A block from the Cal campus in Berkeley sits a snack shack
called Top Dog, a place where drunks come for late-night
nourishment, intellectuals come for theoretical banter and, last
Friday evening, Steve Mariucci came for his first meal of the
day. Eyes bleary from lack of sleep, pulse racing faster than
Mario Andretti coming out of Turn 3 at Indy, Mariucci, the new
coach of the San Francisco 49ers, wolfed down his kielbasa with
reckless abandon. "How good is this?" asked the man who two days
earlier had suddenly become the Bay Area's most scrutinized
individual. "This is the first meal I've had since ... what day
is today, anyway?" At warp speed, Mariucci answered his own
question after glancing at the front page of a local newspaper,
one bearing his photo underneath the headline WELCOME STEVE--NOW
If Mariucci was still dazed at the end of a week that saw him
leave Cal after a year as its coach and claim one of pro
football's plum positions, he had plenty of company. The abrupt
departure of George Seifert as coach of the San Francisco
49ers--after he had put together the highest winning percentage
(.755) in NFL history, over eight seasons--stunned not just
northern California but the entire football world. Just days
after their team was eliminated from the playoffs by the Green
Bay Packers for the second consecutive year, San Francisco owner
Eddie DeBartolo and president Carmen Policy began plotting the
bold move they hope will restore the franchise to the top of the
NFL heap. Seifert was gone fishing, in Mexico. "It's a roll of
the dice," said DeBartolo, "but you can't stay stagnant."
Depending on which radio call-in show you tuned to at a given
moment, Mariucci's hiring was either a brilliant coup of the
sort that has made the 49ers the league's most successful team
over the past 16 years or a desperate maneuver by a reeling
organization. That debate will be settled on the field, but one
thing is already clear: Mariucci, a 41-year-old whiz kid with
only 12 games of head-coaching experience at any level, is about
to grow up in a hurry.
"I wasn't born yesterday," Mariucci said as he sat at the Top
Dog counter--even if he wasn't entirely sure what day yesterday
was. "People are asking, Does he know what he's getting into?
Yeah, I know. There's an insane amount of pressure, but no, I
haven't felt it yet. This has been a roller-coaster ride I could
never have imagined. Every single emotion there is I've
experienced, a lot of them all at once. I mean, there was no
formal interview--not even a resume sent--and here I am with the
ultimate job in my field."
January 27, 1997
The job opening did not exist when Policy began courting
Mariucci during an informal dinner on Jan. 12, eight days after
the Niners lost to the Packers. But on Jan. 14, DeBartolo and
Policy nudged Seifert out the door because they believed they
had found a coach who resembled two former San Francisco
offensive coordinators who got away--Green Bay coach Mike
Holmgren and Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan. The Niners
brass first offered Mariucci a job as offensive coordinator with
assurances he would be Seifert's successor within two seasons.
Once informed of that, Seifert chose to step down immediately.
Thus was the Mariucci era launched without an apprenticeship.
For an offense that looked lethargic at times over the past two
seasons, the hiring of Mariucci was the equivalent of a double
espresso. The move was well received by most players, especially
those on offense, and cemented the team's intention to stick
with Steve Young, whom Mariucci loves, for at least another
season, rather than anoint Elvis Grbac, who can become an
unrestricted free agent on Feb. 14. Mariucci's brand of West
Coast offense is similar to that of the offense's creator,
former 49ers coach Bill Walsh, meaning that next season San
Francisco is likely to throw more screen passes and feature a
more physical rushing attack. Walsh, who after serving as an
offensive consultant in '96 will move to the front office,
probably with significant power over personnel, calls Mariucci
"bright, articulate, bordering on brilliant and completely
dedicated. He brings tremendous energy and enthusiasm to the
With a backloaded five-year contract that will pay him a
guaranteed $4.125 million, Mariucci should be "allowed to grow
into the job," says Policy. But everything is relative when it
comes to the Niners, who have missed the playoffs only once
since 1982. Consider that Seifert, who won his second Super Bowl
in January '95, was pushed out after going 11-5 and 12-4 the
past two regular seasons. Mariucci, a Holmgren disciple, may
have financial security and the fervent faith of his employers,
but his honeymoon is likely to last about as long as Drew
Barrymore and Jeremy Thomas's.
