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Erickson applies his stamp on the team.
(02/28/03) 4:00 PM
By Sydney

Soon after the news conference and the parade of questions that were asked of newly appointed head coach Dennis Erickson, Dennis stepped up to the podium and clearly defined what he was here to do. He left no doubt to the imaginations of all 49er fans all over the globe as they looked cross-eyed from the Mariucci debacle and all it’s insanity to a new man that prophesized a bright new future for our franchise.

“Our goal is to win the world championship,” Erickson told a news conference. “I would like to believe that we can compete for a world championship next year.”

To say such a bold statement requires a commitment like no other he has ever undertaking on the professional level. Here stands Dennis Erickson refugee of the NFL and cast out into obscurity back into the college ranks only to surface again with another golden opportunity.

He inherits a much more talented team than he did with Seattle, but his inability to bring his team into the post-season speaks for itself despite one bad and very blown call.

All the eyes and ears of the San Francisco 49er faithful are upon Dennis Erickson to deliver on his promises of something new and rejuvenated. There is actual hope for the first time that the team will make that coveted run under a new head coach that will attack continuously until relentlessly without merit or sympathy.

Many fans can attest and I happen to have been one of them, what Bill Walsh thought of the hiring of Dennis Erickson. Even though like others that have faith in Terry Donahue, I still look to the mastermind behind the making of this great franchise. Almost like seeking an answer to the question from someone in a higher level of excellence and in my mind that is what Bill Walsh is all about.

We must not ever forget that it is Bill Walsh that made the very fabric of this organization and molded it into an image that bred championships. He instilled a philosophy and a doctrine that we still follow to the letter today with some varied alterations.

I am proud that he has remained as long as he has with us in mind, body and soul. Without him I honestly believe that we would still be in the midst of rebuilding rather than acquiring winning records the last two years.

We all know about the skeletons that exist in Dennis Erickson’s closet. The alcoholism, the lack of attention to details, the poor discipline that undermined a poorly assembled coaching staff he put together while in Seattle.

These are but a few of the mistakes he has been known for as a professional coach. Obviously he has cleaned up his backyard while on the college tour and has won championships and became distinguished as a leader among his peers in the college coaching ranks.

Can you compare Dennis Erickson with Steve Mariucci? I must say that would be most difficult as each are very different in their approach to the game. Remember it was Bill that recommended Steve Mariucci as the next head coach while George Seifert was getting his walking papers. Since then Mariucci has achieved marked results in six years but ultimately failed to get us to the coveted championship and another Super Bowl.

Somehow the consensus came down on to one asset that many of us believe was missing in action throughout the 2002 San Francisco 49er season. Lack of a killer instinct it has been called, a motivational factor that should have been more asserted and practiced throughout the season. This along with seeking more power within the franchise was his ultimate downfall.

Unfortunately Steve never really saw it coming as the overtures he had been reading were genuine and true as to their intent, what happened was a snapshot right over a Friday the 13th motion picture horror show. He was berated over the phone and then found himself faced with the very real prospect of being fired, and he was.

“What more can you ask? He’s got a great mind,” 49ers consultant Bill Walsh said. “He’ll adapt to the 49ers and I think He’ll coordinate what we’ve done and what he’s done. He brings a new dimension to our offensive team. We’ve been concerned about getting the football down the field all last season and I think if anybody can do it, Dennis can.”

Dennis is a high profile offensive minded coach. He has been the head coach of Oregon State since 1999, compiling a 31-17 record. He jump started a slumping football program and guided the Oregon Beavers to three bowl games, including a 2000 Fiesta Bowl victory over Notre Dame. In his 16 years as a collegiate head coach, Erickson has a combined record of 144-57-1.

He was 63-9 at the University of Miami over a course of six seasons in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, winning in the end two national titles. All this at about the same time that the San Francisco 49ers were enjoying their glory years.

Dennis since becoming head coach of the San Francisco 49ers has started to put his stamp on the coaching staff. The first one being the retaining of offensive coordinator Gregg Knapp who also by the way was kept on the staff with the signing of a one-year contract shortly after Steve Mariucci was fired. Many were including myself sort of worried that Dennis Erickson would suddenly trash the West Coast Offense and employ his own offensive system.

“Why change it? It’s been very successful,” Erickson said. “We’re going to look at everything, but I don’t see many big changes in store.”

Two other assistants retained on the 49er staff include offensive line coach Pat Morris who I have met personally and secondary coach Brett Maxie. Both of these fine coaches will assist Gregg Knapp in keeping the West Coast Offense a staple in San Francisco for a very long time.

Quarterbacks coach Ted Tollner was also retained as part of the staff, a close friend of Erickson’s Tollner will continue the work on Jeff Garcia and the rest of the young quarterbacks on the 49er roster.

What can we expect though from Erickson in the way of changes? Certainly Erickson has already begun that process by bringing in Oregon assistant coaches from his previous staff and has even gone to lengths in acquiring other coaches now in the college ranks that were once on his staff while he was head coach in Seattle.

Both Dr. John York and Terry Donahue are steadfast in their beliefs that Erickson will manufacture a successful franchise and have given him room to grow and make his own decisions.

