New coach comes first

Promising to do whatever it takes to return the 49ers to NFL dominance, owner John York parted ways with coach Dennis Erickson and general manager Terry Donahue on Wednesday and said his first priority in restoring his team's image and competitive success is to find an elite coach who will become the new face and driving force of the organization. And, yes, Pete Carroll's name was mentioned.

Showing resolve and standing firm against an onslaught of questions, York made it clear that finding the right coach – and doing it quickly and wisely – is the key move in bringing the 49ers back from pro football's wilderness.

"What we want is a head coach who has leadership skills that can motivate our team and take them back to winning," York said during his 25-minute news conference. "The goal is to get the right guy. They need to have true NFL experience and they need to be in winning programs. With that coach, we will rebuild this team and it will be his job to make sure we win."

York said replacing Donahue will be a secondary concern. He also indicated the new general manager will have a different role in the team's organizational structure, with the new coach being the team's guiding light.

"We will wait on the general manager," York said. "With the (new) head coach, we will decide (what) the role of the general manager and personnel department will be. But it will not be under one person. In the past, I think you could do a coach-general manager. But (in this age), it's too all-encompassing. It is too difficult to take care of under one person.

"So, I think there needs to be more than one person looking at the entire football operation. So, I think you leave the coaching to the coach and the personnel decisions and salary cap to someone else. That does not mean they are totally separate. They are interdependent and need to work together."

York said the coaching search will be conducted by people already inside the organization that are involved in football operations and personnel, and he also will rely on "a large extended family" of people "that are around the organization and close to it. But, there are key people that I will listen to and pay attention to that will help me the most."

York won't stop there. He said he already has begun consulting with top NFL honchos such as commissioner Paul Tagliabue and other team owners and club presidents.

He made it clear he is looking for a fresh start after the team hit rock bottom this season with a 2-14 record. But he wants to do it with an established name who already has proven himself in the NFL, whether it's at the head-coaching or coordinator level.

York declined to mention any names, but said he would not rule out college coaches who have previous NFL experience. And when he was asked specifically about USC coach Pete Carroll – a San Francisco Bay Area native who has previous ties to the 49ers – he did not deny that Carroll is on the short list of "no more than 10" coaches toward whom the team is directing its focus.

"Well, I think we all watched the game last night," York said, referring to USC's 55-19 thrashing of Oklahoma on Tuesday to win its second consecutive national championship. "I think it was a tremendous game. They were very dominant and he's a great coach."

Carroll – San Francisco's defensive coordinator in 1995-96 – has had two previous NFL head-coaching stints with the New York Jets and New England Patriots. Despite his success at USC, he no doubt would like another shot to succeed in the NFL. A Carroll-49ers reunion means he would be coming home, and his Northern California connections are very strong. The Niners would give him a very attractive package, the kind of offer that would be difficult to refuse.

But the Carroll type of persona hardly is the only option the 49ers are considering. The next San Francisco coach, in fact, could actually be coaching for another NFL team this week during wild-card weekend.

Even though he's honoring the final three years and $7.5 million remaining on Erickson's contract – and reached a buyout settlement with Donahue that also will cost him millions (York did not disclose the terms) – York said money won't be an object in finding his next head coach.

"If that's the right guy, that's who it will be," York said when asked if salary will be an issue in the coaching search. "We are prepared to move forward aggressively and promptly, but we will also do so smartly so that we can get the right person. I don't have any doubt whatsoever that a top-notch coach will come to the San Francisco 49ers."

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