rather than later.
In the wide world of an owners spectrum you also have to appreciate where York comes from in waiting on an extension as well. He wants to be absolutely sure that Mariucci can deliver a team that has grown and matured into championship caliber material. After all it is an investment you hope will reap rewards for you down the road. No one wants to be the heel of the league much like the Cincinnati Bengals.
One must remember as well that awesome talent surrounded Mariucci. Talent that was assembled specifically for him to use in a quest for the 49ers to reach elite status once again their division and the league itself. Mariucci could not have been as successful as he has without the services of the great front office in this franchise.
With Terry Donahue and Bill Walsh he has been able to survive the salary cap nightmares of 1999-2000 and weather the storm and seek immunity from the wrath of the organization with both these men. All anyone knew was that the 49ers had never experienced such uncompromising adversity as it did in this two-year span. Great credit has to be attributed to Steve Mariucci and his coaching staff for managing through this process with very ideal results.
Steve has made many statements to the fact that his lone desire is to stay in San Francisco, but it was an idea and a hope at best. Even though he flirted with the notion of leaving it shouldn’t have been used against him in the long run. Many believe he used the overtures by others as leverage in future negotiations with York. And you have to understand that would be a bonus on Mariucci’s side if he did in that light. But what was really happening was building animosity between John York and Steve Mariucci without Mariucci really knowing about it.
John York looked at the overtures by other franchises as a way of subtracting from his current success in Mariucci. He looked on at Mariucci as being the in line and never says a word to anyone without my permission kind of coach. York believes in a guideline for a head coach that strictly adheres to pure loyalty to its owner. And if that means snubbing overtures and reaffirming his devotion to the franchise than that’s what had to be done.
"Oftentimes when someone loves being at their place of employment, sometimes you will continue to stay there and say no to someone else because you’re on a mission to accomplish something where you are," Mariucci said. "I think we have a good thing going on here."
Players despite hearing fans rant and rave about Mariucci’s so-called ultra-conservatism stood up for their head coach and defended him in front of the majority. They spoke of a great bond and devotion for their head coach in so many ways, that it reminded you that what goes on along the sideline is not always seen or heard by fans. Steve touched their lives over the course of six-years and instilled in them his ideologies and his principles of the game. They came to love Steve as a part of their own and sought him out when they had problems because Steve always had an open door policy to his players. Even for Terrell Owens when all the controversy was brewing and being aired through the media Mariucci still found the good in all his players.
"There shouldn’t be any question about his future here," 49ers fullback Fred Beasley said. "He’s a great coach and a great guy. He’s been here through thick and thin when we had some down seasons. He’s got us back to where the 49ers used to be. He’s a big piece of the puzzle to get there."
Steve has been criticized openly for not attacking on offense with 50 seconds left in the playoff game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But his view was one that just makes sense in light of the score and the relevance of promoting further unnecessary injury. With just 50 seconds and the score so far out of sight it made little sense in my opinion to bicker that they didn’t mount a strong offensive push in the finality of it all.
The damage had already been sustained in injuries and turnovers; both were the culprits for our devastating loss in this divisional match-up. Quality depth was exposed at its worst measure as back-ups called into action struggled to survive under the onslaught of a determined Tampa Bay horde.
"I said good bye to the players. Certainly they were disappointed in getting beat by Tampa. But I’m proud of the fact that the guys that were injured tried to go. The guys, who were limping around, the offensive line and the secondary, kept fighting and did the best they could," said Mariucci. "We weren’t good enough against a good team in Tampa. They know that. Under healthier circumstances, we may have played them better, but they’re still a heck of a football team. We’re becoming a good football team too, but we still have some work to do. I reiterated to them that our off-season has to be a productive one from getting healthy, to training, to becoming stronger and faster. This is where one team can be different from another."
This is a statement that I found genuine and realistic in looking at our team from a perspective that we did accomplish a lot in this season. We may not have gotten to the main prize but we certainly made known steps towards it this season. Everything in this league comes in measurements and steps not leaps and bounds, because the parity in this league forbids it to do that. Anyone can beat anyone at any given time therefore you must work harder and develop faster in order to get through that small window of opportunity.
The end came quickly following Steve’s farewell address to his team following their playoff loss at Tampa Bay. In fact shortly afterwards Bill Walsh was in contact with Jacksonville’s owner Wayne Weaver as Weaver conveyed his thoughts on Steve Mariucci and his partial interest in Mariucci as a future head coach possibly. The talks never really got to a point where he asked permission to talk to Steve but the relative interest was there. This was seen as just another smokescreen in York’s eyes as Mariucci was using his success’s as bait to establishing a foundation for not only an extension but a raise as well.
