San Francisco 49ers co-owner John York did his best to avoid mentioning the names of prospective coaching candidates during Wednesday's news conference to announce his decision to fire Coach Dennis Erickson and oust his general manager, Terry Donahue after a 2-14 season. But when York was asked about University of Southern California Coach Pete Carroll on the heels of the Trojans' trouncing of Oklahoma on Tuesday night to win a second straight collegiate national championship, York didn't hide his interest.
"I think we all watched the game [Tuesday] night,'' York said. "That was a tremendous game, and they were very dominant. He's a great coach.''
Many NFL people seem intrigued with USC's dynamic coaching duo of Carroll and offensive coordinator Norm Chow. Carroll's defensive wizardry and Chow's offensive acumen have made USC the top program in college football again, with a share of last season's national title and outright possession of this season's crown.
It remains to be seen if York could offer Carroll enough, in terms of money and control over the football operations of the once-proud 49ers, to tempt him to leave USC. But Wednesday's admission of interest by York made it clear that the 49ers are prepared to give it a try. And it also is clear that several NFL teams with offensive-coordinator vacancies are contemplating the possibility of trying to lure Chow to the pro ranks. The general manager of one NFL club said Wednesday: "If you have an opening and you don't at least give it [pursuing Chow] some thought, after watching that game, then you're not doing your job.''
Chow's quarterback pupils during his 32-year career as an assistant coach at Brigham Young, North Carolina State and USC have included Jim McMahon, Steve Young, Marc Wilson, Ty Detmer, Philip Rivers, Carson Palmer and the Trojans' current Heisman Trophy winner, Matt Leinart. He hasn't hidden his displeasure about being passed over for head-coaching opportunities, and some people who know both men say that, while Carroll and Chow have learned to coexist peacefully and successfully, there is some professional tension between the two, particularly when the credit for USC's success is being handed out. Thus, there is a perception in the NFL that Chow could be pried from USC for the right job, although it's not clear whether a pro offensive-coordinator position would qualify.
Four NFL teams are without offensive coordinators. On Monday, Baltimore's Matt Cavanaugh resigned under pressure and Detroit's Sherman Lewis retired. On Tuesday, the Jacksonville Jaguars fired Bill Musgrave and the Chicago Bears dismissed Terry Shea. Arizona fired Alex Wood on Monday but the Cardinals hired Kansas City Chiefs tight ends coach Keith Rowen on Wednesday.
New England offensive coordinator Charlie Weis has accepted the head-coaching job at Notre Dame and will leave the Patriots when their season is finished, and there could be at least two more offensive-coordinator vacancies in the coming weeks. The New York Jets apparently are prepared to fire Paul Hackett and the Minnesota Vikings are uncertain if they will retain Scott Linehan, whose contract with the club is expiring.
Carroll already has had his taste of being an NFL head coach, going 6-10 with the Jets in 1994 and 27-21 with the Patriots between 1997 and '99. It seems unlikely that York or anyone else in the NFL would be able to lure him back to the pro game when he's having so much success where he is. He appears to have found his coaching niche and it's probable that he will be back at USC next season, attempting to lead the Trojans to a third straight title. Carroll said during a news conference Wednesday that he's not interested in leaving USC for any NFL jobs.
But that doesn't mean that York won't give it a shot. He said Wednesday that he intends to hire a coach before he hires a general manager, meaning that he could offer Carroll final say over the club's football-related decisions and allow Carroll to pick his own front-office chief. Carroll, 53, was born in San Francisco and was the 49ers' defensive coordinator in 1995 and '96 under former coach George Seifert. He is close to legendary former 49ers coach Bill Walsh, who undoubtedly will have great input into the team's coaching search.
York perhaps could offer Carroll more than $5 million per season; the top college coaches now earn about $2.5 million annually. York could offer Carroll the opportunity to bring along Chow if he wishes, and possibly the chance to draft Leinart in April. The 49ers have the top overall selection, and most people in the league expect Leinart to bypass his final season at USC and enter the draft.
York said Wednesday that the 49ers already had compiled a short list of head-coaching candidates and were ready to launch their search immediately. Even with the franchise's struggles in recent years, York expressed confidence that the five-time Super Bowl champions still are sufficiently attractive to land a coveted coach.
"I don't have any doubt whatsoever that a top-notch coach will come to the San Francisco 49ers,'' York said.
The owner refused to specify what role Walsh will have in the search for Erickson's successor, but hinted that it could be significant.
"The search will be by the organization -- first of all, by people inside the organization that are presently in our football operations and personnel department,'' York said. "And, as you know, we have a very long and storied history with great minds and football people. We're going to get some of those people to assist us and go forward to help us find the best coach we can."
If the 49ers can't get Carroll, another possibility could be Seattle Seahawks Coach Mike Holmgren. Holmgren, another former 49ers assistant, led the Seahawks to the NFC West title this season. But he's had an up-and-down tenure in Seattle and perhaps could get out of the remainder of his contract if he wants to, particularly if the Seahawks lose Saturday's first-round NFC playoff game to the St. Louis Rams.
York met with Erickson and Donahue each day between Monday and Wednesday, but it appears that his disenchantment with the 49ers' season had him knowing what he would do even before those deliberations began.
"This is an important opportunity at a pivotal time,'' York said. "We are going to take maximum advantage of this opportunity to begin the process of rebuilding a winning team that will make this community proud. We know that actions speak louder than words. Beginning today and over the course of the next few months and beyond, you will see us take an aggressive approach to restore the level of dominance and prominence expected of this franchise.''
