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Is Steve Mariucci Too “Collegiate” for the NFL?

Nov 17, 2001 at 12:00 AM


This article is a freelance piece submitted by author Susan Holtzer...

"As admirable as “Mooch's'' apple-pie values are, they sometimes work against him in a cold, cruel NFL. His compassion for those who play and coach pro football rivals -- and sometimes inhibits -- his passion for winning. His heart-on-sleeve belief in good-old-days sportsmanship and honor make it difficult for him to live with Owens and make him better suited for college football.

In the long run, Mariucci would be much happier, say, back at Cal...”
--Skip Bayless, San Jose Mercury-News

This is one of those passive-aggressive, "I-love-him-but" columns that's not worth the bother of deconstructing, except perhaps to contemplate the sort of personality which equates “decent” with “weak.”

It does, however, raise an interesting issue:  Is there a "college coach" personality that is unsuited to the NFL?

In fact, precisely the opposite is true. A man who would make a first-rate college coach is exactly what is needed in today’s free-agent, salary-cap NFL world. To claim otherwise is to misunderstand the skills this new era requires.

Yes of course, the old-fashioned skills also matter -- X's and O's, personnel deployment, player management, and all the other day-to-day elements of NFL life. But in today's NFL, there are other skills that are equally critical. Skills like the following:

TEACHING ROOKIES
Managing the salary cap means playing rookies, period, simply because they come cheaper. No team can field a full roster of experienced players any longer. So a coach who can't teach, and relate to, young players -- who can't bring them up to speed as quickly as possible -- is at a distinct disadvantage. Mariucci's staff has proved in the last two years that they can develop rookie talent as fast as anyone in the league, and do it in job lots besides. From Ahmed Plummer to Eric Johnson, 49er rookies have become pros in record time.

RECRUITING AND RETENTION
Think this only matters in college? Not anymore. Much as the hidebound old-schoolers hate it, free agents are just that -- free to sign anywhere they want. And while some players will simply follow the money, a surprising number consider other elements as well. If you doubt that, ask Mike Brown, in Cincinnati, who couldn’t get the free agents he wanted at any price, because they simply refused to sign with him.

For a lot of years, free agents have come to San Francisco for less money than they could get elsewhere, just as many 49er players have re-upped for less. Some of them came primarily for a shot at a Super Bowl ring; yet even now, in the midst of rebuilding and with vanishingly little spare cash, the 49ers have managed to recruit successfully. Derek Smith, for instance, took less money when he signed with San Francisco than he could have gotten elsewhere.

One reason the 49ers are still attractive to free agents is, quite simply, because they treat their players well. Another is that players see progress being made, they believe the 49ers are on their way back, and they want to be part of it. In sum, the 49ers offer an ambience that appeals to a large number of players. And a team's ambience is always a reflection of the head coach's personality.

MELDING
College teams change every year; they turn over completely every four years. A college coach has to be able to blend newcomers into the existing team, and do it year after year. Nowadays, so does an NFL coach. Old-timers bemoan the lack of consistency on today's teams, but it's a fact of life, and good coaches need to be able to team-build quickly and without stress. A head coach with college coaching skills, the kind of man who understands the year-after-yearness of continual adjustments, is exactly the right man to do this job.

HIGH TOLERANCE FOR CHANGE
If change is a constant in today's NFL, a head coach has to be adaptable. And is there a head coach in the history of the world who's dealt with more cataclysmic change than Steve Mariucci? From Eddie DeBartolo to empty offices to Bill Walsh; from Steve Young to Steve Stenstrom to Jeff Garcia; from 12-4 to 4-12 and back toward respectability. No head coach has ever steered a team through stranger waters.

Adapting to change isn't simply a matter of maneuvering through management upheaval or down years, either. Managing change on the field is crucial. The league is littered with coaches wedded to their own "system," trying to fit square pegs into round holes. Mariucci and his staff have shown themselves expert at using the players they've got to maximum advantage.

Unfortunately for the old-fashioned crowd, nowhere on this list is there a slot for "generating fear in your players," for one very simple reason -- today's players can leave. In the past, coaches held their players hostage. But that ship has sailed, gentlemen, and much as it frosts your buns, it's not coming back.

The poster boy for the "my-way-or-the-highway" devotees is, of course, Bill Parcells. And yes, Parcells has taken more than one mediocre team to levels they might not have reached with another coach. But here's the kicker -- he's had short-term success only. Since the beginning of free agency and the end of the hostage era, Bill Parcells has left scorched earth behind him everywhere he's gone. His teams got one year, or maybe two, and then a chaos of mismanagement and disaffected players. Players who, remember, can leave.

Bill Walsh, and the 49ers as a whole, have always emphasized the long view, building not for the quick fix but for today and tomorrow. Yes, the era of dynasties may be dead; but the era of continuing excellence isn't, necessarily. What Walsh has done is begin to develop a system which may, if used properly, keep the 49ers at least in the hunt on a yearly basis. Walsh still believes you can build through the draft, and after the last two years, is anyone inclined to argue?

But if you plan to build, and rebuild, through the draft on a yearly basis, you need a head coach who can manage rookies on a yearly basis. And if Steve Mariucci has proved nothing else, he's proved he can do that.

Is Steve Mariucci as great a coach as Bill Walsh? Nope. Could Bill Walsh adjust and prosper in the new era? Probably. That's why the sign on his parking space reads "The Genius." But the list of Bill Walshes in the world only has one name on it, and if you're waiting for the next one, you'd probably better lay in a big supply of canned goods and maybe that copy of War and Peace you've been planning to read.

So who are the great coaches?

Head coaches, of course, are held to the same standard as quarterbacks -- especially in San Francisco. That is, until they can stand in the clubhouse drenched in champagne holding that big ugly Super Bowl trophy, they won't get any respect. Steve Mariucci, like Steve Young before him, will never be accepted here until he "wins the big one," and by some people, not even then.

So let's look at the Super Bowl coaches, winners and , in the last ten years and ask: What kind of man makes a successful head coach?

1991: Joe Gibbs
1992: Jimmy Johnson
1993: Jimmy Johnson
1994: George Seifert
1995: Barry Switzer
1996: Mike Holmgren
1997: Mike Shanahan
1998: Mike Shanahan
1999: Dick Vermeil
2000: Brian Billick
<Marv Levy>
<Marv Levy>
<Marv Levy>
<Bobby Ross>
<Bill Cowher>
<Bill Parcells>
<Mike Holmgren>
<Dan Reeves>
<Jeff Fisher>
<Jim Fassel>

The only conclusion one can draw from this list is that there is no conclusion to draw from this list. It contains disciplinarians and "player coaches," quiet men and screamers, the aloof and the emotional, the compulsive and the intellectual, and at least one name that's just plain laugh-out-loud funny (no points for figuring out which one.) Some of them built their own teams, some of them inherited their teams, some of them just plain lucked out.

Most telling of all -- since the full implementation of free agency, none of them has been on the list for more than two years. Some of them have built teams, but none of them has rebuilt their original team, and kept it in the hunt, once that original group dispersed.

Yet that's the critical task organizations have to consider nowadays, if they want to remain among the elite teams beyond a couple of idiosyncratic years. And who better than a “college coach personality” to understand the means of doing that?
The opinions 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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