SANTA CLARA, Calif. — When Steve Mariucci joined the San Francisco 49ers exactly six years earlier, he knew all about the organization's exacting standards of success.
As the seasons rolled on, the genial coach learned more than he ever wanted to know about the institutional impatience and infighting that are part of the territory in one of the NFL's highest-profile jobs.
The 49ers fired Mariucci on Wednesday, ending a prolonged clash of egos and visions that diminished an otherwise successful tenure.
Three days after the 49ers' fourth trip to the playoffs under Mariucci ended in a 31-6 loss at Tampa Bay, owner John York released Mariucci from the final year of his contract. The men hugged Wednesday morning after a 90-minute meeting in which Mariucci tried to talk York out of the decision.
Mariucci had a 57-39 record and three playoff victories while also presiding over a remarkably brief rebuilding period, but it wasn't enough to save his job — even with a year left on his contract. He was the loser in a battle of wills featuring York, general manager Terry Donahue and Hall of Fame coach-turned-advisor Bill Walsh — none of whom were around when Mariucci was hired in 1997.
"I didn't think it was best to have a lame duck coach," York said. "I thought it best to have a coach we were fully committed to. There was enough noise about Steve Mariucci as our head coach, about Steve vs. Bill, about Steve vs. Terry Donahue, about whether or not we love Steve.
"There was too much noise. You can't have all that and move the team along."
The reasons for Mariucci's departure were murky — perhaps by design for an organization that apparently felt Mariucci wasn't the man to lead the young, talented team he helped to build from scratch. Mariucci's flirtations with other jobs in the last offseason also didn't engender feelings of loyalty from York.
But ruthless firings are nothing new for an organization that annually expects to add to its collection of five championships: To make room for Mariucci in 1997, San Francisco parted ways with George Seifert — who won two Super Bowls — after the 49ers lost in the second round of the playoffs.
"It's a very emotional and unpleasant situation for both of them," Donahue said. "Dr. York has a very strong idea about how he wants the 49ers structured. This is a philosophical split between what John wanted to do and what Steve wanted."
According to Donahue, Mariucci wanted a bigger role in the 49ers' football decisions, including the position of vice president of football operations. But Mariucci's agent, Gary O'Hagan, said Mariucci never made those demands, and he desperately wanted to return.
York didn't attend the news conference announcing Mariucci's firing, choosing instead to conduct a conference call from the second floor of the 49ers' training complex with reporters who were on the first floor.
"You can't have that much difference between the owner and the head coach," York said. "We need to go find a head coach that fits into our structure."
The firing is the boldest move yet by York, who has a medical degree and many successful business ventures, but no significant experience in running a pro sports franchise. He is married to Denise DeBartolo York, the sister of former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo.
"John's a really big football fan," said York's spokesman, Sam Singer. "I don't know if he would characterize himself as a football expert, but he's a successful businessman who knows what he wants out of an organization."
The Jacksonville Jaguars have the NFL's only other coaching vacancy, and Mariucci was thought to be a prime candidate for the job. But Jaguars spokesman Dan Edwards said the team doesn't have any plans to interview Mariucci, and he isn't considered a candidate.
"I was as shocked as anyone else," Jaguars 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."
Donahue said York will choose the 49ers' next coach from a list Donahue expects to draw up. The team didn't have any immediate candidates, but Donahue will consider assistants on Mariucci's staff, including defensive coordinator Jim Mora.
Dennis Green, who coached the Minnesota Vikings from 1992-01, is a logical candidate to replace Mariucci. Green was on Walsh's staff when Walsh was coaching the NFL team and Stanford.
"I've always considered myself part of the 49er family," Green told ESPN, which employs him as an analyst. "I've got some interest in that job for a couple of reasons."
This season, San Francisco went 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. As recently as Monday, Mariucci spoke with optimism about the upcoming offseason, when he planned to help San Francisco take another step.
Mariucci repeatedly said he wanted to keep his family in the San Francisco Bay area, and he would be willing to take a minimal raise or even coach the final year of his contract without an extension.
Mariucci still will be paid the $2.2 million from the final year of his contract — an amount that would be reduced if Mariucci takes another job next season.
The history of Mariucci's conflicts with the front office is long and winding. Mariucci angered the 49ers last winter by campaigning for a new contract through the media, and then talking to Notre Dame and the Buccaneers about their vacancies.
The teams worked out a compensation package, but when Mariucci waffled on his decision, Tampa Bay hired Jon Gruden away from Oakland instead. York and Donahue both admitted they felt betrayed by Mariucci's interest in the job.
Defensive tackle Sean Moran called Wednesday "a sad day for the players."
"I can't believe they let him go. He's a great coach and a wonderful human being," Moran said.