-- The San Francisco 49ers, with stunning decisiveness, today fired coach Steve Mariucci with a year remaining on his contract.
Mariucci, 47, had been in limbo since the 49ers were bounced from the NFC playoffs Sunday by Tampa Bay. However, it was widely assumed that he would return or the team would seek compensation from the Jacksonville Jaguars or some other NFL team that might try to lure him.
Instead, General Manager Terry Donahue said owner John York decided to fire Mariucci because he was unwilling to meet Mariucci's demands for more authority, including the position of vice president of football operations.
"This was something that I thought was necessary to get us to move forward," York told the Associated Press. "I wasn't planning on trying to (change coaches) this way, but there were reasons why I needed to talk to Steve. It just seemed to me that no matter what came up, Steve and I did not see things together."
Donahue acknowledged that the 49ers could have sought a deal for Mariucci but said: "There really wasn't any consideration of that. I really believe that this gets back to a split, a philosophical split between where John wanted to go and where he thought Steve wanted to go."
Mariucci could not be reached for comment. However, a source close to the coach denied that Mariucci had demanded more power. "There was never a negotiation and thus never a demand," said the source, who requested anonymity. "I just don't think they wanted him to be the coach."
The move created speculation that the Jaguars, with the NFL's only other coaching vacancy, would move quickly to hire Mariucci. In Jacksonville, Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver told the Associated Press that Mariucci's agent, Gary O'Hagan, indicated that Mariucci wanted to take some time off. "His agent told us that Steve's interest right now is taking some time off and doing some broadcasting," Weaver said.
O'Hagan, in an interview, acknowledged he spoke today with Weaver but said Mariucci wants to return. "He definitely wants to coach -- it's just when and with whom," said O'Hagan. "But he's still eager to coach." Asked if that included next season, O'Hagan said: "Potentially. The situation is pretty fluid now. Obviously, we're very surprised."
Mariucci was scheduled to make about $2.2 million in the final year of his contract. KGO radio reported that his contract allows the team to buy out the final year for one-third of his salary, or $733,000.
The announcement made for one of the darker days in recent 49ers history. It followed Sunday's humiliating 31-6 loss to the Bucs, while the cross-town Raiders are gearing up to play Tennessee for the AFC championship Sunday in Oakland.
Donahue said the 49ers would immediately open a search for a coach. The leading candidates appeared to be former Minnesota Vikings coach Dennis Green, now an ESPN analyst, and Jim Mora Jr., San Francisco's defensive coordinator. Green has worked previously with legendary former coach Bill Walsh, now a 49ers advisor, at Stanford University and with the 49ers.
Donahue said the decision to fire Mariucci was not "performance-based." But it was clear that Mariucci had failed to meet expectations for a franchise that won five Super Bowls under his predecessors, Walsh and George Seifert. Mariucci was 57-39 but never reached the Super Bowl.
His final game -- the Bucs -- was particularly damaging. It included a sequence at the end of the first half in which he pulled his team off the field with enough time left to attempt to move into field-goal position. Mariucci was blasted for seemingly signaling that he was giving up, but he said that the 49ers were battered and needed to get into the locker room to regroup.
Some players, including quarterback Jeff Garcia, also criticized the move, but most appeared to support him as coach.
"I can't believe they let him go. He's a great coach and a wonderful human being," defensive tackle Sean Moran said outside the team's training facility, where the team made the announcement.
However, it was known that York had become increasingly displeased with Mariucci. A former Little Rock pathologist, York took control of the team in May 2000 with his wife, Denise DeBartolo York, following a highly public battle for the team with DeBartolo York's brother, Eddie DeBartolo.
Mariucci had been involved in an on-again, off-again feud with his best player, wide receiver Terrell Owens, and York was believed to be upset over Mariucci's handling of the situation, which started when Mariucci suspended Owens three years ago after his midfield celebration in Dallas.
Mariucci indicated last year that he wanted expanded powers when he began to discuss a contract extension, according to Donahue. The issue came up again Dec. 30, he said, when O'Hagan met with York for exploratory talks about an extension.
On Monday, Mariucci expressed his desire to return to the 49ers. York was noncommittal. The issue apparently came to a head during a phone conversation between them Monday night.