A Carousel of candidates ends with Erickson
February 13, 2003 at 12:00 AM
The totally unexpected happened this past week as all San Francisco 49er fans huddled together in semi-confusion as to the hiring of current Oregon State head coach and former Seattle Seahawk head coach Dennis Erickson.
It even fooled for the most part ESPN analysts as they tried to stay on the vaporized trail of 49er General Manager Terry Donahue in his quest for the next answer to departed Steve Mariucci.
Certainly if they were fooled and left hanging all of us including myself were left wondering as to who would be the next coming of former legends in Bill Walsh and George Seifert as our new and undisputed leader.
From a list of potential candidates in defensive positioning and expertise to rumors of contacts between Donahue and the college world of coaches the search ended with almost an unknown in Oregon State’s Dennis Erickson.
This was a call exclusively made by General Manager Terry Donahue make no mistake about it as his college roots from UCLA beckoned him to search for the new prospect within his former realm. The purge that left Steve Mariucci unemployed suddenly in Santa Clara had not just ended there but it had touched the ranks of the 49er coaching staff in various ways.
Just one day after Steve Mariucci’s firing his fellow assistant coaches followed suit right out the door, having been contacted by the front office that their contracts would not be tendered several assistants followed their coveted and respected boss right out the door. Of those were special teams coach Bruce DeHaven, linebackers coach Richard Smith, defensive line coach Dwaine Board and wide receivers coach George Stewart.
Many of us including myself looked with a yearning that team consultant Bill Walsh would play a prominent role in the search for our new head coach and help mold the coaching staff within his divine image. But that was the farthest thing from the truth as Bill has practically vacated his office in Santa Clara and has taken on a reduced role in the 49er framework.
Terry Donahue had finally been handed one of the most important decisions of his office and that was to help rectify the damage brought about by San Francisco 49er owner Dr. John York. After firing Steve Mariucci in a dramatic showdown from a phone conversation to a last minute meeting back at headquarters.
Many fans believed and hoped that Walsh would be there to quell the storm that had erupted but Bill picked Terry Donahue to assume his duties just two seasons ago and to this day has professed profound confidence in his abilities.
“It’ll be Terry’s call all the way,” a NFL source close to the 49ers said of the team’s coaching choice. “Bill will push for Dennis Green, but that’s going to be tough. I don’t see that happening. Whoever it will be must have some sort of relationship with Terry. Either he worked for him, coached for him or coached against him. Something like that.”
One thing that was paramount in the minds of this search was to find a candidate that would still adopt the West Coast Offensive philosophy created by none other than Bill Walsh himself. Both Donahue and York reaffirmed that it would have to be a mandate for any head coach that came in here.
“I don’t know if it’s a question of the 49er way, which I think is a good philosophy,” York said, “but we have a good quarterback who clearly has understanding of the West Coast offense and the team is used to it. To deviate from that might be difficult and still expect a run in the playoffs.”
One thing that is for sure is that more than half of the league’s teams have adopted this offense in one form or another. There are many hybrid forms of this offense some are watered down and some are more detailed than others are, but it has been a mainstay in the league for many years and continues to be the success that the 49ers have designed it to be.
“If we hire an offensive head coach, I’d expect that he’d be familiar with that type of offense,” York said. “If we hire a defensive head coach, he will also have a hand in the offense, but we have people on our staff who clearly understand the offense.”
One of the most loyal to former head coach Steve Mariucci was quarterback Jeff Garcia who has had a solid relationship with his head coach almost from the very beginning when Steve Young was pronounced over with football. Even though he was once benched in favor of another he rose to become the leader that Mariucci coveted over a period of rebuilding and repair.
“I think one of the major concerns for me was what sort of options are out there to replace Steve Mariucci?” Garcia said. “If you don’t have a better option, then why is this taking place?”
Jeff has made a six-year commitment to this franchise in a contract he signed right before the 2001 season for $36 million dollars. He also professed to management that he should have a say in the search for the replacement but was never considered as Donahue made clear that this process was his to evaluate and to rectify right from the very outset of the dismissal.
“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.”
One of the greatest relationships ant team in the league must have is the one that is between its head coach and its quarterback. It has been proven time and time again as being a mandatory requirement in achieving any degree of positive advancement towards the goals that you desire.
Jeff Garcia is the quarterback that can take us to that great game in my opinion and even though he faltered towards the end his bond with Dennis Erickson will be one of the highlights of this coming season.
