Mariucci all too familiar with ups and downs

Nov 24, 2001 at 12:00 AM

Believe it or not but this may be the season that determines whether we continue with Head Coach Steve Mariucci or not. There are really some fans and silent ones in high places that look at Mariucci as being the person responsible for all the ills and sores the team has endured over the course of his five-year tenure.

Steve Mariucci came to the 49er’s by Bill Walsh’s recommendation to then owner Eddie DeBartolo, it was a dark moment in 49er history as then Head Coach George Seifert was making his exit. After taking the position Mariucci faced a team near the end of a dynasty.
A team built on the foundation of talented but aging veteran players, all in a time when the face of the National Football League was beginning to change. The greatest changes of course were the manipulations of the salary cap, a program that challenges all teams to sign and compete all within a framework of budgets. Opening the door to competition among all teams for prized free agents, even robbing some teams of veteran players that have played fro one team all their lives.

Mariucci saw his darkest hours as a coach in 1999 and 2000, when the dynasty came crashing down, and all the world that all 49er fans had known would be changed forever. The notion of always being a winner went out the door, the process of rebuilding with youth became paramount.
Some still to this day look at him as a scapegoat to why this team was unable to stay together. I am not one of them; I have supported his tenure as head coach from the very beginning. Knowing Bill Walsh chose him was the frosting on the cake that made him complete in my mind.

Then observing all that he was faced with, and what he accomplished in those dark days, only further solidified what I believed in him from the very beginning. That this was the coach this team needed to rebuild with and mature. He has been often referred to as a players coach, well he is. He always has the door open for anyone wanting to talk; he is a family man and a man with deep convictions in both faith and practicality.

Mariucci received two free years by the 49er ownership to clear the deck on the ship and begin steering it into better waters. The 49er’s, age, injury and salary-cap strangulated as they were, have lost 22 of their past 32 games, and everyone around has been very understanding about it, prior to this season.

One particular article in fact is interesting to note, in Pro Football Weekly, which is a magazine populated entirely by people who have no discernable hobby other than football, still list him as the fourth best coach in the NFL. Behind only Mike Shanahan, Mike Holmgren and Jeff Fisher, all of who have been to a Super Bowl in the past four years.

To me this is a determination that holds a lot of merit, I am fully aware that no single person no matter how much of a genius they are can turn a franchise around by themselves.
But I do know that Mariucci is surrounded by probably the greatest personnel in the NFL today. With the likes of General Manager Terry Donahue and consultant Bill Walsh he is in a prime situation to strive for excellence. The rest of the front office is just as impressive.

The way history has dictated a head coach’s stay in the league has been by his winning record, and his ability to get his team all the way into post season. Mariucci knows in the back of his mind that he has been allowed enough freebie seasons to get this team up and going in that direction, he will not be afforded too many of those anymore. The bar of expectations ahs been raised and the front office will expect larger than life results.

Producing a non-contender year in and year out will take a high toll on a head coach in the NFL, the allocated time for turning a team around and making them a winner is a very tight timetable. Owners and general managers have a schedule to go by, and they expect big things faster than they ever used to be. The winning mentality is at a fever pitch especially in this sport being professional football. Losing is out of the question.

“I thought last year was a success, and that’s a real strange thing to say about a 6-10 season,” he said. “But I fully expect us to do better than this year. We knew the 13-3 years were going to be over for a while, and that it was going to be a process getting back. The 4-12 year (in 1999) was part of the process. Going 6-10 was part of the journey. This year, we are getting close to home.”

Mariucci has been most fortunate to have worked for such understanding bosses, anywhere else it might have been a different story, anywhere else he might have been a knot of exposed nerve endings, daily on the verge of dismissal and being routinely savaged by us media geniuses.
So many times’ people are too quick to pass judgment upon one individual that is responsible for so much. Forming and rebuilding a team takes extraordinary insight and profound patience.

“I had people tell me two years ago that we should have gone 0-16, play all young guys and get a high draft pick,” Mariucci said. “But we didn’t do it. We tried to win some games. The players have too much pride, and the wins we got were good for their morale.”

Even though this was a great antibiotic for his players, it was equally as important to Mariucci as well. He plays the game like a kid on the sideline jumping up and down and shouting out encouragement. I remember many times as the cameras would zoom in on him as he was laughing and joking with the players, it made me feel serene in my convictions that he was all about the game and his players.

“The lowest I got was when we lost those eight in a row (in 1999),” he said. “You have to get through it, or you get a little suicidal. I couldn’t get us out of it. I felt helpless.”

