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Dennis Erickson or bust.
(02/21/03) 10:00 AM
By Sydney

Six years of harmony was suddenly transformed on February 11th, 2002 when the San Francisco 49ers made a surprise move by hiring the likes of Dennis Erickson with a resume that includes successes in college football but very marginal success in his years with the Seattle Seahawks.

Dr. John York has effectively changed the face of this franchise into something that requires his personal attention on every subject matter that is related to the functioning ability of this business.

After all it is a business is it not? He has stated very flagrantly that this football team will be run as a business and it will eventually turn a profit even if it means cutting talented personnel in his quest to achieve that. Although he has not publicly come out and said he would trim the payroll at the cost of talent, it still leaves you to believe that he would do that in order to salvage a buck.

49er fans that I know and have spoken to are nervous as to what direction the ownership will take this team. After ridding itself of former owner Eddie DeBartolo the new owners of sister Denise DeBartolo and her husband in Dr. John York have tried to maintain the image of the 49ers as it once was but at a very different angle.

They assembled a wealth of brain trusts in bringing back on John McVay and Bill Walsh to seek a remedy to the salary cap purge that practically gutted the organization from the insides out.

They entrusted the old football minds to bringing in and training former UCLA great Terry Donahue to eventually becoming the talented successor to Bill Walsh as age took hold of his ability to maintain a full time schedule.

They also brought in a bright young and driven head coach in Steve Mariucci who stepped in right as George Seifert was shown the door out by the transferring of power involving a squabbling brother and sister. Steve was instrumental in keeping the keel of the ship upright when he came on in 1997 by assisting the organization to the post-season twice before succumbing to the financial nightmare of 1999-2000.

Shortly after those rebuilding years the San Francisco 49ers started to show again their true inheritance in achieving outstanding success in 2001 by going 12-4 and entering the playoff picture again. Under Steve Mariucci and through the hands of Bill Walsh and Terry Donahue the franchise was able to stockpile enough draft talent and spectacular free agent acquisitions to give this franchise new life and a brighter future.

Mariucci started to become more highlighted in the spectrum of successful head coaches and other professional organizations paid close attention to his win column and video taped motivation on the sidelines and in the locker room. He became a wanted man as football minds looked at Mariucci as the answer to their own problems, but unknowingly to Mariucci the interest that was expressed would haunt him in months to come.

Dr. John York maintained that Mariucci always was itching for more prestige and more power. He even pointed the finger at Mariucci for giving other teams that were interested in his services as a catalyst for that power search. Using other job offers to position himself in a position where he could negotiate for more lucrative rights in the 49er organization, York believed this to be the worst sin of all.

So he passed judgment on Mariucci in a telephone barrage of words and a last minute flight out to Santa Clara headquarters to fire Steve Mariucci in a bizarre incident that rocked the very foundation of the franchise.

It was the darkest moment in my mind as a San Francisco 49er fan as it was done in such an unprofessional manner considering what this head coach had accomplished for both the fans and the players. Regardless of his philosophies and his doctrines on playing the game Steve Mariucci deserved so much better than this.

“It’s really frustrating to see the organization slowly dismantled from the inside,” said one former star 49ers player. “I have a lot of anger as a former player.”

Is it without merit that Dr. John York is ignorant of football? You have to wonder as to his actions that he did involving Mariucci. Look at all the credible candidates that withdrew from the coaching search following Mariucci’s departure, candidates that certainly had enough experience to not only maintain the 49er standard but somehow improve upon it as well.

Philadelphia assistants in Brad Childress and Jim Johnson and Tampa Bay assistant Monte Kiffen. All three would’ve been a spectacular replacement for Steve Mariucci but many credible sources site the handling of the dismissal as a means of candidates backing out of the deal. Backing out also found themselves in a better financial situation and most definitely better job security over the long term.

Would you come to San Francisco as a head coach considering the mental psychology of John York? Would it be a job where you would have say without having to back track and analyze your words to make sure you said the right thing? I believe it is. You will have to watch your words and your actions as every one of Steve’s was documented in Dr. York’s mind.

And then you have the issue of money, as Steve Mariucci was hired soon after his dismissal by a football franchise desperate to find an identity for itself. The Detroit Lions look at Steve Mariucci almost like the prophet that will lead them across the Red Sea and into the post-season for the first time.

