Niners became Mooch's team after disastrous debut

Five seasons later, Steve Mariucci still remembers the fine details of his debut as an NFL head coach. How could he ever forget? San Francisco's trip to Tampa on the final day of August for the 1997 season opener is the kind of horrible coaching memory that the mind never shakes.

"Fifth play," Mariucci said this week, as if it was yesterday. "Steve Young – concussion."


Without hesitation, Mariucci followed with, "27th play, Jerry Rice, blown-out knee."


"And that wasn't the end of it."


The 49ers also lost defensive end Kevin Greene to a broken foot, and backup quarterback Jeff Brohm – who took over when Young was forced to leave with a concussion that would foreshadow the end of his career two years later – broke a facet in his back.


"It was a tough way to start a pro career," Mariucci said.


And then he laughed. He can laugh about it now. Actually, he could laugh about it then, after the Niners rebounded from a 13-6 loss to the Buccaneers in their opener with 11 consecutive wins, an NFL record for a rookie head coach. San Francisco would finish 13-3 in Mariucci's first season, gain homefield advantage throughout the playoffs, then advance to the NFC Championship Game before losing to Green Bay.


The Niners would get there without superstar receiver Rice, who tore knee ligaments during that August opener in Tampa, then was hurt again when he attempted to return too soon in December. Through all the early adversity, Mariucci never wavered in the face of his new, veteran team, and that has propelled him to a successful stay in San Francisco, though some detractors would tell you he hasn't done enough.


"Steve didn't panic," defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield said. "He knew he had a lot of veterans on that team. We just knew how to handle it."


Said offensive tackle Derrick Deese, "He was positive the whole time. If there was any doubt, he didn't show it."


The Niners' divisional playoff game in Tampa Bay on Sunday is San Francisco's first game against the Buccaneers since then. Obviously, that game five seasons ago turned out to be a big start in the Niners becoming Mariucci's team. It also allowed a second-year player named Terrell Owens to step up in Rice's absence to become San Francisco's go-to receiver, a role in which Owens would steal away from Rice in seasons to come.


"The bad news was we had those Hall of Famers hurt and we lost the game," Mariucci said. "The good news was this team really rallied around each other and put a string of victories together and made a good playoff run. As you know, that team started coming apart in the offseason. But it was a heck of a way to start."




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