Deep down inside though Mariucci feels like he has coached his last 6-10 team as a 49er, he knows that the bar of expectations has been raised and that he has talented bodies in place now for a long time to come. Now he will be judged upon how well he plays the team every Sunday, a well known scale of what all organizations do when grading their closely watched head coaches.

There is no mistake that Mariucci is at the crossroads of his career, he is returning this team to its rightful place in the league. The journey is not yet over, nor are the mistakes and barriers that will be there still to hinder forward progress.
After all we are a $47 million dollar team rather than a $67 million dollar one which is the difference between the money the team is spending on this year’s roster and its salary-cap figure.

Mariucci as optimistic as he tries to be was quick to respond though, as he believes they still have a legitimate shot, and they have done remarkably well so far. Mariucci says, “That doesn’t mean you can’t win with a $47 million payroll. It doesn’t mean you can’t compete. Next year, it won’t be nearly as bad. We have a lot of good guys in place who are at the start of their careers, and that’s what you want.”

The youth movement has been a huge success so far, although unpopular with many fans, the real impact of doing this has been a necessity that the 49er’s have had to deal with, in molding their new image.
The reluctant off-season departures of Jerry Rice and Ken Norton and the front office transition in which Terry Donahue succeeded Bill Walsh as general manager represent the final elements of a radical face-lift in the making.

Watching this change in the off-season was an experience in itself, you have to be a real 49er fan to grasp the enormity of what was happening.
Seeing all time greats such as 16-year veteran wide receiver Jerry Rice depart to the hated Raiders across the Bay was rough as was the axing of great players such as Ken Norton and Winfred Tubbs. It was an uneasy feeling throughout this process.

Contemplating the change of leadership also was an experience for fans, as Bill Walsh the architect of this glorious dynasty stepped down and allowed his pupil Terry Donahue to assume command.
This was a reassuring sign though as Walsh went great lengths to assure all of us that Terry would run the organization almost within the same image as he had done so far. And the mere fact Bill Walsh would still retain an office at San Francisco 49er headquarters as a consultant was equally assuring in itself.

“There has been sort of a purge,” said guard Ray Brown, 38, who succeeded Rice as the oldest player on the 49er roster. “It’s a new generation. Now, it’s the Ahmed Plummers, the Jason Webster's, the Andre Carters and the Julian Petersons. Those guys are the building blocks for what’s going to happen with this team over the next 10 years, I believe. Now, it’s just the guys we have here. But we’re all being counted on and there is no excuse. We’ve got to play with what we got.”

In another historical fact that happened back in the off-season was the departure of offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, he left as the head coach for the Detroit Lions. Greg Knapp then quarterbacks coach moved up to fill that void. Back in the off-season Mornhinweg did something that amused all the 49er’s back in training camp including Steve Mariucci.

Word had spread through camp at the University of the Pacific that Mornhinweg had abruptly ended the Lion’s afternoon workout at Saginaw Valley State after a staff cell phone went off shortly after the start of the afternoon practice session and left the team’s training camp on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Like the 49er’s, the Lions forbid the use of cell phones during training sessions.

However it was much more than that when fully disclosed, Mornhinweg was clearly enraged at his newly acquired team, and all the challenges that came with it. He was incensed by his team’s lackluster effort during the training session and said he felt he needed to get their attention, which he certainly did with his exit.

“They just weren’t ready to practice,” Mornhinweg said as he climbed aboard his motorcycle. “That’s it.” With that, he sped off, leaving his team on the practice field.

The sudden exit tickled head coach Steve Mariucci back in his training camp, knowing how Mornhinweg operates and conducts himself as a coach; Mariucci was doubled over in humor at the incident involving his former offensive coordinator.

“I like the exit on the motorcycle,” Mariucci said. They called Marty later that week to tease him about the incident. When asked if he thought Mornhinweg’s actions were too severe and were they orchestrated Mariucci was quick to give a point of view.

“Some of that can be planned. There are times when you have to make a point. But we have to remember you’re going to be in this for the long haul.”

“I’ve never had this happen to me in 11 years in the league,” Lions cornerback Robert Bailey said. “It’s like a young child being sent to his room, waiting for his dad to come home. You never want to let your head coach down, especially with the off day around the corner.”

So is the antic’s of Marty Mornhinweg, I was also doubled over in humor when I first read this press release, but at the same time I can understand his point and what he was trying to prove to this team.
So far this season Marty has struggled to gain this team’s identity, they played the 49er’s already and lost. The Lion’s are a team in need of a vast overhaul, so Mornhinweg will have his plate full for a long time, in similar fashion to what Mariucci has already been attributed to.