President Matt Millen of the Detroit Lions has always looked at Steve Mariucci as being the trump card to his franchise’s success, and unfortunately he couldn’t acquire that card because of Mariucci’s commitment to the 49ers.

So he settled on the next best thing and that was a Mariucci protege in Marty Mornhinweg. Again unfortunately that experiment didn’t pan out as the Lions had too many problems even for Mornhinweg to handle. Becoming a head coach was an adjustment in all itself without having to rebuild a decimated franchise from the ground up.

But now Millen has his man that has helped rebuild a franchise and has experience in that field of opportunity. Steve has come home to them as the savior of a football-starved society that wants nothing more than to just win a little.

Steve Mariucci received a contract understanding all of this in the sum of $25 million dollars over a time spans of just five years. A king’s ransom to what he was receiving or even asking for from Dr. John York. York in the coaching searches for Mariucci’s replacement offered Tampa Bay defensive coordinator a base salary of $2.4 million dollars.

That was far more than what Mariucci would’ve earned had he stayed on as head coach in 2003. But Kiffen opted to stay on with his club for a record salary $1.7 million for a coordinator because he had almost everything to do with their Super Bowl victory in 2002.

Then in a dramatic climax that even dumbfounded ESPN scouts the San Francisco 49ers hired Dennis Erickson former refugee of the Seattle Seahawks who left that franchise to make room for Green Bay’s Mike Holmgren. Erickson is the fourth 49ers coach since 1979, following Bill Walsh and George Seifert who both brought the 49ers to Super Bowls and then there was Mariucci.

Dennis Erickson was head coach for the Seattle Seahawks from 1995-98, going 31-33 the same exact record that current coach Mike Holmgren has now. Erickson’s greatest moment in the NFL was when he had the franchise knocking on the post-season door in 1998 but was defeated by the New York Jets in which quarterback Vinny Testaverde was awarded a controversial touchdown when he visually never crossed the goal line.

It was in fact was a play that assisted the NFL in bringing back the instant replay part of the game, unfortunately it was too late for Erickson and his Seahawks. His greatest successes came in college, as he was responsible for turning four colleges into winners again.

Erickson won national titles at the University of Miami in 1989 and 1991, going 63-9 over six full seasons. He also has coached at Idaho and Washington State. He then went on to Oregon State where he has a record of 31-17 in four full seasons and three bowl appearances. Erickson was also named college coach of the year in three different conferences. Big Sky with Idaho, Pac-10 with Washington State and Oregon State and Big East with Miami.

It was thought as a decision was looming that New York Jets defensive coordinator Ted Cotrell, Chicago’s defensive coordinator Greg Blache and 49ers defensive coordinator Jim Mora would get the call. It was also a genuine understanding that the 49ers were more interested in a defensive mind as a coach versus an offensive one. Well it turned into a big surprise to everyone.

“I was informed today by Terry Donahue that they decided to hire Dennis Erickson as the next 49ers-head coach,” Cottrell said. “While it’s obviously disappointing, I’d like to thank Dr. York, Terry Donahue and the entire 49ers staff for their professionalism throughout the interviewing process.”

Greg Blache also backs up the same story as Cottrell as being treated with dignity and respect. It was even more disheartening to 49er defensive coordinator Jim Mora who genuinely felt that he had an inside track in getting the job by already being in place within the organization.

Much has been said about the hiring practices of teams in the NFL in relation to giving black candidates a fair shot. Certainly the San Francisco 49ers fulfilled that role admirably in there interviewing process. For it was a long courtship with many a black candidate in this process and in my mind should’ve been even more. But Dennis Erickson came out on top as the favorite once interviewed by Terry Donahue.

Dennis signed the dotted line with the 49ers for five years at about $2.5 million a year or just shy of that annual figure. His dreams of getting back into the professional ranks had finally come true and he looked forward to such prize as being the actual coach of the San Francisco 49ers.

“For me, it was hard to leave Oregon State, but I always wanted a chance to get back in the league,” Erickson said. “That’s one thing in my career that I was still not happy about.”