The hiring of Mariucci was a gamble akin to Dallas Cowboys owner
Jerry Jones's abrupt switch from Jimmy Johnson to Barry Switzer
three years ago, and DeBartolo and Policy seemed energized by
the magnitude of the risk. Sitting in his San Mateo office last
Friday, DeBartolo compared the move to his 1979 hiring of Walsh,
who at that time was coaching Stanford but who went on to lead
the organization to three Super Bowl victories. "Talking with
Steve, I had the same type of feeling as with Bill--just a sense
that he'd be right to lead us," DeBartolo said. "Hell, when I
hired Bill, I only talked to him for 15 or 20 minutes before I
offered him the job."
DeBartolo needed even less convincing this time. Except for a
brief handshake following San Francisco's playoff loss to the
Packers a year ago, when Mariucci was Green Bay's outgoing
quarterbacks coach, DeBartolo had never spoken to Mariucci when
he authorized Policy to present the initial job offer on Jan.
12. But the move had roots that ran deep. When Holmgren, the
Niners' offensive coordinator from 1989 to '91, left to become
the Packers' coach, Seifert campaigned for Mariucci as
Holmgren's successor. Policy ultimately elected to hire
Shanahan; Mariucci followed Holmgren to Green Bay. With the
Packers, Mariucci tutored a trio of future NFL
starters--two-time MVP Brett Favre, Mark Brunell (now with the
Jacksonville Jaguars) and Ty Detmer (now with the Philadelphia
Eagles). Mariucci remains extremely close to Favre, who credits
him with his development into a top-flight passer.
And Seifert? For all his success, he was still a defensive guru
in an organization steeped in Walsh's offense. In January 1996
Walsh was brought in to assist second-year offensive coordinator
Marc Trestman, who'd been hired following Shanahan's move to the
Broncos. Seifert then hurt himself by disregarding Walsh's
input. Says one Niners executive, "As the season wore on, Bill
tried to become more and more involved and would hand Marc plays
during the week and during games. Not one of them was ever run."
DeBartolo says that Seifert embarrassed the organization on two
occasions last season. First, in San Francisco's Oct. 14
showdown at Green Bay, the 49ers had the ball deep in Packers
territory late in the game with the score tied. Instead of
attempting a third-down play that would sustain the drive,
Seifert instructed Grbac to fall down with the ball and set up a
go-ahead field goal. After the ensuing kickoff, Green Bay drove
for a tying field goal, then won the game in overtime. "That was
bothersome to me," DeBartolo says.
The owner was even more bothered by what happened on Dec. 8 at
3Com Park, when San Francisco faced the Carolina Panthers in a
game that ultimately decided the NFC West title. The Niners
talked trash before and during the game, drew six personal fouls
and lost 30-24. The team had a 50th-anniversary banquet the next
night in San Francisco, and the theme of the event was Winning
with Class. Says DeBartolo of his team's boorish behavior
against the Panthers, "If that happens again, I'll open my
mouth. I just won't put up with it. I haven't allowed that stuff
in 20 years, and I'm not about to start."
In the week following the end of the season, DeBartolo had
individual meetings in his office with 20 of his players, some
of whom expressed dissatisfaction with Seifert's leadership.
Unbeknownst to Siefert, while he was in Mexico assessing his
future, Policy was busy wooing Mariucci, whose stock had risen
despite an up-and-down year at Cal. After winning their first
five games, the Golden Bears dropped six of their last seven,
including a 42-38 Aloha Bowl defeat to Navy. Yet by the time
Mariucci and his wife, Gayle, met Carmen and Gail Policy for the
Jan. 12 dinner, he had already rebuffed advances from two
college programs and had attracted interest from the San Diego
Chargers, who were seeking to fill their head-coaching vacancy.