Head Coach Steve Mariucci is also a believer in keeping his players healthy by restricting what they do during practice, being in the position they are with little depth in each area this is probably a good thing when considered.

Like most of the 49er coaches before him he refuses to let his offensive players “cut” defenders during practice. The cut block is when a blocker cuts the legs out from a defender.

The maneuver sometimes can cause leg injuries, and the 49er’s only practice cutting with dummies during training camp. It means the only way an offense can practice performing or evading cut blocks is during exhibition games and regular season games, which in essence means the 49er’s are often behind other teams on blocking and tackling when the season begins.

“There is a trade-off,” Mariucci said. “The way I look at it, we are butted against the salary cap. If you get six guys hurt, that means you don’t have those six guys.” “Health and well being is No. 1,” Mariucci said. “Hopefully for the long run, it’s beneficial.”

The future holds some great promise so far as the 49er’s experience one success after another this season, but there is still so much left to work on. What is so special about Mariucci is his excitement over the season and what he expects to happen.

“What we need to find out as coaches,” Mariucci said, “Is who will be the 49er’s in the coming years. Yes, we need to put a team in place that can win this year, but we’ve got to find the guys who will be keepers, let them get it together, let them start playing together and for a long period of time.”

“Hopefully we can win more games than we did last year, but it’s important for the 49er’s who are going to be here for a while. Our team is so young that the people we keep will be under contract for a while. So the guys we play this year we’ve got to project as the guys we’ll be playing as future guys, too.”

We’ll already we have surpassed the total wins we had last year, with a 7-2 record we are positioning ourselves for a potential playoff run, and Mariucci could not be happier.
The 49er’s remember were 6-10 in 2000 after going 4-12 in 1999. Consecutive losing seasons after 16 straight winning seasons, 16 seasons in which they never had fewer than 10 victories. And then two in a row with just a combined 10 victories was very rough to swallow, but swallow we did and moving on we are.

Dealing with the salary cap mess has been a nightmare at times for Steve Mariucci but one he has accepted as part of the overall routine.
When all hell hit in 1999 the 49er’s still had a clear plan in place and knew exactly where they had to go to get better. The front office and the coaching staff stood firm in the face of adversity.

“We never said, 'We’re going to write off this season,” 49er’s vice president/director of operations John McVay said. “We felt we could still win. We’ve been so young and so inexperienced on defense, and we were going to play those kids no matter what. Really, we had no other choice.”

When the 1999 season came to an end the organization immediately went into the overhaul mode. With Bill Walsh and Terry Donahue steering the ship, It was more than in good hands.
We went 6-10 in 2000 and we did it by starting eight rookies on defense at one time or another, this is the prime reason why the defense has grown into such a force now, pure game experience has molded these rookies into playmakers.

What was so frustrating was the fact that there was no blueprint on how to deal with coping with the salary cap problems the 49er’s were faced with. They were forced three years ago to begin dealing with the credit card spending of the previous regime.
Dallas, Jacksonville and Washington among others, must somehow determine in the near future if they want to follow the same path that appears to be working well for the 49er’s.

What I have seen so often is the ignorance some of these organizations expose themselves to, being very close minded in believing that they do not have to rebuild but throw in a few key free agents and be better.
They avoid and cover up the real theory that their team needs to be gutted and injected with youth. This is the way of the future; this is what the salary cap dictates to us and changes the way the game is played.

“When I came back (in October 1998), we said it would take at least three years to get out of this mess,” McVay said. “We knew we had to draft a defense and find a quarterback. We didn’t anticipate losing Steve (Young). That really hurt the team emotionally.”

The front office sat down to figure out what needed to be done, and came up with a long term plan in which they parted with many of their veteran defensive players as they trimmed their cap expenses. The 49er’s have has cap overruns of more than $20 million, $16 million and $14million the last three off-seasons.

Before there was a salary cap in the league the 49er’s were one of many organizations that thought nothing of going out and buying the best athlete on the market. They were able to do that with the free flowing cash former owner Eddie DeBartolo dished out as he was involved heavily in day to day decisions with the team during it’s glory years. All of a sudden that spending spree came to a halt.

“It’s like a control burn;” 49er’s Coach Steve Mariucci said. “It’s been planned and very well thought out. We are in the third year of a control burn and we’re right on track.”