“I would be very disappointed if he didn’t approach this team with a sense of independence and freedom to do what he wants to do,” Donahue said. “This is his team to coach, and we’re just here to work together with him.”

What York has done in hindsight is that he has cleared out every major component within the organization that was once hired by former owner Eddie DeBartolo. York’s brother-in-law has been the center of disgust for the infighting that occurred between his wife and him left him with a sense of revenge in this purging of the team.

“I think Dennis is going to have a better relationship with the organization (than Mariucci did), and I think he’s going to be more aggressive in his offensive approach,” York said. “Dennis wants to be here, and he wants to win.”

But it was General Manager Terry Donahue that was the main broker in bringing in Dennis Erickson. Not totally satisfied with the professional defensive coordinators in the bidding for the job, Terry looked to the college ranks for a more in depth search at who would be compatible in this present situation.

Erickson and Donahue have known each other since 1982, his very best memory of the relationship was a 1988 game in which Erickson’s last Washington State team defeated Donahue’s No. #1 ranked UCLA team. Just a few months later after that pivotal game Erickson was hired by the University of Miami, where he went on to win two national titles.

One has to remember when looking at the relationship between the coach and the owner in this organization though is that the owner has say over all matters and the coach is to simply just coach.

Dr. John York had deep reservations about Mariucci as time went on especially when the job opportunities became more frequent for Steve as he accumulated more success with the team. Power in York’s mind could never be shared or compromised and it became a sticking point inside his mind as time went on.

So Dennis realizes just what his role is within this organization at has in effect been already spelled out in many instances. He must bring this franchise deeper into the post-season that is the bottom line and even possibly the Super Bowl. If he can accomplish that he will be the key that this franchise has been missing for a very long time.

“I don’t want the power to make every decision personnel-wise,” Erickson said. “I want to coach football. That’s what I was hired to do.”

One thing that you know will happen is that Erickson will open this offense up, but at what cost I must ask? Will he abandon the fullback’s role in our offense like he was known to do back in Seattle.

Erickson has been known for years as favoring the three wide receiver sets and throwing the ball down the field. So you have to really wonder if some of the West Coast Offense doesn’t just become extinct.

The passing game will be emphasized under Dennis Erickson, the prospect of drafting a wide receiver with our first pick in the draft will be a real possibility as Dennis will require a speedy option next to Terrell Owens. Fortunately Tai Streets has had his status upgraded to being a restricted free agent versus a unrestricted free agent as thought to be the matter before the league ruled otherwise.

“We’ll certainly be looking at what free-agent (wide receivers) will be available and be looking at that position strongly during the draft,” York said.

Added Garcia: “I do believe we have receivers who can get down the field, but it was just not an emphasis in our offense.”

Jeff Garcia has always been a proponent for throwing the ball more and has even gone on record as favoring more passing plays versus running plays. Steve Mariucci has always strived to strike a balance in these departments and was rigid when that was compromised in anyway. However Dennis will command more passing plays based on his experience and play calling in general.

We could even see our running game become a minority play in our offense and a feature back could be named over the regular status as of late of using both Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow in rotation of one another. This could in effect eliminate the need of keeping Garrison Hearst and going with the future in Kevan Barlow right away.

As much as I support Barlow and his eventual rise into that role I feel sacrificing the running game and Hearst would be a major mistake on our part. Garrison was clearly a great back in 2002 and even though there were some minor signs of wear and tear he came out on top.

Keeping both backs has been beneficial in so many ways for our offense as both have had the necessary rest to go the full length of a game and remain fresh and agile at all times. Both backs bring something different to the table in both technique and experience, having to pick and choose is an option I would rather them not explore. But in the high stakes world of salary cap it compromises that thought in a large degree.

Optimism runs high now in Santa Clara as Terry Donahue disputes that the 49er organization has resorted to being just another franchise in the league and not staying committed to being a franchise that is revered and sought after. Donahue believes that the stigma about the 49ers remains in place despite reports to the contrary and the horrible controversy that surrounded the Mariucci removal.

“ My answer is that this management team took over the franchise when it was $28 million over the salary cap. We cleaned up that mess and got this football team into the playoffs faster than anyone would have predicted. Throughout the entire process we were criticized and were told we were doing the wrong thing,” stated Donahue.

“There was real concern by the experts that it would take us 5-10 years to get us out of “cap hell”. The reality is we got out of this “cap hell” faster than anyone could have predicted.”

One thing is for sure though and that is the management team will still be soundly in place to watch over Erickson this season. Dennis has already started getting rave reviews from 49er players and the quarterback himself.

Since taking over the team from Steve Young in 1999 he has sought to make his place within this franchise, and to be the role model that so many look up to when leading the San Francisco 49ers.

“I guess from a selfish standpoint, I do look at this as being a positive. I think that he brings so much experience to the game. So much success to the game as far as what he has done as an offensive coach.,” said Garcia of Erickson. “I think that is only going to help our coaches, Gregg Knapp and Ted Tollner obviously have a lot of experience. I think its going to be a very positive thing.”

Supporters of Dennis Erickson ring his praises as does his former Seattle Seahawk quarterback in Warren Moon. Erickson is well known in the football circles as a risk taker and not afraid to pull out all the stops in his quest for gold. He will certainly have a challenge in striking a balance as abased on the west Coast Offense dictates.