The firing came quickly and was deadly as can be, as in a world where everything is serene and peaceful the wrath of war came to bear down on Steve in a tightly twisted phone call placed by owner John York from a far. York blew up at Mariucci in a phone conversation still very misunderstood and highly controversial as both parties blame each other for ignorance of it’s intent and validity of it’s content. The conversation took Steve so much by surprise that he couldn’t contain himself in believing it was actually happening. He knew that shortly after it his position was null and void as York flew in to make it official after the phone call ended.
York cited: "serious philosophical differences" as the cause of their divorce that turned ugly. It was eve mentioned that Steve sought no more money and was even willing to take a salary cut to keep his beloved family in the Bay Area. See Steve is one of those very few that weigh families as the main course in his life regardless of being in a profession that frowns on that.
He wanted so badly to maintain balance and normalcy in his family he was willing to go to great lengths to sacrifice his personal needs to do just that. Much when digesting the cloudiness of the conversation and what York really meant is that power and a desire to be more than a head coach was what broke the camel’s back in his eyes.
When in utter reality Mariucci and his agent were merely making overtures to be of assistance when John McVay Vice President of Personnel retired. McVay aging quickly has made known his desire to finally leave the franchise for the golden retreat of retirement. He does the job so many don’t want to even consider in managing the league’s salary cap and dealing with payroll.
Steve made no intentions of adding McVay’s position to his title but merely to offer assistance of where he could be to help that department when it was made empty. John York misunderstanding Steve’s real intent became enraged with the notion that Steve was asking for more power and influence, and used it as a device to erase Steve from the payroll. But one has to believe that this conversation was orchestrated in some ways, as York had to have more than just one thought on his mind to fire Mariucci.
It had to be a culmination of things that ate at the stomach liner of John York. He really wanted more from his head coach and he wanted undying loyalty, of such a degree that this position was one of 14-caret gold and should be treated that way. Differences and whispers between Mariucci and the front office had more than filled the head on a pin causing animosity to brew and concerns to mount that Mariucci was creating some instability for the franchise.
The 45 minute phone conversation must have seemed like eternity for Steve as he realized the end was near after being interrupted from family time inside his own home. The Jacksonville Jaguars interest in him further complicated Mariucci from winning any solace even though he clearly denied any interest in that position. York had his mind clearly made up when this phone call rang like a burglar in the night crashing through a sliding glass door.
After the phone call he sat down with his wife Gayle and told her to hang on because his life had just been turned totally upside down. The shock and enormity of it all was overwhelming and it didn’t take long for fans and the media to jump on the bandwagon and begin the endless conversations and ask the very pointed questions.
Knowing it was the end and convening with John York later in a 90 minute session that led to his dismissal, Steve Mariucci came out as classy as he came in. He wanted to stay but knew the decision had already been made. Insider’s say that Mariucci offered again and again concessions to York in order to stay on as the head coach in that heated session.
Mariucci still couldn’t grasp the real answer after that session searching deep within his mind at what led to his demise he filtered through this in his logical mind over and over again.
He knew he was leaving the one true home that he fell in love with as both his family and himself found a home in the Bay Area that they relished and embraced. Now he would have to disrupt their lives against his wishes all over again and move on from this point.
Steve was hurried out of the Santa Clara headquarters in a black van with other vehicles behind with his personal belongings. The media was greeted by General Manager Terry Donahue and he served as the puppet to John York as York hid on the second floor and refused to meet with the press besides talking briefly on a speaker phone from upstairs.
This had to be the one thing that bothered me the most, it is one thing to dismiss your coach it is yet another not to face the music and answer questions that you know will be asked and eventually have to answer. John York showed all 49er fans a side we despise and lament over. He showed colors that we thought did not exist in this proud organization and never has been able to rid the radiating light that once shined over former owner Eddie DeBartolo.
Steve Mariucci thanked those responsible for bringing him into this organization, particularly former President Carmen Policy and former owner Eddie DeBartolo. But, Mariucci smiled and reminded everyone what Policy once told him when he was hired back in 1997. "I remember Carmen told me. 'Steve, you’re in for the ride of your life," Mariucci said. "It’s certainly true."
"John wants somebody else to go forward with this football team and that is certainly his prerogative," said Mariucci, who admitted to be taken aback by what transpired this week. "When you sign on the dotted line to be a coach, you know it’s an unstable deal. There are no Joe Paterno deals anymore these days, where you stay and stay. To survive six years, that’s longer than most." "Rather than dwelling on having to do something else, I feel grateful for the years I had."
One of the main points that stick out in conversations between Mariucci and York is that Mariucci felt how heated the conversation became when the Jacksonville interest in his came up. York has held the public interest in his head coach as a sticking point to Mariucci’s dismissal in some sorts almost a grudge so to say that he expects his head coach to shy away from any and all offers of other future possibilities.