In their search for a candidate before Erickson’s hiring the 49ers claim to have made great overtures to African-American professionals within the NFL ranks in consideration of the head coaching vacancy. It was in many including my own opinion that our next coach would be of this race and with prestigious credentials.
The search seemed to take forever as anxious fans awaited on any kind of word as to the progress, but team owner John York made clear that the search would be a lengthy and detailed one.
“I can’t tell you what the timetable will be,” said York, “but I don’t expect anything to be received before the Super Bowl. We want someone who ca give us the best shot at winning the Super Bowl, and we’re going to look for a coach who is a leader, a motivator, a communicator and, ultimately, a 'ball coach.’”
One of the moves that I thought had been necessary was the release of special team’s coach Bruce DeHaven. Although I have nothing personal against him his failure to make this unit a productive one and one that could deliver a punch when needed was reasons enough for his dismissal.
He spent three seasons with us after a 13-season journey with the Buffalo Bills. His coming to the 49ers was seen as bright spot in a rather dismal unit that never has really delivered for our franchise on a consistent basis.
But he was not tendered a contract and he has now found employment with the Dallas Cowboys as their special teams guru. Others soon followed suit as both ownership and management felt that a selected few were very much expendable after failing to do anything for the franchise to spell anything otherwise.
“I think some of the things, with regards to the assessment of the assistant coaches (were problems),” York said. “But not the players, and not the direction of the offense or defense.”
One of the prime time candidates and a sure shoe in for the job was present defensive coordinator Jim Mora Jr. With no one capable of taking over after Mariucci was fired Jim Mora surfaced as the most likely replacement without going outside the organization. He has been instrumental in rebuilding and molding the 49er defense through some very difficult transitions including this season with ravaging injuries.
Mora was even interviewed by the Carolina Panthers for a defensive coordinator’s position following Jack Del Rio’s hiring as the new Jacksonville Jaguars head coach. Mora comes with some very impressive credentials and has elevated his standing in my eyes as a top-notch coordinator. My opinion on him as becoming a head coach was mixed at first but as the search dragged on I became complacent with naming him as the new head coach.
Many believe that Mora was not picked because of his closeness with Steve Mariucci and believed his philosophies and doctrines would copycat that those of his former head coach in Dr. John York’s eyes. York has been aggressive in ridding the organization of any and all influences that have been related to Steve Mariucci, believing that in order to move forward he would need to eradicate the franchise of his aura.
Candidates that came into mention were 49ers defensive coordinator Jim Mora Jr., Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson and Eagles offensive coordinator Brad Childress. These were the early contenders and all came with considerable NFL experience and expertise, it was believed that the 49ers though would lean towards a defensive coordinator as they felt that it was the area of most need.
Of those four though both Philadelphia coordinators fell out of the race as it dragged onward. Johnson is a brilliant defensive schemer and a proven leader on the sidelines as being very detailed and disciplined his loss disturbed me, as did Childress. Childress is credited with developing Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb and second-string Koy Detmer.
He had considerable NFL experience despite only being a coordinator for only one season. I was also upset to see that possibility end as both of these men used the interest presented to them by the 49ers to sign lucrative extensions of their contracts with Philadelphia.
Romeo Crennel the Patriots defensive coordinator in last year’s Super Bowl was also considered a legitimate contender. He spent time with Cleveland as their coordinator and as a defensive line coach with the New York Jets.
As talks with candidates dragged on though into February Donahue crossed Crennel off the list as an unacceptable candidate following extensive interviewing and cross checks. This was a coordinator I felt would not have been beneficial as to his brief tenure and I believed his success was tainted largely because of Patriots head coach Bill Billichek.
What I must comment on and have a real problem though with is the 49ers offensive performance in 2002. As many of you know many of us including some of the players felt that we were not aggressive enough in this area and I must admit I am one of those subjects in this arena. We resigned offensive coordinator Gregg Knapp as both Donahue and York displayed a surprising vote of confidence in his abilities.
Gregg Knapp was the primary play caller in the 49er offense this past season. Relegate that to the 2001 season when Mariucci called most of the plays and see what the difference was. I am mystified at this vote of confidence when it stands on no such foundation. Mariucci is partly to blame don’t get me wrong in the fact that he should have intervened sooner rather than not at all in critical moments during close games.