Under Erickson when he was with the Seattle Seahawks they were very exciting. He had a total of ten victories that came within the two-minute mark and he led the Seahawks to the greatest comeback in franchise history. He helped the team overcome a 20-point deficit in a 31-27 win at Denver on (12/10/95).

His offensive philosophy was also exciting as he helped produce a total of 35 300-yard plus performances of total offense, including nine 400-yard games and a 554-yard game as well.

He helped produce the club’s first 400-yard plus passer in Warren Moon’s 409-yard day against the Oakland Raiders on (10/26/97) since Dave Krieg’s 410-yard effort at the Raiders on (12/18/88) in a span of 136 games. He was indeed an offensive mastermind and should if anything at all breath new life into our attacking style of offense. However in the end it was not enough in Seattle for him to keep his job, although there are many that say he deserved another chance under the circumstances.

“Dennis had the decks stacked against him, and he had a lot of bad luck,” said Randy Mueller, who had hired Erickson and was his general manager. ‘Still, his record was good. He had one unlucky experience when officials made a mistake in a game against the Jets. They gave Vinny Testaverde the touchdown thinking that the ball was over the goal line instead of the helmet. It cost the Seahawks a chance to make the playoffs, and it cost Dennis his job.”

I can still remember this game now as it was played over and over again on television on every major sports network as to the controversy that erupted from it. It bore through that the NFL admitted the mistake and needed to adopt the instant replay policy soon thereafter this incident. Dennis has had to carry this bad taste in his mouth for many years after being shown the door in Seattle; he still has never really recuperated from it totally.

“It was tough,” Erickson said of the Seattle days. “We had a change in owners, but the toughest thing was not winning. That’s what I wanted to get back to do. You never like to leave a place and not feel that everything was done. You want to win and compete for a national championship.”

What Erickson does bring to the table, as the new head coach is newness in my mind. He will bring a lot of different schemes and doctrines to the organization. But at the same time he recognizes the importance of the West Coast Offense and it’s birthplace in San Francisco. He will bring more risk taking and he will be more aggressive, something that all fans including myself would love to see happen once again.

The San Francisco 49ers have been looked at as being a finesse team, not the brute physical force that it’s neighbor across the Bay has been familiarized with. But Dennis should change the 49er offense into an attacking style of offense by leaning on the arm of Jeff Garcia more. What worries me most is the diminished role of the running game, I hope that the practice of seeking balance on the offense is not disturbed.

I see both Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow, as lethal weapons in any given game how he utilizes them will be very interesting. He is not known for utilizing the fullback position either in his offenses, this does not look well for fullbacks Fred Beasley, Terry Jackson and Paul Smith. I am hopeful that Gregg Knapp as offensive coordinator will encourage Erickson to keep these stars on the roster and to utilize their talents.

Erickson’s main staple in the offense is to spread the field with three wide receiver sets, but with Knapp staying on board after being signed for an extension for another year the offense will look a lot like it did except to be more aggressive.

As much as I blame Knapp for the blunders in play calling of last year and mot being aggressive enough I lay equal blame on Steve Mariucci for not correcting Knapp or changing the play calling as he saw fit as well. I am hopeful that Knapp will continue to grow within our system and he will adopt a more physical attack, as Dennis will ultimately demand to secure points.

Another assistant coach that has been retained and will be sticking around under Erickson is quarterbacks coach Ted Tollner. I am thankful that he also will be a guiding force to Garcia under his new head coach in Erickson. Erickson is friends with Tollner and will lean on him exclusively I am sure for insight and advice throughout the season.

“You learn from your experiences, and I think I will be a better head coach having worked in the league for four years,” Erickson said. “I don’t know if it’s anything specific that you learn, but you benefit from being around the league.”

The winning formula for Dr. John York and Terry Donahue was clear after the interview. They felt that Dennis was the right man for the job based on his principles and experience. As well as his commitment to excellence within the 49er organization. He was looked at as being the aggressive element that the team was missing for most of the 2002 season.

They felt that it was this discipline and this style of coaching that was needed to propel the 49ers deeper into the playoffs. He will have a tough task still ahead of him, as his job will be to mesh with a new coaching staff and sell his ideas and principles to his players.