Browns Busy On Coaching Search
The Cleveland Browns' coaching search will intensify in the coming days, with club officials scheduled to interview Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, Pittsburgh Steelers assistant head coach Russ Grimm and the Browns' interim coach, Terry Robiskie. Cleveland also has received permission to interview Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator Ed Donatell.
Phil Savage will join owner Randy Lerner and team president John Collins in picking the coach after agreeing Wednesday to be the club's general manager. The hiring of Savage, formerly the Ravens' director of player personnel, probably will be made official today, as long as the final contract details can be worked out.
With Savage in the fold, Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Nolan suddenly becomes one of the favorites -- if not THE favorite -- for the Cleveland head-coaching job. University of Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz also could be among the front-runners if he could be persuaded to change his stance that he won't leave the school, and former New York Giants coach Jim Fassel might be a candidate as well. Lerner and Collins interviewed Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator Brad Childress on Tuesday.
Jets defensive end John Abraham expressed doubts about his ability to play in Saturday's first-round AFC playoff game at San Diego after participating in Wednesday's practice. Abraham, who missed the final four games of the regular season because of a sprained lateral collateral ligament in his right knee, indicated that a decision would be made later in the week. Jets Coach Herman Edwards had seemed confident at the outset of the week that the team would get back Abraham in a part-time role.
Abraham is in a difficult position. The Jets desperately need his contributions as a pass rusher; he had 9-1/2 sacks during the regular season. But a player takes a risk of sustaining a more serious injury any time he tries to play in such a situation, and Abraham is eligible for unrestricted free agency in the spring. The Jets have not signed him to a contract extension, as they did with quarterback Chad Pennington and fellow defensive end Shaun Ellis, and Abraham's financial future could be at stake. Bryan Thomas has been filling in for Abraham . . .
The Jets also are uncertain if they'll have wide receiver Wayne Chrebet on Saturday because of a mild concussion . . .
Rams left guard Tom Nutten is scheduled to test his sprained left knee in today's practice to see if he will be able to play Saturday against the Seahawks. Rookie Larry Turner probably would start at the spot if Nutten can't play. Rams defensive end Leonard Little sat out Wednesday's practice because of a groin injury but is likely to practice today . . .
Troubled Seattle wideout Koren Robinson sat out Wednesday's practice because of a sore hip. It's unclear if he'll play Saturday even if he's healthy after his string of disciplinary issues that has led him to miss six of the past seven games . . .
Patriots defensive end Richard Seymour is testing out a knee brace after suffering an apparent sprain to the medial collateral ligament in his left knee late in the regular season. Seymour told reporters Wednesday he's hopeful but uncertain that he'll be able to play when the Patriots open the playoffs after their first-round bye . . .
Denver safety John Lynch indicated that he will appeal the $75,000 fine imposed on him by the league this week for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Indianapolis tight end Dallas Clark last Sunday. The Broncos and Colts play again Sunday in a first-round AFC playoff game . . .
Agent Peter Schaffer met with Cincinnati Bengals officials this week about tailback Rudi Johnson, who's eligible for unrestricted free agency in March. The two sides will attempt to agree to a contract before the free agent market opens . . .
The Bengals probably will promote defensive assistant Chuck Bresnahan to replace defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, who was fired Wednesday. Bresnahan formerly was the defensive coordinator of the Oakland Raiders. If Coach Marvin Lewis looks outside the organization, his list of candidates could include Falcons secondary coach Emmitt Thomas . . .
NFL teams sold more than 90 percent of their available tickets this season as the league set an attendance record for a second straight season. Clubs sold just more than 17 million tickets, and this season's average attendance was 66,409, according to the league . . .
The NFL granted the Seahawks a 24-hour extension, until this afternoon, to attempt to sell the remaining few thousand tickets for Saturday's game to avoid a local television blackout.
Ferguson Returns To Practice Field
Packers wide receiver Robert Ferguson participated in some non-contact portions of Green Bay's practice Wednesday, his first appearance on the practice field since suffering temporary paralysis after absorbing a forearm hit by Jacksonville safety Donovin Darius during a game last month. Ferguson might be cleared to resume practicing fully next week if the Packers keep their season going by beating the Vikings this weekend . . .
Packers Coach Mike Sherman reprimanded defensive tackle Cletidus Hunt after Hunt said publicly that he was out of the starting lineup for the regular season finale to get some rest for the playoffs, when in fact he'd been benched by Sherman. Cullen Jenkins continued to work with the starting defense, ahead of Hunt, during Wednesday's practice . . .
In addition to hiring Rowen, who formerly worked for him in Minnesota, Cardinals Coach Dennis Green made tight ends coach Mike Wilson his receivers coach, replacing the fired Robert Ford, and named offensive consultant Carl Hargrave his tight ends coach . . .
The Bears interviewed Ron Turner for their offensive-coordinator job Wednesday, a day after dismissing Shea. Turner, the former University of Illinois coach and the brother of Raiders Coach Norv Turner, also could be a candidate in Jacksonville, Baltimore and Detroit . . .
Jets defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson could be a candidate for Syracuse's head-coaching job . . .
Tennessee quarterback Billy Volek is scheduled to undergo shoulder surgery Friday. Volek suffered a separated throwing shoulder in the Titans' season finale, and now faces three to four months of rehabilitation. It brings further uncertainty to the position for the Titans. Steve McNair underwent surgery for the sternum injury that ended his season early, and has said that he will consider retirement in the offseason.