All signs point to Mariucci's return in 2002

He took a young, rebuilding team limited severely by salary cap problems and turned it into one of the surprise success stories of the 2001 NFL season. He was the guiding force and charismatic symbol of the new-generation 49ers, a team that played so well and matured ahead of schedule under its dashing, well-liked head coach. So why, underneath that glowing exterior...

did so much uncertainty lurk during the final month of the season as to whether Steve Mariucci would keep his job with the 49ers?

It's a good question that has several intricate answers, all of which overshadow Mariucci's solid performance in leading the 49ers back to the playoffs in his fifth season with the organization. For the record, Mariucci still has two seasons at $2.2 million per year remaining on the five-year contract he signed in 1999, which replaced the original five-year deal he signed when he joined the franchise as its 13th head coach in 1997.

But after the Niners' season ended in Green Bay on Jan. 13 with a 25-15 wild-card playoff loss to the Packers, the inquiries began immediately regarding Mariucci's job status. John York, San Francisco's team director and owner's representative, did his best to make management's position clear outside the 49ers locker room less than 30 minutes after the Green Bay loss.

"Look, guys, listen to this: Three years ago, when we took over, the first day that I got in charge I re-signed Steve Mariucci to a five-year contract, OK?" York said to a group of writers who regularly cover the team. "So he is our coach. He is not anybody else's coach. "Come on, guys. Let's get real. He's got two more years left on his contract. I want him to be the coach. We'll see how things go. That's all there is to it."

A few minutes later, inside the Niners' locker room, general manager Terry Donahue - with whom Mariucci reportedly has had differences this season - also supported his coach. "Let me say this, and I'll be happy to say this, because it's going to come up as it has already and it's going to continue to come up," Donahue said. "Steve Mariucci is (owner) Denise DeBartolo's and John York's coach. And he's my coach as well. And he's (team consultant) Bill Walsh's coach, and he's (director of football operations) John McVay's coach. He's the coach of the 49ers, and we're happy with the job Steve has done."

Like York, Donahue attempted to defuse any speculation with pointed responses. "I thought Steve and the assistant coaches got the maximum out of our team," Donahue said. "(Mariucci's) done a marvelous job this year and his coaches have done a great job. The answer is, I fully expect Steve to be with this team for the long haul. I fully expect he's going to be with us next year. And no one has brought anything to my attention of substance that would make me think any different."

There have been, however, questions regarding that subject swirling around the team since early December, when Mariucci was being courted for the head coaching opening at Notre Dame. When asked at the time, Mariucci did not immediately take his name out of consideration for the job. Through unnamed sources, speculation surfaced that Mariucci was seeking a contract extension and didn't feel he was receiving the credit he deserved from management for his prominent role in San Francisco's turnaround season.

It also was reported in the latter stages of this season that Walsh - still a key figure in team management - and Donahue weren't happy with the way Mariucci was handling the offense, which became more ground-oriented and seemingly less explosive as the season progressed. And then there was Mariucci's well-documented feud with star receiver Terrell Owens that didn't necessarily shine positive light on the coach. Meanwhile, Mariucci's name also was being mentioned in the NFL rumor mill for several coaching positions throughout the league. The man, obviously, has options. But Mariucci, as he has on other occasions this season, made it clear where he wants to be in 2002 at his season-ending news conference a day after the Green Bay loss.

"I'm going to be back, OK?" Mariucci said. "I'm going to be the 49ers' coach next year. And the ownership would like me to do that, and I would like to do that. End of story. "I've stated publicly that I want to stay here, and that I am going to stay here, that I'm a 49er, and that's it," Mariucci said. "That's it. I am prepared and willing to honor my contract, and (York) is willing to keep me to my contract, and let's go, you know. Full speed ahead."

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