“I think he’s a great coach, but I didn’t know that beforehand,” York said. “I thought of Dennis as a Miami coach who did a great job. There may have been a little bit of chaos around the program. But after we talked face to face, I came out with a great feeling about him. Terry also came out with a different view from what we originally thought. There is calmness to how he is. He understands what’s going on both on offense and defense, and he is aggressive on both sides of the ball.”

So there you have it right their folks Dr. John York’s seal of approval so to say on Dennis Erickson. What was so different about this search was that General Manager Terry Donahue was given broad-based authority to carry out the process as he saw fit. For so much of anything else York felt he needed to be a part of it. But Terry clearly did an exhausting job of finding and interviewing quality candidates for the coveted position.

Bill Walsh was hardly ever involved in the process as his stature within the organization is now in a tailspin after relinquishing his managerial duties to Terry. There were some answers he gave to Terry upon request but he never really became involved this time in such an important decision within the franchise framework.

What Walsh will be involved with though is helping Terry find the necessary weapons through draft day to help Dennis Erickson succeed as the next San Francisco head coach. He has a great knack in finding and evaluating talent. Terry will rely heavily on Walsh for advice although Terry is now very comfortable with being the man in charge now under Walsh’s teachings.

“We have found what we were looking for in a new coach: a leader, a motivator, a teacher, an individual with exceptional skills in coaching the game of football,” Donahue said. “Dennis Erickson has a long history of coaching winning teams and I am confident he will succeed in San Francisco.”

Terry has maintained that despite the interest in the NFL for a coordinator to take the position that Erickson far out exceeds them with already head-coaching experience. He also believes that a winning college coach is just as exceptional on most levels as a winning professional coach is. The game is much different though and it should be noted that Erickson struggled to keep the Seattle Seahawks above or even at (.500).

Did Donahue find the right man for the job as said? We will all have to answer that question in our minds at some point, but honestly I can’t say that for myself right now. I am very hopeful and well optimistic even that this newness will be good for the team and the aggressive style a welcomed friend.

“Our course of action was exhaustive, it was thorough and it was aimed at finding the best possible coach for this football team,” Donahue said. “We are confident that coach Erickson is a key piece of the puzzle that will make this team a contender for a championship.”

But one has to look back on Erickson’s past and see the skeletons in the closet. Back in Miami where he had a record of 63-9 over six seasons, that very record was tarnished in more ways than one.

He inherited the team of Jimmy Johnson and was relegated to presiding over an era of lawlessness in which the program was slapped with three years of probation and the loss of 31 scholarships. It wasn’t until Butch Davis cleaned up the mess Erickson left behind that Miami again became a perennial national championship contender.

When he was in Seattle players complained about Erickson, as players came in to Seattle from winning organizations they saw how unorganized Seattle really was under Erickson. Meetings didn’t start on time; practices were sloppy and often quick. Saturday walk-through was described as a joke, and the players were stunned that the team didn’t have meetings the night before games.

After settling on Erickson the Seattle front office personnel left from the Erickson days have to feel good about their chances in the Western Division now with San Francisco being run by their old boss. The San Francisco 49ers is known as the very creator of organization, precision and detail in the NFL. We are the prized jewel in the league and have been for a very long time.

Has hiring Erickson jeopardized all that? Once again I don’t know only time will tell. Is all that was in the past the same and will it comeback to haunt us? Is this a new Dennis Erickson older and wiser from his days back with Seattle? I hope that they are and I hope that we can close the door forever on some of these distractions and skeletons in his closet.

“I don’t think Erickson was No. 1 on Terry’s original list,” said one highly placed voice in the 49ers front office. “But you could sense that after Terry talked to him, he was very impressed. Terry has said he’s interested in someone coaching ‘ball.’ And Erickson presented himself as the best football coach that interviewed in the search process.”

However the thought Erickson generated something positive in Terry’s mind and the jury will still be very much out on Erickson until we see desired results on the field and harmony within the 49er framework. A great deal of damage was done by Dr. York and a great deal of repair will have to take place to restore that broken confidence and faith that many fans have for the franchise.

The ownership of this team has done little to mend the notion that it has its best interests at heart. Believing that business is business and that’s the way things are sets a bad taste in most of our mouths. The search was long and dramatic with many a twists and turns almost like being sea sick on the outer edges of San Francisco Bay.

