Remembering a milestone

Mariucci looks back at the day he landed an NFL coaching job

U.P. Celebrity Golf Classic host Steve Mariucci, left, greets former NFL running back and kickoff returner Leon Washington at the Marquette Golf Club for the send-off for Greywalls golfers on Thursday morning, June 22, 2017. (Journal photo by Shannon Stieg)

MARQUETTE — Former Northern Michigan University quarterback and native Yooper Steve Mariucci has gone through several football anniversaries over the course of his career, and he has another one this year.

After remembering the 40th anniversary of the Wildcats’ national championship two years ago, Mariucci recently talked about another milestone in his distinguished career, his first gig as an NFL head coach.

20 years ago, Mariucci signed a contract to become the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. Mariucci had served as an NFL bench boss before when he instructed Brett Favre as the quarterbacks coach of the Green Bay Packers, but this was his first time as the top.

Mariucci remembered signing the deal fondly and said that it kind of came out of nowhere.

“Oh my God,” he said. “That was a weird deal because I didn’t even interview for it. They wanted me, the guy from Cal (Berkeley), to coach their team and I remain good friends with George Seifert, who I replaced. Bill Walsh came back to help as president and became a mentor of mine and I miss him dearly. It was quite a thrill because it was a veteran team, a very old team, but the leaders on that team were great. When you’re a coach, you teach, but you also learn from experience and from your players. I remain close with all of those guys, so it was quite an experience and I learned a lot. My first team was probably the best team I ever coached and it was just unfortunate that (wide receiver) Jerry Rice blew his knee out in the first game.”

Although Mariucci had shown his abilities as an instructor with Favre emerging as a superstar under his tutelage, the move to the 49ers was a bit of a surprise as he had taken the job as head coach at California the previous season, and had led the Golden Bears to a berth in the Aloha Bowl. He said he was planning to stay at Berkeley, but the opportunity of being a head coach at football’s highest level was too good to pass up.

“Oh sure,” he said. “I left the Packers and we had a good team with a good quarterback. There was only one place I would leave for and that was Cal. I had been there before (he was the offensive coordinator for two seasons) and Cal is a different place. It’s challenging, but it’s so unique. I took that job intending to stay for a long time. I was settled in and the whole thing, but then I ended up leaving in 11 months.”

Over the course of his time with the Niners, Mariucci found a lot of success. During his first year, San Francisco went 13-3, but lost to Favre and the Packers in the NFC title game. Green Bay then went on to lose the Super Bowl to the Denver Broncos. Mariucci got his revenge on his former protégé the following season thanks to a touchdown catch by wide receiver Terrell Owens in the closing seconds of an NFC Wild Card game. However, San Francisco got bounced by the eventual NFC Champion Atlanta Falcons in the next round, who then went on to lose the Super Bowl to the Broncos.

Mariucci spoke at length of Owens’ abilities and said that he belonged in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but said he might be hindered due the fact that he was a receiver.

“I think he’s going to get in this year,” Mariucci said. “Yes, he’s a Hall of Famer. There’s no doubt because his numbers say so. It’s not unusual at the wide receiver position for great receivers to wait a while though. Michael Irvin waited, Cris Carter waited. Now Terrell is waiting. There are a lot of receivers who have great numbers and the numbers are going to keep getting greater because of the passing we have in the league now. He has to wait, and he can be vocal about it sometimes, but he deserves to be in.”

The next two years were rough as the Niners missed the playoffs both seasons, but made it back to the postseason in 2001. Once again though, they were bounced by the Packers, this time in the first round. During his last season with San Francisco, Mariucci brought the Niners to the playoffs again where they completed one of the greatest comebacks in NFL history, scoring 25 unanswered points to beat the New York Giants. Unfortunately for the former NMU signal caller, San Francisco got blown out by the eventual Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the second round. Shortly after that, Mariucci lost his job.

When asked what he remembered most about his time with the Niners, Mariucci didn’t talk about wins or losses. Instead, he talked about the issues he had to deal with and the help he had along the way.

“I was there six years and it was a very interesting time,” he said. “I went through a couple of different owners and (Niners owner) Eddie DeBartolo Jr. and (team executive) Carmen Policy hired me. I remain very dear friends with them and after that first year, they were gone. Dwight Clark (general manager) left with Carmen to Cleveland and the personnel people and public relations people were gone. Our hallway, where the front office was and the coach’s office was, was absolutely empty. There was nobody left in my second year as head coach. That was good and bad. Nobody yelled at you after a loss, but nobody patted you on the back after a win. So it was a time where we were still a really good team, but we had to make a bunch of tough salary cap decisions. We had to bring back John McVay (new general manager), so I was lucky enough to have people like Bill (Walsh) and John come back and help me sort that out.”

Mariucci is known for accomplishing many things over his football career, but his brief six years with the Niners are definitely something that will be remembered.