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Diane Pucin

Mariucci Chose Bad Time to Quit

January 14, 2003|Diane Pucin

Nothing in sports is worse than quitting.

Steve Mariucci is finding that out. Steve Lavin should pay attention.

There were reports that Lavin, UCLA's embattled basketball coach, may be contemplating resigning.

Even though Lavin has been overmatched as Bruin head coach and seems to have lost this team, if he wants a future as a college coach he shouldn't quit. If Lavin walks away from this team, from his responsibility, how is he to be trusted again, anywhere, with nurturing young athletes?

An athlete or coach can be forgiven almost anything, from criminal conduct to making mental mistakes to just having a bad day. Drop a pass, shank a kick, commit a stupid penalty, fail a drug test, be arrested, go to trial, all of that can be forgiven.

But not quitting. Just ask Mariucci.

In 35 seconds Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, Mariucci might have guaranteed he will not be the coach of the San Francisco 49ers any more.

Maybe for all the right reasons -- to settle down his shellshocked team, to prevent one more big mistake, to regroup, regain focus, to just get away from an awful first half as quickly as possible -- Mariucci made one very wrong decision.

Trailing 28-6, he had his team walk away with 35 seconds left, two timeouts and one very big weapon on the field: wide receiver Terrell Owens.

When Mariucci told the 49ers to walk off just before halftime in the NFC divisional playoff game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, when he told quarterback Jeff Garcia not to try throwing downfield to Owens a couple of times, threat of interception be damned because things couldn't get worse and might get better, there was only one reaction.

Mariucci quit on his team.

"I was surprised," Garcia said after the game. "I thought we'd try making a couple of plays."

Owens was surprised, and not in a good way. He left the locker room without speaking after Tampa Bay's 31-6 win put the Buccaneers in the NFC championship game at Philadelphia on Sunday. He didn't speak because he was too angry.

"We needed to regroup our offense and our defense," Mariucci said after the game. "We had to make some adjustments, we had to find out who was healthy."

Said Garcia: "I thought we were in a position to work a couple of throws down the field."

Mariucci and 49er owner John York are supposed to meet today to talk about Mariucci's contract. It has one year left but it has been an uneasy situation in San Francisco for Mariucci all season.

Owens lambasted his coach's play-calling earlier this season and even questioned Mariucci's nerve when it came to playing tough against Green Bay, where, in Owens' mind, Mariucci was too respectful of Brett Favre, his one-time protege, and Packer Coach Mike Sherman, his all-the-time friend.

And Mariucci had done a clumsy dance with Tampa Bay a year ago, speaking to the Buccaneer owners about the coaching job, asking for time to think it over and then watching as his good friend, Jon Gruden, took the job.

The danger of entertaining other job offers is that if you don't get the other job, your boss may not be happy.

York has not seemed happy. Although Mariucci had only the one year left on his contract, York said he wouldn't discuss an extension until after this season ended.

It ended Sunday, before halftime, actually. Today Mariucci and York will talk. Of all the things to talk about, of all the things to explain, how and why Mariucci told his team to walk off the field, seemingly to surrender, should be the most important topic.

And it may be the one reason Mariucci can't coach the 49ers again. Once players think a coach has given up on them, it is hard for players not to give up on the coach.

Former 49er coach and general manager Bill Walsh said Sunday that the Jacksonville Jaguars' ownership has been asking about Mariucci.

Because of his record with the 49ers, because of the graceful way Mariucci succeeded Walsh and George Seifert, because of the way he has helped rebuild the 49ers in spite of salary cap restrictions, because, even with an injury-depleted and suspect defense, Mariucci brought the 49ers into the second round of the playoffs this season, he will find another job. His actions Sunday can be more easily forgotten in a new city.

If Lavin quits on this season, it may be harder for him to move on. Lavin doesn't have the career achievements of Mariucci. Although he has taken UCLA to the Sweet 16 five of the last six years, Lavin's time at UCLA has mostly been marked by tumult.

For his future, Lavin needs to fight for his coaching life by convincing this team the rest of the season is worth fighting for. Mariucci decided 35 seconds weren't worth fighting for and it was the wrong decision. Even if Lavin won't be UCLA's coach after this season, he has the chance to teach one good lesson, teach it to his players and to himself.

Quitting isn't the way to go.

*

Diane Pucin can be reached at diane.pucin@latimes.com.

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