Make no mistake about it, the 49ers seriously considered Mora to be their next head coach. But at 41, the Niners thought Mora was just a little too young. They were looking for a more mature and experienced presence than Steve Mariucci, the man they fired, and Mora couldn't measure up to that. They also were looking for someone to add a spark and light a fire underneath an offense that had plateaued and grown predictable and sometimes conservative under Mariucci.
But they didn't want to lose Mora, who during the past two years had lit a fire underneath a San Francisco offense that might have been the league's worst for a long stretch between the 1999 and 2000 seasons. They told him so. And when Erickson came on board, he told Mora so, too.
That left Mora with a decision. He could ask out of the final year of his contract in San Francisco, and the Niners surely would have granted that request. He had a job waiting for him in Detroit with Mariucci, no doubt at a higher wage than he is making in San Francisco. He'd already interviewed with Carolina to be their defensive coordinator, and while that job was filled while the Niners' search dragged into mid-February, other teams around the league had requested permission to speak with him.
He had a job waiting for him elsewhere as a defensive coordinator if wanted to leave. And since the Niners very publicly made him a "finalist" in their head coaching search before giving the job to Erickson in an abrupt about-face, Mora could have taken that as a personal affront and left the organization for that reason only. Sometimes, it's tough to stick around under those circumstances.
But Mora was bigger than that.
"I'm happy to be staying," Mora said. "I think it's a good place for me to be right now. I like the organization. I like Dennis Erickson. I'm excited about this opportunity because I love the direction this team is heading. I love the players and the way they work, and I know they like me. I've been with many of them since the start of their careers, helping them develop and I wanted to see it through."
And Mora also was smarter than that.
"I was thrilled about being one of the finalists for the head coaching job and I know that I will be a head coach someday in the near future," he said.
And that's why he needed to stay with the Niners. If Mora had joined Mariucci in Detroit, it would have been a step back for his career. It would have indicated he was more comfortable coaching in Mariucci's shadow with a starting-over defense where the risk factor for failure isn't nearly as high as it is in the job he holds now.
Instead, he'll stay in San Francisco and continue what he started, watching the defense he helped build reach its full potential. If it develops into one of the league's best, as some expect, Mora will be on the fast track to a head coaching position that he didn't get in San Francisco.