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The Magic of Mariucci

San Francisco's former coach is bringing new life to moribund Lions

August 03, 2003|From Associated Press

ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Robert Porcher was heading for the airport last February when he got a call from the Detroit Lions about an important meeting.

Steve Mariucci, the team's new coach, wanted to talk to the three-time Pro Bowl defensive end right away.

"I told them I was late for my plane," Porcher says. "They said, 'Just get back here. Coach Mariucci needs you.' So I changed my flight. I'm sure glad I did."

It was a meeting that left the 12-year veteran eager to start the new season. After a few hours with Mariucci, Porcher decided life would be much better following two miserable seasons in which the Lions went 5-27 under Marty Mornhinweg.

In the six months since he was hired, Mariucci has engendered that kind of enthusiasm.

"There's just a whole different attitude here," fullback Cory Schlesinger says. "People have a lot of respect for the man and what he's done. He's a winner and we've been losers. He's what we need."

Mariucci landed in Detroit three weeks after he was fired by San Francisco, which he took to the playoffs in four of his six seasons as coach. Even more important to the Lions, he took only two years to rebuild the 49ers after salary-cap problems forced major cuts, leading to 4-12 and 6-10 records in 1999 and 2000.

"The new job makes me a new man in a way," said Mariucci, who grew up with Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo in Iron Mountain on Michigan's Upper Peninsula and was a fan of the Packers, not the Lions.

"I love to take younger players, merge them with veterans and get them to play as a unit. It's made me as enthusiastic as I've been for a while."

Still, nobody really expects the Lions to make the playoffs this season, although Porcher asks, "Why not?" There are just too many holes (linebacker, running back and secondary) and too much inexperience (quarterback and wide receiver) to make Detroit a contender, even in a league where teams regularly go from bottom to top in one season.

But .500 might not be out of the question. Just look at the team's attitude compared to last season.

Mornhinweg had never been a head coach and alienated the veterans early in his first training camp. He told the team in the middle of a practice that he was disgusted with its habits, then jumped on a motorcycle and rode away. It was noted that the cycle was parked next to the practice field before Mornhinweg took off, an indication the ride was staged.

Mariucci, by contrast, began his tenure by gathering the team's leaders -- hence Porcher's delayed flight -- and telling the veterans he expected them to set an example for a very young team. He's also impressed his players by handling them as individuals: Ray Brown, the 40-year-old guard, was told not to report for the start of camp so he can be fresher when the season begins.

Above Mariucci is Matt Millen, who became the team's president after the 2000 season, when it finished 9-7, missing the playoffs on a field goal by Chicago's Paul Edinger on the final play of the final game.

Millen, who won four Super Bowl rings with three teams in 12 years as a player, got the job without coaching or front-office experience. He was a TV analyst after his on-field career ended. As a player, he was a fierce, respected competitor.

But his inexperience showed immediately when he interviewed only the untested Mornhinweg and then hired him. He never talked to that year's two prime candidates, defensive coordinators Marvin Lewis of Baltimore and John Fox of the New York Giants, who were off-limits until after their teams played in the Super Bowl.

Both are now head coaches, and Fox helped Carolina improve from 1-15 to 7-9 in his rookie season last year.

Millen also hired Mariucci without any other interviews, violating the NFL's new policy requiring an interview with at least one minority candidate.

Millen says five black coaches turned down interview requests because they knew Mariucci was his man. Nonetheless, the NFL fined him $200,000 last week.

Millen was angry publicly and even more so privately, primarily because of how it tarnished his and the team's reputation. He's more understanding of his reputation as a bumbling executive.

"I know everyone thinks I'm just an old linebacker who doesn't know what he's doing," he says. "But I don't think anyone realizes what I inherited here. They look at a team that just missed the playoffs the previous year and don't look at the fact that we had six guys who started in 2000 and weren't playing anywhere in the NFL in 2001 -- they were just done."

Millen gets higher grades for his past couple of drafts and for hiring Mariucci.

But many key players are in their first or second years, most importantly quarterback Joey Harrington and wide receiver Charles Rogers, high No. 1s the last two years.

"I have no doubt that one day they'll be up there with combinations like Joe Montana to Jerry Rice and Dan Marino to Mark Duper and Mark Clayton," Mariucci says. "But they're not close yet. It's not going to happen overnight."

That was evident in practice this week as Rogers continually got tangled up on routes and Harrington kept looking in the wrong direction. Then Rogers dislocated a finger and will miss a few days of practice, setting the duo back a little more.

"I know how much I have to learn," Harrington acknowledges.

The same is true for the rest of the team. There's more speed, more enthusiasm, but not a lot of experience. David Kircus, an impressive sixth-round pick from Grand Valley State, is already one of the top four receivers.

"I'm not even going to guess how many games we'll win," Mariucci says. "But I know there's a lot of good young talent on this team. It's going to be fun developing it."

For most of the players, the fun part starts with Mariucci.

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