Steve Mariucci, the spirited coach who led the San Francisco 49ers to four playoff appearances in six seasons and helped hold the franchise together during its most turbulent stretch, was fired Wednesday with a year left on his contract.
The surprising development came three days after a 31-6 loss at Tampa Bay in a divisional playoff game and stunned players, who largely supported Mariucci and said they wanted the team to retain him.
Team owner Dr. John York said the decision was not based on the team's performance but his "philosophical differences" with Mariucci, who allegedly asked for an expanded role in running the franchise. But Mariucci told ESPN.com he did not make such a request and his agent, Gary O'Hagan, has made similar denials.
York bristled when asked about those discrepancies.
"If this is going to be a we-said, they-said, I'm not interested in that," he said. "I know what Steve asked for."
There is a strong possibility the timing of the decision was linked to a moratorium issued Tuesday by the NFL that temporarily bars teams from trading draft picks for coaches. The speculation is the 49ers hoped to "trade" Mariucci to Jacksonville for draft picks -- just as Oakland had been compensated by Tampa Bay for the rights to Jon Gruden -- then opted to fire him when that option fell through.
A Jaguar spokesman said the team doesn't have any plans to interview Mariucci.
"I was as shocked as anyone else," Jaguar owner Wayne Weaver told the Associated Press. "His agent told us that Steve's interest right now is taking some time off and doing some broadcasting."
The leading candidates to replace Mariucci are former Minnesota Viking coach Dennis Green, who had two stints as a 49er assistant under Bill Walsh, and current 49er defensive coordinator Jim Mora, son of the longtime NFL coach of the same name. USC Coach Pete Carroll, a former 49er defensive coordinator, said Wednesday he has not been contacted by the team nor does he expect to be.
Green recently pulled his name out of the running in Jacksonville because that job did not include general manager responsibilities. But he said Wednesday he would be interested in merely coaching the 49ers.
"San Francisco is totally different," he said on ESPN, which employs him. "What I'm looking for, if I was to be a candidate in San Francisco, is to be a head coach and a head coach only. If that fits the criteria that they're looking for, then you kind of do a deal together."
Although he didn't win a Super Bowl as his predecessors Walsh and George Seifert did, Mariucci weathered a bitter change in ownership and the salary-cap problems and played a key role in the development of quarterback Jeff Garcia and receiver Terrell Owens.
Mariucci went 57-39 in San Francisco, with a brief rebuilding period between four seasons of double-digit victories. This season, San Francisco was 10-6 and reclaimed the NFC West title before making the second-biggest comeback in NFL playoff history to beat the New York Giants, 39-38. The 49ers trailed by as many as 24 in that game.
"I'm just surprised and saddened," Mariucci told ESPN.com. "I didn't see it coming. Really, I didn't. I have a lot of admiration for this place and I've invested a lot here.
"So, sure, I wanted to stay and finish what we had set out to do. It's hard to say goodbye to good people, and there are good people here."
Mariucci, who will be paid $2.25 million for the remaining year on his contract, indicated in recent weeks he wanted to stay with the team and, although he was hoping for an extension, would be willing to stay on for a lame-duck season. York confirmed Mariucci tried to talk him out of firing him.
"I didn't think that it was best to have a lame-duck coach," York said. "I thought it was best to have a coach that we were fully committed to. There's been enough noise around here for the last two years.... You can't be doing all this stuff and moving the team along."
Even though he was in the building, York did not attend the news conference announcing Mariucci's firing -- leaving that task to General Manager Terry Donahue -- nor did he come downstairs from his second-story office to meet with reporters later. He spoke to them via conference call.
"Steve and I see things differently," he said. "It's unfortunate, but I felt like it was the decision I had to make."
Mariucci did not speak to reporters at team headquarters and apparently was spirited away in a windowless black van. Using the remote-controlled camera atop a TV truck, reporters were able to peer over a high wall and spotted the coach stepping into the van.
Mariucci's job status has been the focus of widespread speculation. The 49ers were ready to let him go to Tampa Bay after last season, but the deal fell through, Mariucci stayed, and Gruden ended up with the Buccaneers. Some people think Mariucci has not had a powerful ally in the organization since Carmen Policy, then team president, left to run the expansion Cleveland Browns in 1998. But Donahue dismissed that as "folly."
"I never felt like that," Donahue said. "In my independent observation, I think Steve Mariucci received as much support and as much cooperation as any coach could ever want."
Clearly, Mariucci had the support of his players. They said after Sunday's loss that they wanted him back, and a few of them wandering around the facility echoed that Wednesday.
"I've been in three different organizations. I played for Buffalo, St. Louis and here, and I don't know if this organization realizes how good of a head coach we had here," defensive tackle Sean Morgan said.
"He'll go down as one of the best coaches around in the NFL. It's sad to see a guy like that go."