Here are the facts folks on the 49er offense in 2002, it was ranked eighth in the NFL on offense. It was tied 13th in scoring and 23rd in red zone efficiency. They have been worse than eighth on offense only twice in the past 20 years. And get this they scored more than 20 points in four quarters only twice in the final nine games of the season.
When you look at this is this what we consider acceptable? I would say no by any means and I am frustrated that the franchise is comfortable with Knapp as a credible play caller and designer considering the statistics that are before them.
One other thing is clearly evident and that was Jeff Garcia’s drop off in production as compared to one season ago. His average yards per attempt were the lowest in history for the starting 49er quarterback.
Other candidates soon followed soon after others had considered staying with their respected franchises having been offered extensions to do so. New York Jets defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell emerged as a top notch contender as he had several interviews with Terry Donahue in consideration for the job.
He was coordinator for the Jets since 2001 and spent three seasons with the Buffalo Bills as its coordinator as well. His expertise there had the Bills near the top of the ladder in overall defense all three seasons he was there. Rumors began spreading that since the search was so lengthy that maybe Bill Walsh could be coaxed back to the sideline but he quickly dispelled those rumors as well.
Other 49er assistants landed contracts that were expelled in defensive line coach Dwaine Board accepting the same position with the Seattle Seahawks. Board coached with the 49ers for 13 straight seasons and played as a defensive end for the team in 1979-88.
Linebacker’s coach Richard Smith also signed on with Seattle but later was enticed to Detroit where Steve Mariucci landed his next head coaching position for much more money and prestige.
2002 Super Bowl Champions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers produced an exciting candidate in their defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. We sought permission to talk to him and were granted that leave, however Tampa Bay quickly came up with a deal that cemented his employment with them because of his proven successes. Once again we had lost out on a proven candidate on defense that would have been in my eyes very exceptional.
At and about the same time as we approached Monte Kiffen, Steve Mariucci was being courted by the Detroit Lions. Lion’s President Matt Millen fired Marty Mornhinweg after a disaster season of 3-13. The Lions also had one of the worst road records in their history under Mornhinweg going 0-16. Millen knowing Mariucci was available obviously sought to make this opening as he had campaigned in the past that he desired Mariucci once he became the top man in the Lions franchise.
Instead not having Mariucci he brought in then available Marty Mornhinweg believing he would be the next best thing. But he didn’t live up to that appeal because of the rebuilding that the team is currently in and the lack of talent he has had to deal with. “It is a results-oriented business,” Mornhinweg said. “I understand that. I’m the first to understand that-now. I’ve been at the very, very top, I’ve been in the middle, and I’ve been at the bottom.”
“Now I find myself in a position where I’m unable to finish the job, and really that is the only disappointing thing,” he said.
Shortly after Mornhinweg was fired, Steve Mariucci accepted the job as head coach with the Detroit Lions at and about $5 million a year for five years. It was a landmark signing as it signaled to the San Francisco 49ers at how coveted Mariucci really was out there on the open market. In fact he was the best head coach available at that time on the wire and fresh off a successful season in bringing his divisional champions to the divisional playoffs.
Again Jeff Garcia praised Mariucci for all that he was to him and thought that the hiring of his former coach couldn’t have come at a better time for him, because it brought him back to his birth roots in Michigan. Mariucci labeled as a “player’s coach,” would bring the right team chemistry to the table and inject a positive image into a franchise suffering from drought in the playoffs.
“In ways, that will be missed. A personality like that isn’t easy to replace,” Garcia said. “Whether we can get somebody in this system that can take us to the next level; Mariucci had done a great job of taking us from the bottom four years ago to a respected competitive team. Having that broken up now is somewhat of a difficult situation.”
Another candidate on defense was introduced into the mix at about the Pro Bowl time in the 49ers contacting Chicago’s defensive coordinator Greg Blache who has been the defensive guru there for four straight years. Blache has had a total of 15 years experience in the league and is considered by many to be of good quality. But as Monte Kiffen dropped out like others before him the search yielded frustration for many players.
“It’s like we don’t even have a plan right now,” said Garcia, who made his third consecutive Pro Bowl appearance at Aloha Stadium. “To me, it’s embarrassing.” “We’re almost pulling names out of a hat right now. I don’t know where we’re going with it.”
Even rumors of former 49er assistant Pete Carroll coming back surfaced as he has been head coach at the University of Southern California for two straight years. The debate on who would come out of the mix with Jim Mora Jr., Ted Cottrell and Greg Blache was heated and had many fans wondering as to the integrity of this lengthy process.