Policy, speaking in hypotheticals, proposed this scenario:
Mariucci would be hired as offensive coordinator and then be
assured of succeeding Seifert, whose contract was up following
the '97 season. Mariucci says he told Policy to seek permission
from Cal athletic director John Kasser to discuss the matter
further, then flew to Southern California on a recruiting trip.
On Jan. 14, when Policy informed Seifert of his offer to
Mariucci, Seifert quit. The two men sat in Policy's office
drinking scotch and negotiating a nice severance package for
Seifert, on top of the $1.7 million he was due to earn in '97.
At nine o'clock that night, Cal defensive coordinator Tom Holmoe
(who last Saturday was named Mariucci's successor) dropped
Mariucci off at Ontario Airport, east of L.A., where Mariucci
had a 9:20 flight to Oakland. Mariucci stopped to call Gayle,
who told him, "Carmen Policy is on the other line; you need to
call him now." When Mariucci called, Policy said, "Steve, things
have changed." Mariucci figured the offer was off; then he heard
Policy say, "George Seifert resigned today. Would you be
interested in our Number 1 job?"
Mariucci's jaw dropped. For several seconds he was silent. Then
he said, "Yes, I'm interested," hung up and ran to catch his
flight. Things moved so fast that the new coach was scooped by
the Santa Rosa Press Democrat's Brian Murphy, who had already
learned of Seifert's resignation. "He knew it before I did,"
Mariucci says. "It was shocking how quickly it all happened."
By the next afternoon Mariucci was meeting in Berkeley with
DeBartolo and Policy, and word was out. Even before the press
conference later that day to announce Seifert's resignation, he
was a hot prospect. Three teams expressed interest in hiring him
as coach, and last Friday Seifert turned down a five-year, $10
million offer from St. Louis Rams president John Shaw. Unless
something amazing comes along--such as an offer from the New
England Patriots if Bill Parcells bolts following the Super
Bowl--Seifert expects to take the year off, as a 49ers employee
serving on the NFL's competition committee.
Mariucci began his 49ers career last Thursday (the team had
agreed to buy out his Cal contract, which had four years
remaining, for $100,000) by entering a press conference with
Walsh at one shoulder and Seifert at the other. Though he hadn't
slept in more than 48 hours, Mariucci exuded the ebullience and
charm that had helped him win over fellow Italian-Americans
Policy and DeBartolo, who joked that "we'll have to have a big
pasta dinner to celebrate soon."
Mariucci is just as comfortable over spaghetti with football
players; his strength lies in his ability to exude authority
while still maintaining a playful edge with his charges. A
mounted photo, taken before last year's Pro Bowl, hung in
Mariucci's Cal office. It shows Young, only days after meeting
Mariucci, riding piggyback on the coach across the Aloha Stadium
As giddy as DeBartolo was over his new hire, he did voice a
startling reservation: "My only concern with Mariucci is whether
he's tough enough to go in and take charge. I think he is."
DeBartolo might be comforted by the following story. During
spring practice at Cal last April, Bears Marc Vera and Steve
Lilly showed up 10 minutes late for a 6 a.m. session. When the
two players explained that Vera's car had broken down, Mariucci
calmly escorted the pair to midfield, where a cot had been set
up, replete with pillow and teddy bear, offered each a Coke and
the morning paper, and insisted the two kick back and enjoy the
sunrise while their teammates ran sprints.
For now, Mariucci is confronted with some difficult decisions,
including which of Seifert's assistants to retain and whom to
hire to replace the fired Trestman and defensive coordinator
Pete Carroll, expected to go elsewhere after being passed over
as Seifert's successor. He also must deal with conflicting
signals being sent out by an organization whose standards may be
unrealistically high. While DeBartolo says the Niners are "in a
rebuilding mode," Policy displays more optimism, saying, "We are
closer to being a Super Bowl contender than we were after the
'93 season, and we are a better team today than we were a year
ago. And we think bringing Steve here was the one way to really
breathe fresh air into the organization and offset the
compulsive ambition and unbelievable demands we put on ourselves."
In other words: Welcome, Steve. Now win.