The ridiculousness of Steve Mariucci seeking more power especially in assuming John McVay’s position as Vice President of Personnel is absurd. This has been exhausted in my opinion as being a sticking point that reached a boiling point with John York, there has to be the culmination of setbacks and mental images of Mariucci wanting more authority that drove York to do what he did.
Quarterback Jeff Garcia was one of the firsts that rose to the head coaches defense, but all was too late as the decision had already been made and would’ve been made regardless. Jeff and Steve started off on rocky ground in the beginning but eventually their relationship blossomed after the career ending concussion to Steve Young. Jeff and Steve made camera’s zoom in on their conversations and wide mouthed smiles as they conversed on tactics and play calling. It made me remember the many conferences on the 49er sidelines between George Seifert and Steve Young and Bill Walsh and Joe Montana.
Jeff Garcia spilled his guts to KNBR radio in a segment that highlighted his thoughts on the Steve Mariucci dismissal and it’s repercussions to the team as a whole. Jeff wasted no time in expressing his deep regrets as to Steve’s ouster and questioned the integrity and validity of the process by the ownership and it’s management.
"I think one of the major concerns for me was what sort of options are out there to replace coach Mariucci?" Garcia said. "If you don’t have a better option, then why is this taking place?"
What has always been true and will continue to be in this instance is for a quarterback to feel comfortable with their head coach. Jeff felt that over the years with Mariucci and knew where he stood on many issues and strategies as they unfolded. Replacing that magic and getting in sync again will be a challenging process as change always is.
"Because of my relationship and friendship with coach Mariucci, it makes it harder to think about somebody else coming into that job," Garcia said. 'But really I’m not a big fan of some of the options I’ve heard that is out there. That’s going to be the most difficult thing for me, adjusting and adapting to whomever’s hired as head coach."
Jeff even went to the extreme of asking the ownership and management to consider asking the leaders on the team their opinions, but as with any major decision making process that is an afterthought because it holds very little merit in an owners quest for glory.
"I just hope in making this decision to hire a new coach, they consult some of the leaders on this team and really question them and ask them if they’re comfortable playing for this type of gut," Garcia said.
Jeff’s concerns echoed many of the player’s sentiments as the majority of the team signaled their shock and disbelief that Steve was no more. Jeff Garcia made known that keeping the balance of the team intact was vital to the future and that progress already made would not be altered under someone new. His concerns were vivid and realistic as he tried to explain the team’s rise to excellence and it’s journey that needed to continue in order to reach the coveted prize in this league.
"Hopefully, the person who comes in to take over the reigns helps take this team to new levels because it’s already been built up to a position where we better not fall down, we better move forward," he said.
Jeff tried to highlight the outside pressures that fell on Steve Mariucci on a daily basis that he felt contributed to his dismissal. He even spoke boldly as if Steve’s lawyer in a custody hearing as to why he should keep custody of his position. The bond that was developed between the two shined like a diamond as Jeff made known his utter disappointment in the firing of his head coach.
"I think it comes down to too many chiefs, not enough Indians," Garcia said. 'It’s tough for a coach to be in a position that he’s in when you always have a dark cloud over your head, other individuals always looking over your shoulder, always trying to step in."
'It was kind of one of those things, 'Yeah, this is your team but we’re going to step in and speak and talk to the team whenever we feel necessary,’ I think it’s more than a conflict between Dr. York and coach Mariucci. I think it’s something that’s been an issue for the past couple seasons, and it’s something everybody outside the organization can see and recognize. It’s not any secret."
So there you have it my friends, right from the offensive leaders mouth a statement as bold and real as there ever was. Many believe that Bill Walsh masterminded this coup but I beg to differ because it is well known that he knew nothing of the dismissal until 20 minutes before conference time. This was a decision not well planned out or conceived with all it’s possibilities and repercussions to follow. The fallout has been extreme as many fans celebrate Mariucci’s dismissal and so many others are appalled by it. Still others feel it was necessary for Mooch to go but not the way it was handled, here is where all fans agree as to the process that was taken and the actual firing itself.
It should have been more planned such as having extensive discussions between ownership and management. Leaving Terry Donahue and Bill Walsh in the dark did nothing but cast a light on the ignorance of our ownership and complicates our faith that they are looking out for our best interests.
Is ownership serious about moving ahead and making this franchise a champion again? I question that because of these actions and especially with this new budget process that York has ordered to happen immediately. Slashing and cutting expenditures to such a drastic degree that it demoralizes the very employees it employs. What can we expect of it to secure our players futures?
I am worried when I think about it because successful players will demand more money and they will want to be rewarded for their accomplishments and contributions. Will York be willing to spend money to make this team a threat in the league? Or will he snub and look down on players that are successful and need to be rewarded much like he did with a head coach that commanded respect and drew interest from others that noticed.
The views within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.
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