With this season the 49er’s will use $14.5 million of their $67.4 million salary cap will be used on players no longer with the team. It can be compared to a college program playing with fewer scholarships. But next year, the 49er’s cap situation should be at least manageable again.

We can all breath a sigh of relief after the season, at least in cap relief, because we will probably be able to sign contract extensions to already valuable players up for free agency. And do some extensions, as well, finding and signing some other key free agents may actually be an option after this season.

“We were sailing into uncharted waters,” Mariucci said. “This is all new. We were the first to get into this situation, so we looked at it from every angle. I think most of the league is hoping we stay down for a long time. They probably want to see us lose for as many years as we were winning. But that’s not going to happen.”

“We’ve been down for a couple years, but we’re methodically building back up. It was a well thought plan. It takes a little luck and drafting a lot of young players who can play immediately. The entire league is watching to see how it turns out.”

I think that it has already turned over some very positive results, almost all of our draft picks have been able to contribute right away.
The exception being probably defensive tackle Reggie McGrew, but overall we have done very well, mostly in part because of the great scouting department and the drafting genius of both Walsh and Donahue.

“Bill Walsh has a real good feel of when to let players go,” said Bill McPherson, who served 20 years as a 49er’s coach and now works as the team’s director of pro personnel.

“We knew we were going to take some hits on the salary cap and with the experience on the defense, but we were building a new defense with young guys. You pick young guys and you play them. That’s been our philosophy. Everyone hates to lose, but it’s not as bad if you’re improving as the season progresses and the young players show they have the ability you thought they had when you drafted them.”

The pressures that come with every head coach is extenuating to say the least, but all the situations and circumstances that Steve Mariucci has been faced with, have by far been out of his general control.
The front office including new owners Denise DeBartolo and her husband John York are in compliance with that notion, and have finally left all football matters up to their new President Peter Harris and General Manager Terry Donahue and still present consultant Bill Walsh. All of them back and support Mariucci with words of praise.

The standard that Mariucci must now meet is individual and team development, for this year at least. “We have to continue to develop the young players, and players who have been around a little longer, too, like Jeremy Newberry,” Mariucci said. “We have to develop unity. The offensive unit has to be together, and the defensive unit and special teams. Then, we’ll start to win consistently.”

Optimism still runs high as Mariucci prepares this team every week to play like playoff contenders, the air is filled with the words about being winners, and the atmosphere is always positive always focused on winning and never relinquishing to losing.
This is what set the 49er’s apart from so many other organizations. It takes great head coaches to sustain this mentality this philosophy, and Steve Mariucci continues to hold that baton high.

“Our draft picks all played last year, so they came along faster than rookies normally do,” Mariucci said. “If a player sits, he’s still basically a rookie his second-year. That’s largely true of Tim Rattay who didn’t get a chance to play last year, but our other guys all did.”

Another challenge that came to the 49er’s and Steve Mariucci was the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11th, in which the World Trade Center was leveled and the Pentagon attacked. Another plane crashed in Pennsylvania after the passengers charged in a last ditch effort to save themselves.

The magnitude this had on all the nation and on the NFL was enormous to say the least, many handled it in their own personal way, the 49er’s did just that and contributed in their own way.
The NFL suspended the week’s games in light of the tragedy, allowing the 49er’s to go and be with their families in this time of national grieving.

After several days of debating among owners in the NFL and the league management itself the cancellation of games came rather quickly. Mariucci when asked what he thought of the cancellation of games acknowledged while sitting in the stands at his oldest son’s high school football game, received a new insight on where the place of sports stood in the wake of such a grave American tragedy.

While he was observing his son’s game he focused on what was so very important to him, knowing as did many Americans the treasure that life really is, and to enjoy each and every day like it was your last.

"It was (a good escape). If you were into the game and intently watching, it really put your mind on something else for a little while,” said Mariucci, who described a lengthy pre-game ceremony that included the national anthem, “America the Beautiful” and a moment of silence.

Mariucci was very happy that the NFL did the right decision and was straightforward in saying that the league made the right choice, choosing not to play football in this time of crisis. A time where every player was in shock and needed to be with their families in this this time of pain.

“There’s an American way of doing things,” the coach said. “How we live our lives. What we do with our recreation time. How we work, how we play. There’s a certain lifestyle we’re accustomed to. Maybe its called freedom. And we’ve all come to enjoy it.”

Many players on that tragic day went and spent time with their families to reflect on this horrible ordeal. Veteran Guard Ray Brown spent a quiet day at home with his wife and daughters.
Fullback Fred Beasley spent part of a weekend strolling through a shopping mall with his young son and wife before having to put them on a plane for home, and Coach Steve Mariucci went to a church picnic.

