Once Upon a Time : Mariucci Has Been Head Coach at Cal for Six Games, but It's Already a Storied Career


Before Steve Mariucci could change Saturdays in Strawberry Canyon, he had to change Friday nights.

Before he could get the California Golden Bears to believe they could beat USC, go 5-1, return to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1958, turn Telegraph Avenue into Tuscaloosa West, he had to get players to buy into the night before.

Mariucci leaned heavily on influences during his high-speed chase toward his first head coaching job at age 40: Gene Murphy, John Robinson, Ted Tollner, Mike Holmgren, Bruce Snyder.

But he also borrowed from Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm.

Friday night story time, 60 players gathered bug-eyed around Mariucci's campfire, is fast becoming part of Cal lore.

Offensive tackle Tarik Glenn likes the story about "The Little Bird."

Receiver Na'al Benjamin's favorite is "The Bamboo Tree."

But nothing compares to "The Pump."

"I swear to God, he almost lost his voice telling us that one," senior offensive tackle Todd Stewart says.

"The Pump" is the story of a trip the young Mariucci took with his father to a Michigan lake. Steve gets thirsty and finds an old well with a hand pump. Steve pumps and pumps, but the well yields no water. Steve wants to give up but, at his father's urging, keeps pumping. Finally, the water starts flowing, sweeter and more pure than any he has ever tasted.

The water pump is mounted on a wooden base and stands in a corner of Mariucci's office. It's the sort of contraption a visitor cannot help but notice.

Mariucci told his players "The Pump," story Sept. 13, the night before a 42-37 victory over San Diego State.

"In the huddle, when things were rough, we were saying 'Hey guys, keep pumping,' " Benjamin recalls.

There's only one flaw with the pump yarn.

It's hogwash. When asked if the story was true, Mariucci almost spits out his coffee.

"It's a story!" Mariucci says, laughing. "It's like 'The Three Little Bears.' "

The pump in Mariucci's office? He bought it in Wisconsin.


Cal needed Mariucci the way River City needed Professor Harold Hill.

The program had gone flat under former coach Keith Gilbertson, going 4-7 and 3-8 the last two seasons.

Berkeley was going to be a tough place to sell band instruments, though. The intellectuals who studied under trees on Saturdays weren't much interested in football, unless, of course, you were talking Rose Bowl.

Yet Mariucci always saw 75,000-seat Memorial Stadium as half-full, not half-empty.

"I want it all," Mariucci says as he leans back in his office chair, four days after his team's consciousness-raising upset of USC. "I don't know how realistic that is. I don't know if we can get there, I don't know when we'll get there, but that's what we are thinking about, and working for."

National championship?

Mariucci didn't say the words, but that's what he meant.

He calls Cal "a sleeping giant," a program ready to explode.

Mariucci, known as "Mooch," hit the concrete running after serving the last four years in Green Bay as quarterback guru to Brett Favre, who, under Mariucci's watch, went from Packer pauper to the league's most valuable player.

"He's 100 mph," says Mike Pawlawski, the quarterback during Mariucci's previous stint at Cal from 1987 to 1991.

Mariucci changed everything at Cal but the uniforms. Mooch brought along his 10,000-kilowatt energy, his famous book of 2,000 offensive plays, his very own pyramid of success--no offense, John Wooden--and a new attitude.

He lured away the best coaches available: Wayne Moses from Terry Donahue's UCLA staff for the running backs, Tom Holmoe from the San Francisco 49ers as defensive coordinator and Hue Jackson, who developed quarterback Jake Plummer at Arizona State.

Mariucci invited the coaches along for the ride.

"He's a superstar on the come," Moses says. "You want to latch onto a guy like that."

Mariucci gathered the 3-8 team he inherited in fall drills in Turlock and laid down a new law. He told the team that slackers were going to be ousted and, sure enough, about a dozen or so have been.

He told players how to change their socks and tie their shoes, what to eat and wear. He banned cellular phones and beepers from team meetings.

He has even taken to wearing expensive suits on the sidelines--all part of the makeover.

"Everybody in this world likes structure," Mariucci says. "Everybody does. You need it. These kids were yearning for it."

He opened his West Coast offense book to Pat Barnes, a gifted but misguided senior quarterback, and promised to show him a new way.

"You knew the rep he was bringing in," Barnes says.

Mariucci's playbook has been compared to the Magna Carta. "He's probably got an alarm system on that thing," Stewart says.

Mariucci added spice to practices that needed flavoring.

Everything he told his players came true: that they were not losers, that they could reach for the stars, that they could even beat USC at the Coliseum for the first time since 1970.

"He doesn't lie," says Pawlawski, who now does radio commentary for Cal games. "I can't think of one time he told an untruth. You take a whole lot of stock in that as a player."

Mariucci had never been a head coach, but he has turned 3-8 into 5-1 with a mix of mirrors and metaphors.

"It wasn't like it was a team with bad people that needed a spanking," Stewart says. "But we needed direction. And he's providing it."