His introduction to the fans of San Francisco was planned and orchestrated well. It was done with Terry Donahue’s full endorsement and his faith in Erickson to prove all the skeptics wrong. Erickson owes all us fans a sign of faith and I hope he will deliver that by being fair and just to our players. I hope that he will recognize the great talent at his disposal and he will utilize it to our advantage.

Coaching in my mind is half the formula folks and talented players’ the other half. We have taken the ultimate course of change in replacing the head coach. York believes, as does Donahue that this will be a new era for the 49ers, I have to say I agree in a sense.

It will be a departure from a conservative style of offense to a more passer friendly one in my opinion. Many believe that Erickson can take us to the big dance at the end of next January, I say let’s wait and see.

“This is a great day for the City of San Francisco, 49er fans and the San Francisco organization,” said Donahue. “My responsibility was to find a great coach with great leadership skills and a coach that could take us to a World Championship. We found that man in Dennis Erickson.”

There are some that say we deserve to have many losing seasons because of this change to them I say ‘get lost.’ I am never without words when in defense of my beloved team; I will stay committed to their cause and their continuance for glory. When describing his philosophies Erickson were very forthright in his convictions.

“Offensively, defensively, my philosophy is to be aggressive,” Erickson said. “We’re going to take a look at everything and maybe add a few things. But we will be aggressive.”

The consensus out there with fellow 49er fans is mixed, some are joyous that Steve Mariucci is gone and replaced while others are cautiously optimistic as to the expectations we are awaiting on. However you want to look at it I for one am appalled at the way Mariucci was fired.

I have no reservations in saying that to any fellow 49er fan, if you feel that Mariucci deserved it you should reevaluate where your thoughts are. Do I feel Mariucci had this coming? Yes and no as he was successful despite the injuries in bringing us to the post-season, but at the same time too conservative and too predictable on both offense and defense.

Dennis Erickson is a new face with a new agenda. He can get the job done with smart people around him in my opinion, but I think Terry Donahue will have to be more involved in reality as the process for establishing coach and player relationships will be critical over the next several months.

Already quarterback Jeff Garcia has come on board in support of Dennis Erickson. I believe that Jeff felt all season long that the offense was sometimes caught in a slumber and was too conservative in it’s attack throughout the entirety of the game. Garcia has gone on record before expressing his desire to attack down the field more and to spread the opposition out more.

I know he will get many more opportunities under Erickson to do this, passing is in his blood and you can bet we will light it up. However the dangerous probability is that the 49ers have always been known as a running team. I for one don’t want to remove ourselves from that distinction because we have one of the best running back by committees in the league today. I am hopeful that Erickson will still lean on the running game in large part because that is who we are.

“I think you have to like his standpoint in wanting to have an aggressive offense and defense. He wants to be aggressive all around. When you look at our team and the knocks that were against this team, aggressiveness was sometimes a question mark,” Garcia said. “Not to say that we felt that as a team, but that seemed to be the knock outside of this organization. If Dennis can bring that to this team, can bring a finishing attitude to this team, in terms of philosophy and mentality, then I think that is a great thing for this organization.”

The worry among many faithful 49er fans is that Erickson will change the format and identity of this team from the Bill Walsh era. I don’t see that happening as long as Bill Walsh and Terry Donahue are on board as the West Coast Offense will still live and breath within the framework of it’s birthplace. With many of the assistant coaches holding over from the Mariucci era we should still maintain our identity in predictable manner.

“What we are going to do offensively is keep the same terminology, pretty much the same offense, and we’re going to add some things. When you talk about the offense that has been in place here for all these years with Bill and what he has done and Steve and George, why change it,” Erickson offered. “We are going to look at everything and maybe add a thing or two, but it’s going to pretty much be the same. My style of coaching is very aggressive, so we might be a little bit more aggressive with certain things, but terminology and what we do is going to pretty much be the same.”

His stamp of approval on the Bill Walsh system speaks for itself. I am one of the cautiously optimistic types in the 49er fan general pool. There are many skeptics out there that are predicting a gloomy future for this franchise based on the recent events involving John York and Steve Mariucci.

Although I am angry at the way the dismissal was handled I believe we can rebound from this and move on. I just hope that Dr. John York will someday take a long look at himself in the mirror and finally realize that his actions effect more than just himself.