The changes that followed were manifested by the horrific tragedy as security everywhere was doubled and even tripled in most places especially all airports. When Beasley took his wife, Jackie, and 3-year-old son, Frederick Jr., to San Jose International Airport he noticed the changes immediately.

“It’s totally different now,” Beasley said. “They had police everywhere, outside the terminal, inside the terminal and at the security checkpoint. And I caught myself looking over my shoulder at everyone.”

Mariucci was right on when he said that the process for healing would take time, time that would even transcend into the regular season as game after game was played. Times of reflection would continue to filter in to most players that kept up to date on current events.

“It’s going to be a gradual thing,” he said. “It’s not going to be immediate at all, even if we are playing games.” And that was most evident when you watched the pre-game ceremonies of many games the 49er’s were in. Many 49er players cried and wept when the national anthem was played, it was a time in history, even in football that I will never forget.

Many security measures have been taken, and continue to be taken at 3-Com Park in wake of the terrorist attacks. The 49er’s immediately petitioned the Federal Aviation Administration to restrict the airspace in the vicinity of the stadium. 3-Com Park is now under 24-hour surveillance by 49er’s security personnel.

In the hours before a game on Sunday, police and security personnel will sweep through the stadium to make sure it’s safe before allowing ticket holders to enter, President Peter Harris said.
Fans also are urged to get to the park about an hour earlier then they normally would to allow time to clear stadium security checkpoints.

No one seemed to care about the delay it created after the tragedies, most Americans were pleased to see the 49er’s take such a dramatic stand in caring for everyone’s security and well being. This was the normal assumption most people had when standing in line waiting to get into a NFL stadium.

49er’s President Peter Harris said there will be heightened police and security presence in and around the stadium to make sure it’s safe. And, in keeping with new NFL recommendations, coolers, backpacks, fanny packs and large purses will be banned.

Small purse-size coolers will be subject to search, and some fans could be subject to pat-down searches when entering the stadium.

The overwhelming reality of all of this hit the nation like a sledgehammer, it continues to do just that as the war in Afghanistan continues to wear on. We have all been better Americans by this horrific act; I have seen great bonding going on between neighbors and people that never reached out before are now doing so.
Families that were separated are now as one. Hate has turned into love, this is what the meaning of America is all about and I am proud to be one.

Coach Steve Mariucci said he and his players are making a conscious effort to avoid using war metaphors in discussing football.
“It’s interesting how we in sports have used those cliches before: “That’s a guy I want to go in the foxhole with. If I go to war, that’s a guy I want on my side.”
“Some of those cliches are meant in a good way. Football is not war. Never was, never will be. Gettysburg and Omaha Beach and Pork Chop Hill and Kosovo and Auschwitz, that’s war. This is a game. This is football. It’s a violent game. But it’s not war.”

Shortly after the NFL cancelled the weekend games, Mariucci cancelled practice and engineered an organization-wide blood drive. Less than two hors later, nearly 100 players, coaches and administration staff loaded into two hastily rented buses and took a trip up Highway 101 from their Santa Clara offices to the Blood Center of the Pacific.

Seventy pints of blood later, the team returned to the South Bay, secure in knowing that they were able to do something for the victims of terrorism on the East Coast.

This drive was unbelievable in my eyes; it was a great humanitarian effort by the entire organization, one that will live with me for a long time.
The players were remarkable in their will to make a difference, and head coach Steve Mariucci was a saint in trying to foster a difference make a statement that the 49er’s cared.

“I think it’s an awesome thing,” said Brett Maxie, 49er’s assistant secondary coach. “I think it’s a beautiful thing, all the support that we’re trying to give to the people who were affected.”

Charles W.W. Jezycki, the administrative director of the center, which has 12 blood-drawing stations, said workers from a number of blood banks in San Francisco were summoned to Burlingame once 49er officials called to inform them that several busloads of donors were en route to the facility.

All told, about 69 players, coaches and front office personnel donated blood, which ended up being a three-hour process.
“To us, it’s a fantastic show of support from people taking time away from their profession,” Jezycki said. “I think it’s a fantastic example for the rest of the sporting world and the rest of the community.”

I close this article with focus on what Head Coach Steve Mariucci means to us, he has his faults, as do so many others. But I am convinced he has this team’s heart and soul in the right light, he wants to take this team to the next level.
Lord knows he has made a profound difference on many a player’s life so far. He has great insight and remarkable vision for this team, and he is my choice for a long time to come.

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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