49ers: From Dynasty to Dysfunction, Part II

(Continued from Part I - Winning with Eddie D.)

While the DeBartolo era did not have a smooth beginning, it does not even rival the problems experienced under the direction of the Yorks.

Shortly after the transfer of the organization, the 49ers had their first two losing seasons since Walsh’s first two years as head coach – in 1979 and ’80. There were dire predictions for the 49ers, but after 4-12 and 6-10 seasons under energetic coach Steve Mariucci, the club bounced back with a 12-4 mark in 2001.

Mariucci was easily the most powerful person in the football organization. But then he lost the trust of York late in the 2001 season.

Mariucci was seen as one of the hottest coaches on the scene. Notre Dame, York’s alma mater, talked to Mariucci about its head-coaching job. Mariucci was offered a 10-year, $30 million contract. That is when Mariucci asked York to extend his contract. Mariucci’s agent asked for a $3.6 million annual salary. He wanted to take over some of the responsibilities of then-general manager Terry Donahue, whom he viewed as a part-time employee. Donahue spent much of his time at his Southern California home.

York was angered that Mariucci would try to use Notre Dame as leverage to get a bigger contract while the season was nearing its climax. Donahue was seething that Mariucci was trying to usurp his power. And Mariucci was not happy he spurned a lot of job security on the table to remain with the 49ers. After all, York had no intention of giving Mariucci a contract extension.

York, Donahue and Mariucci went through another uneasy season together. The 49ers won the NFC West in 2002. The club won its playoff opener, overcoming a 24-point second-half deficit to pull out a miraculous 39-38 victory over the New York Giants on Jan. 5, 2003.

Two weeks later, after a season-ending playoff loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Mariucci was at home with his family watching the TV program, “Joe Millionaire,” when the phone rang. York was on the other line.

“He seemed to be upset as soon as I said hello,” Mariucci said.

Two days later, York was on a flight from Ohio to California. He decided to fire Mariucci – without a plan of how to fill the vacancy. The 49ers have not had a winning record since. They are still trying to find his replacement.

What has followed has been a series of missteps, miscalculations and – flat out – bad decisions.

Since Mariucci left the organization, the 49ers have lost 61 games in 5½ seasons. In the previous 11 seasons, the 49ers lost 59 games. Beginning in 1981, the 49ers won 10 or more games for 17 consecutive years (excluding 1982, when just nine games were played in the strike-shortened season).

After firing Mariucci, the Yorks’ second mistake was placing Donahue in charge of finding the new coach.

Donahue’s meandering search focused initially on NFL assistant coaches Ted Cottrell, Greg Blache and Jim Mora, Jr. Donahue conducted all of his interviews at his Southern California beach house.

After announcing three finalists for the job, Donahue pulled an end-around and hired Oregon State coach Dennis Erickson. That moved proved disastrous all the way around as Erickson left a college program that he built into a national-title contender.

The 49ers compiled a 7-9 record in 2003, but then Donahue oversaw a salary-cap purge in which the team jettisoned many of its best players, including quarterback Jeff Garcia and receiver Terrell Owens. The slash-and-burn approach to the team’s roster caught Erickson by surprise.

Despite a series of substandard drafts, Donahue was awarded a contract extension in September. But things continued to disintegrate in the coming months.

By the end of the next season, Erickson clearly wanted out. He interviewed for a job at Ole Miss on a Tuesday late in the season while his assistant coaches were game-planning for the upcoming opponent. After the laughably bad 2-14 season, the Bay Area demanded changes. Erickson was clearly going to be fired. But John York decided to completely clean house.

On the same day he fired Erickson, York also sent Donahue back to his Southern California home for good. Donahue was fired just a few months after accepting a lucrative contract extension.

Matt Maiocco has covered the 49ers as a beat reporter for 14 years - the past nine at the Santa Rosa (Calif.) Press Democrat. He is a three-time winner of Pro Football Writers of America awards, and he has authored two books on the 49ers.

Part III - Yorks Still Searching for Answers

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