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 WIN.
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 résumé sent—and here I am with the ultimate job in my field."
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 operation."
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."