Niners deny interviewing 'token' candidates

The 49ers took some serious heat in newspapers throughout the nation when their deliberate coaching search - which included several minority candidates, two of them designated as "finalists" - ultimately yielded a coaching veteran who already has had his first chance to guide an NFL team. Oh, and Dennis Erickson also happens to be Caucasian. But as they presented Erickson as their choice to replace Steve Mariucci, the 49ers defended their selection process and how they arrived at their decision.

Niners general manager Terry Donahue said his final decision came down to "gut instinct" that Erickson was "the man that can take us to where we want to go."

"We hired the right person to lead us to the world championship," Donahue said. "I say that because I believe Dennis Erickson is an aggressive, attacking football coach who will give us the leadership and make football decisions to lead us to the world championship. That's why we hired him and that's why he is here."

Before Erickson was offered the job Tuesday morning, New York Jets defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell was perceived to be the front-runner entering the final stages of San Francisco's selection process. Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Greg Blache also was one of three finalists the Niners interviewed twice and then trotted out to speak with the media last week at the team's Santa Clara headquarters. Both Cottrell and Blache are African-American.

But the team ultimately went with Erickson - a "name" coach with experience and background - amid a climate in which many are clamoring for NFL teams to fill their head coaching vacancies with minority hires.

Donahue didn't attempt to dance around the issue Wednesday after introducing Erickson.

"We went through a course of action that was directed to find a football coach," Donahue said. "We wanted to make sure that course of action was inclusive and complete. That certainly included some African-American candidates, but I think if you talk to anybody who was involved in our process, they were very outspoken about the fact that our process was very fair and complete.

"We weren't looking for an African-American coach, we were looking for a coach. We found a couple of tremendous candidates for this job who happened to be African-American. Every finalist for this job, I think, has stated very clearly that they had their chance in the batter's box. They got a chance to go up and swing away at it. That's what we wanted to do and that's what we did."

Team owner/director John York consulted with Dan Rooney, who heads the NFL's committee on diversity, and Baltimore's Ozzie Newsome - the first African-American in league history to head a team's football operations - during San Francisco's search process.

"We tried to be as fair and as open as we could, and I think the feeling I got was that Greg Blache and Ted Cottrell felt they had been treated fairly," York said. "I know I felt that we treated them fairly and they both had a legitimate shot. I think (San Francisco's process) was very inclusive. I think it was fair. And we met the demands that I think were on us as well as those of the league."

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