As long as he lives, as long as he thrives as a coach and amateur filmmaker, Steve Mariucci will remember the drive. More daunting than the fourth-quarter march that propelled him to his first significant victory as the rookie coach of the San Francisco 49ers—a 17-10 triumph over the Dallas Cowboys at 3Com Park on Sunday—was the 17-mile trip that Mariucci made in his Mercedes two months earlier from his home near San Jose to the Niners' Santa Clara training facility. On the day after San Francisco opened its season with a 13-6 loss to the Buccaneers in Tampa Bay, Mariucci was still shell-shocked from having experienced the most devastating debut since New Coke. The fallout was stunning: Jerry Rice, owner of every significant NFL receiving record, was about to undergo reconstructive knee surgery. Steve Young, a five-time league passing champion and two-time MVP, was reeling from a concussion that put his career in jeopardy; with Young's backup, Jeff Brohm, out because of a fractured finger in his throwing hand, that meant rookie signal-caller Jim Druckenmiller would have to start Game 2.
Mariucci could have used a couple of Percodans—or a pat on the back. Instead, as he drove through San Jose, Mariucci saw motorists shaking their fists at him. One zealous fan even flashed his middle finger. "Let's just say I made sure to lock my doors," Mariucci recalls. "It was scary. I make that drive every day, and now people smile and give me the thumbs-up sign."
When he drove to work this week, in the wake of the 49ers' eighth consecutive victory, Mariucci should have gotten a ticker-tape parade. With an 8-1 record that matches the Denver Broncos' as the league's best and with a dominant defense that has yet to allow a rushing touchdown, Mariucci has the Niners positioned to make a run at their sixth Super Bowl title. Not bad for a guy who was so rattled during his first postgame speech that he practically had an out-of-body experience on that hot afternoon in Tampa. Says Mariucci, "I remember everyone looking right at me—Jerry Rice, [team president] Carmen Policy, the doctors—with expressions that said, All right, Coach, now what are we going to do? It was like a Kodak moment. I don't remember what I said, but I remember thinking, How the heck can make this O.K.?"
That the 42-year-old Mariucci shook off his rocky start is testament to his composure, optimism and sense of humor, not to mention good fortune: The roster he inherited from George Seifert, the coach with the highest winning percentage in modern NFL history, is full of talented and motivated players, and the people who hired Mariucci know a bit about organizational prosperity. Under the guidance of owner Eddie DeBartolo, the 49ers have been at or near the top of the league for 16 years. DeBartolo's previous two coaches during that span, Hall of Famer Bill Walsh and Seifert, endured their share of crises but never experienced so much adversity with so little goodwill in the bank. "I was concerned at first," DeBartolo said last Thursday. "Things were a little shaky. But he responded well, and he's done a great job of relating to our veterans."
Mariucci's players say they were won over by his mixture of enthusiasm and focus in the wake of the disaster in Tampa. With Druckenmiller thrust into the lineup against the Rams in St. Louis, Mariucci asked the defense to carry the Niners. It did, recovering four fumbles in a 15-12 victory. To help compensate for Rice's absence and to take pressure off Young, who returned in Week 3, Mariucci emphasized the running game, and San Francisco now is the top rushing team in the NFC. Most important, Mariucci remained calm. "You always, in some ways, take on the personality of your coach, and some coaches waver in times of crisis," says strong safety Tim McDonald, who intercepted a Troy Aikman pass with 37 seconds remaining to seal Sunday's win. "To see him stand firm meant so much."
The victory over the Rams launched a seven-game spree during which the 49ers won by an average score of 29-12. But because of a scheduling quirk, each of those victories came against NFC West opponents, which is like winning a series of beer-chugging contests against the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The Cowboys, despite their 4-4 record entering Sunday's game, represented the 49ers' first real test since Tampa Bay. (The always enticing matchup received its official stamp as a big game last Thursday when Niners officials, already burdened by a slew of luxury-box schmoozers, denied Farrah Fawcett's request for tickets.)
Since taking over for the distant Seifert, Mariucci has displayed a playful streak that has helped keep the 49ers loose. During San Francisco's bye week in early October, he called for a practice in full pads before allowing the Niners a three-day break. The players wanted a less intense send-off, and a group of veterans that included guard Kevin Gogan and linebacker Gary Plummer interrupted Mariucci during a TV interview and gave him an ultimatum: Either let the team practice without pads or be thrown into the team pool. "We're going in pads," Mariucci said, shortly before getting dunked. Somewhere, the ghost of Vince Lombardi recoiled in disgust.
Mariucci can take a joke, but he can dish out zingers as well. He has become somewhat of an auteur, working feverishly to produce entertaining highlight-clip packages for his players to view on Saturday nights following victories. Everyone is fair game, and so far the easiest target has been Druckenmiller, who missed the 49ers' charter flight to Atlanta on Oct. 17 because he went to the wrong terminal at San Francisco's airport. In homage to the oblivious rookie, the following week's film included clips of Pee-wee Herman, Jeff Spicoli and the grand finale from Liar, Liar, in which Jim Carrey chases a departing aircraft while driving a movable stairway.
Last Saturday's film wasn't quite as uproarious, but it did get two thumbs-up from most of the 49ers, who were amused by comparisons of secondary coach Jim Mora's hairstyle with that of Little Rascals hero Alfalfa. After the film ended, Mariucci told his players, "We're well-prepared, we had a good week of practice, now go out there and have fun. Enjoy every minute."
The first 30 minutes, however, belonged to Dallas. The Cowboys took a 7-0 lead into halftime, at which point San Francisco halfback Garrison Hearst had only five carries. Gogan was, he said later, "salty as hell" and lobbied Mariucci on behalf of the line for more running plays. Though Dallas often brought safeties Brock Marion and Darren Woodson close to the line of scrimmage, the 49ers wore the Cowboys down, as Hearst finished with 104 yards on 22 carries.