For Barnes, Mariucci was a godsend. A player with pro potential, Barnes was a lost lamb who has found his way under the coach who rescued Favre.

Mariucci says Barnes has been like a sponge.

"We're not splitting the atom here or anything, but there's some sophistication to it," Mariucci says of his offense. "He's been a champ, really spent time with it, takes notes. He's just obsessed with it."

Barnes has completed 60% of his passes for 1,678 yards and 14 touchdowns, with five interceptions.

Players didn't jump into Mariucci's program--it has been a head-first dive.

"He's a guy I would want to come back and coach for," Benjamin says.

It would be worth returning merely for the Friday nights.

Mariucci never tells stories on game days.

"If he told that story before we play, we'd almost have to kill people," Barnes says.

Once, Mariucci told of a man who planted a bamboo tree. He watered it every day for years but the tree never grew. But the man never gave up watering.

"One day the tree grows 90 feet," Benjamin explains. "What made the tree grow? Watering it one day? No, it grew because he never gave up watering that tree."

The story was dedicated to Cal seniors.

Before the USC game, Mariucci told of a wise man, two kids and a bird, with the football analogy ending up to mean that the fate of the USC game was in their hands.

These aren't rah-rah stories, but ones geared to make already intelligent Berkeley players think.

"The Friday night stories are not only to get you excited about the game," Barnes says. "You'll carry them with you the rest of your life."

Mariucci says he has collected fables on his journey up the coaching ranks.

In his office, he is surrounded by pictures of mentors and memories.

Mariucci grew up in Iron Mountain on Michigan's Upper Peninsula, where he was so energetic as a kid he used to do his paper route on foot.

As a quarterback, he led Northern Michigan to the Division II national title in 1975, before beginning a swift climb through the coaching ranks.

He came west in 1980 as a 23-year-old assistant to Gene Murphy at Cal State Fullerton.

Murphy, now coaching at Fullerton College, remembers how fast Mariucci took to Xs and O's.

"I thought he was not going to stay at Cal State Fullerton," Murphy says. It was at Fullerton that Mariucci, with his leading-man looks, met and married his wife, Gayle.

It was also at Fullerton that Mariucci polished his speaking skills, which Murphy described as "Upper Peninsula" until "Mooch" took a Dale Carnegie course.

"We were going to sell him to Hollywood until he opened his mouth," Murphy says.

After Fullerton, Mariucci did requisite coaching hauls at Louisville, the USFL's Orlando Renegades, USC, Cal and Green Bay.

"You learn a little bit from every guy," Mariucci says as he surveys his wall of fame. "From John Robinson, I learned to appreciate the running game. From Murph, how to handle people. Ted Tollner? He's extremely professional in everything he does." There is a picture of his high school coach, George Gusick.

And Packer Coach Mike Holmgren.

"From him, I learned so much about organization," Mariucci says.

Most of Mariucci's Friday night stories are culled--OK, poached-- from other authors.

"It's not like I make things up," Mariucci says. "The stories come from somewhere. Nothing any more in this world is original. You steal a story from here, hear a story from there, and you get one from Zig Ziegler, and one from the priest, and one from your dad, and one from your friend, and one from a book. You know, they're stories. And then you make them pertain to you, and your situation, and football.

"Kids on Friday nights, they're all eyes and ears. It's a time when they soak it all in."

Mariucci confesses that he stole "The Pump" story from Ziegler, one of his favorite motivational speakers.


Saturday, the Bears can go 6-1 with a victory over UCLA at Berkeley. Cal and Arizona State are the only Pac-10 teams that control their destinies. The school that wins out--the teams meet Nov. 9 in Tempe--will go to the Rose Bowl.

It remains to be seen how the Bears will respond after last weekend's 21-18 defeat at Washington State, Mariucci's first as a head coach.

"Wait till he loses a game," Murphy said before the loss.

"He won't change at all. Hard to believe, but his energy level will rise."

Until the USC victory, you could argue that Cal was a paper tiger, with victories over San Jose State, San Diego State without stars George Jones and Will Blackwell, Nevada and lowly Oregon State, in three overtimes.

But USC was a credibility fuel injection.

"It's proof," Benjamin says as he sits on a bleacher seat in Memorial Stadium. "There are still nonbelievers, but it's done. We beat SC. Now, we're going on to beat other teams. . . .

"First it was a vision. Now, we're starting to smell roses."

Mariucci knows there's a long way to go. Expect him to work this into the story of the journey of a thousand miles that begins with a first step.

His defense ranks among the nation's worst, giving up 25.8 points a game, mostly because there are 15 freshmen or sophomores on the two-deep roster.

The student body isn't sold either, although Mariucci vows not to stop hustling his aluminum siding until it is.

"When that stadium fills up, then I'll say it's changed," he says. "We've got to have a full house against UCLA. Then I'll say it's changed."

Make no mistake, though, things are different in the Canyon.

Cal is no fairy tale. "Somebody up there likes us," Mariucci says. "I believe we're a little bit good, we're a little bit overachieving, but we are very much playing hard and confident right now. And we're on our way. We're very much on our way up."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World