The very next phase of the coaching search centered on what Terry Donahue knows best and that is college football. His desire to include the interviewing of potential college head coaches was relentless and he really had a gut feeling that soothed him better in this area.
“As I stated before, I am very familiar with the college head coaches and expect to turn some of my attention to a limited number of viable candidates in that area as well,” Donahue said.
“The addition of potential candidates from college football along with Greg, Ted and Jim will give us a deep and talented pool from which to choose our next head coach.” College head coaches that drew Donahue’s interest were Washington’s Rick Neuheisel, Ohio State’s Jim Tressel, Notre Dames Tyrone Willingham, Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, Kentucky’s Rich Brooks and Oregon’s Mike Bellotti.
At and about this time the list came down to Blache, Cottrell and Mora all attention and second interviews were conducted on all three. The prognosis in light of this seemed to be indicating that we would name one of these three as our next head coach. Little did I know that the search would turn into such a bizarre twist?
Another rumor spelled out that former Dallas Cowboy head coach Jimmy Johnson should’ve been a leading candidate but his name was never really considered at all and in my opinion counter-productive to the West Coast offense.
The three were eventually narrowed to Cottrell and Mora, as Blache was dismissed form the mix, but contacts were made with Rick Neuheisel of Washington and Bob Stoops of Oklahoma and both went on record as not being very interested. Then in a sudden twist of fate contact was made with Oregon State’s head coach in Dennis Erickson and talks went underway eliminating Jim Mora almost with ease.
Terry Donahue seemed to like how the interviews went with Erickson despite the fact that he struggled to keep the Seattle Seahawks above water in his brief stint in the NFL back in 1995-98. He achieved an overall record of 31-33, which by all standards at the professional circuit is not very impressive. But his successes at the college level were very intricate and his experience coupled with that in the NFL made the move a reasonable one in their hindsight.
Erickson’s best successes have been on the college circuit as he has turned four schools into winners again. Before turning Oregon State’s record around he won national titles at the University of Miami in 1989 and 1991, going 63-9 over six seasons. He also coached at Idaho, Wyoming and Washington State.
What has been a torturous had coaching search has finally come to a close, we as San Francisco 49er fans still look at this move with much skepticism at least I know I do. I am not sold on this new head coach the way Terry Donahue is. I have reservations abundant when I think about the ramifications that could potentially come.
I also have lost tremendous faith in our system to deliver the best and evaluate the best coaches available when some were not even considered and still others we didn’t pursue aggressively enough. It fails me every time that I think about it because I have always been under the impression that the San Francisco 49ers will pull out all the stops in order to acquire anybody.
Yet what I think the whole matter comes down to is the money and the prestige. Two is what matters in that Dr. John York is too tight with the pocket book. You really get what you pay for people and what we went out and attempted to find turned completely sideways in my opinion. I could in the long run be wrong and yes I hope that I am but for now that uneasy feeling in your stomach that you get when you look at Erickson is real folks.
We just do not know what to expect from this guy. I can understand where Terry Donahue is coming from in looking at the element in Dennis Erickson as once being a NFL head coach then turned college, but the reality check is that he hasn’t been successful at the professional level.
Can he be now? The jury will still be out on this one until the wrap-up of the 2003 NFL season for the 49ers. Here we will see for ourselves at just how detailed our front office has been in selecting the right man for the job. We will also find out if Erickson has the ability to be a disciplinarian and to be aggressive with the offense versus staying with a lead and turning it over to our defense.
What about team chemistry will he be able to handle the personalities of Terrell Owens and Jeff Garcia will both become lethal weapons again in this league together as a unit. Will Erickson be able to generate a coaching staff that shows marked improvement over the one’s that have departed and will he keep close tabs on offensive coordinator Gregg Knapp?
It’s so hard to tell if we have done the right thing yet we have to believe in our hearts that the San Francisco image will not be tarnished. We have to hold on to that hope that Erickson will have the teams best interests at heart and he will mesh with all the players by design. Faith is something that is acquired over time and frankly owner Dr. John York has broken that faith in a severe manner this season.
If you want to win for yourself or you want to win for the fans I would be hard pressed to think of what he really is thinking. Money is required for certain things in the way of talent and providing incentives for your players and coaches alike. It seems the buck has really stopped at the very feet of John York, and it only looks like it will get much worse before it gets honestly better.
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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