Mooch vs. S.F. this week? 49ers glad it's not so

Steve Mariucci stayed. Jon Gruden left. But that's not exactly the way anybody thought it would happen last February when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers came to the San Francisco Bay Area looking for a new head coach. They openly courted Mariucci with the blessing of 49ers management, which worked out a compensation package with Tampa Bay to let Mooch go. But then the Bucs reversed course and grabbed their new coach from across the Bay in the form of Oakland's Jon Gruden. Small world, isn't it?

The 49ers realize how different it could have been for them this week in the NFC Divisional playoffs. They could have been playing against Mariucci instead of playing for their believed head coach.


Let's just say the Niners are glad it didn't work out that way. San Francisco's brain trust might have been prepared to let Mariucci leave. But the team certainly wasn't.


"I think, for us, it would have been a huge loss to lose coach Mariucci, just because of what we were starting to establish here," Niners quarterback Jeff Garcia said Wednesday. "Having the year that we had last year, and hopefully looking to build on that this year, and then all of a sudden for that to change…"


It almost all did change suddenly in mid-February when a Mooch-to-Tampa Bay deal appeared all but done. Mariucci met with Tampa Bay owners and said later they offered him a contract. Niners management said they had worked a deal with the Bucs that would allow Mariucci out of his current deal (which runs through 2003) for future draft picks and millions of dollars. This all happened very quickly a month after San Francisco's 2001 season had ended in the first round of the playoffs.


"In a matter of hours, it was kind of a weird area," Garcia said. "For a second there, I thought we had lost our coach. And the next thing you know, the Raiders lose their coach."


In a stunning reversal, the Bucs offered a similar deal to the Raiders and Gruden after Mariucci apparently balked at their offer and the idea of leaving the Bay Area. Gruden was happy to take the offer and – for a reported $8 million and four high draft picks – the Raiders were happy to see him leave.


Now it's Mariucci's 49ers versus Gruden's Bucs with the stakes a trip to the NFC Championship Game. When asked Wednesday if he saw any irony in that situation, Mariucci deflected the question. Gruden also tiptoed around the subject.


"It's obviously something that is done and over with and I'm sure he's very excited to be where he is and I'm very excited to be where I am," Gruden said. "We've never brought that topic up. I've been around football a lot and I'm not really surprised by things like that. Obviously, I have a lot of respect for where I came from and where I am now. I try not to look in the rear-view mirror. I try to concentrate on what's ahead. That is just this game. I try not to get worked up over what is under the bridge."






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