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The Two-Week period that preceded Super Bowl Sunday should have been a happy time for the NFC champion San Francisco 49ers. But while the Niners were taking dead aim at an unprecedented fifth Super Bowl title, the men who run the team permitted themselves little time to savor their success. Instead, they were trying to figure out how to prevent cornerback Deion Sanders and offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan—two key components of the franchise—from jumping ship.
Two clubs in search of a coach, the Denver Broncos and the Philadelphia Eagles, were set to interview Shanahan in the days immediately following the game. Meanwhile, the San Francisco higher-ups were devising a proposal—which they hoped current coach George Seifert would bless—that might keep Shanahan in the fold. As for Sanders, having realized his dream of winning a Super Bowl ring, he was headed for the free-agent market, and there was no guarantee that the Niners would be able to re-sign him. In fact, a midweek yelling match with wide receiver Jerry Rice may have helped push Sanders out the door.
Two years ago Shanahan turned down an offer to coach the Broncos and stayed with the 49ers. He believed that the deal being offered by Denver at that time would not have given him sufficient control over football operations, and that he would be better off in San Francisco, where his $400,000 annual salary makes him the league's highest-paid assistant. Yet this time around, the 49ers knew that both the Broncos and the Eagles would offer Shanahan considerable power, as well as a ton of money. So Niner owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. and president Carmen Policy came up with a plan: They would offer Shanahan a hefty raise over the next two seasons and a guaranteed contract to become the 49ers' head coach beginning in 1997. Seifert would be offered a contract extension but would be asked to step aside after the '96 season in return for either a front-office position or a sweet buyout. Less than two hours after the Super Bowl, Policy was discussing the deal with Seifert.
At the 49er victory party in the wee hours of Monday morning, Shanahan said that he would consider such an offer only if Seifert were enthusiastic about the idea. "Otherwise, "Shanahan said, "it's just not worth it."
Though Seifert is the alltime leader in winning percentage (.778) among active NFL coaches, he probably would have been asked to resign immediately had the 49ers lost to the Chargers. "By winning, he earned the right to be treated fairly." Policy said early Monday. "If he hadn't won, he might have been treated with a standard which most people would consider unfair but which is fair game around here, considering the expectation level." During the week Niner players and front-office personnel made no secret of their conviction that while Seifert did a superb job this season, Shanahan would be far more difficult to replace.
The Niners don't want to lose Sanders either, though during the week his celebrated hang-loose attitude got him into hot water with elder statesman Rice. Last Thursday, Rice and Sanders had an angry confrontation over the curfew violations committed by several 49ers the previous evening. Rice, who had successfully lobbied Seifert to lift the curfew on Sunday and Monday, told his teammates that they had let him down by partying late on Wednesday and that they were not behaving like champions. Sanders objected to Rice's lecture, and a heated discussion ensued. That argument spilled over into a later dispute alongside the pool at the team hotel, where, according to some accounts. Rice and Sanders had to be separated by teammates.
Sanders accepted far less money to play for the 49ers this season ($1.134 million, plus a $750,000 Super Bowl victory bonus) than he could have earned from any number of other teams, and DeBartolo knows that he won't get Deion at a discount the next time around. From the vantage point of his home in Youngstown, Ohio, DeBartolo watched as the Pittsburgh Steeler dynasty of the '70s crumbled, and his fear that this might happen to the 49ers has inspired him to take bold chances on lucrative contract extensions and bonus payments for his players that will keep the guts of the Niners intact for at least another season. Yet even as DeBartolo sat beaming at his table during the postgame victory party, the business of building the 49ers of the future had already begun.