Curious, George Seifert's Resignation Surprises Rhodes, 49ers Players Seifert's Move Stuns Coaches

Posted: January 16, 1997

MOBILE, Ala. — His face fixed in its typical dour mode, Ray Rhodes took his lunch yesterday at a local cafeteria between Senior Bowl practice sessions. A woman approached him and asked why it so often appeared as though he'd bit a chunk out of a lemon.

``Are you the coach of the Eagles?'' she began. Rhodes said yes.

``Why do you look so [ticked] off and mad all the time?''

``I'm on my job. I'm working,'' he replied. ``I depend on my job to feed my family. It's serious to me. I can't go out there on the field in one of those happy-go-lucky moods. At that time, I'm putting myself in a trench hole. I've got people firing bullets at me from every direction. Do you smile when people are shooting at you?''

The woman looked at him as if he were crazy. He read in her eyes advice he often hears: Relax. Kick back. Enjoy things.

``I can't. This is a short-time job,'' Rhodes said. ``Head coaches don't last too long.''

After lunch, his words proved eerily prophetic.

That's when Rhodes, along with most of the rest of the NFL coaches who annually flock here to rate some of the college crop, learned of George Seifert's exit as the San Francisco 49ers coach.

Seifert, 56 - winner of two Super Bowls, whose winning percentage (108-35, .755 in eight seasons) is the best in NFL history, who won 100 NFL games quicker than anyone - resigned yesterday. University of California head coach Steve Mariucci reportedly will be named as his replacement today.

That puts at 10 the number of head coaches who either quit or were fired this season - a full one-third of all such positions. It also cast a pall over a normally pleasant scene at Senior Bowl preparations.

Usually, during the afternoon practice session, coaches campaign for jobs and rib each other about seasons past while the future pros audition. Yesterday, though, a fog of shock rolled in, as real clouds dropped showers on the Fairhope Stadium crowd.

As Rhodes sat in the stands and chatted with people interested in working for him should Emmitt Smith, his defensive coordinator, be snapped up by the yawning maw of coaching vacancies, Rhodes was not immune to the shock, or to the cold shower of the new demands of coaching in the NFL.

``I was very surprised,'' Rhodes said. ``But that's part of the 49ers mystique. It's why guys coming out of there want to win so quickly. George is a friend of mine. He's a big ally. Everybody looks at me and thinks I'm crazy at times. But I've tried to apply that pressure to myself. To get it done. Now.''

After two 10-6 seasons and a 1-2 overall playoff record, Rhodes has three years remaining on his contract to do what Seifert did in 1989 and 1994 - win the Super Bowl. Despite his Niners connections - he was an assistant for 12 of the 14 years before he took over the Eagles - Rhodes said San Francisco did not contact him about replacing Seifert. Eagles vice president Joe Banner confirmed that the Niners did not request permission to speak with Rhodes.

Had Rhodes been available, however, Mariucci might still be at Cal.

``If I'd been a free agent or something like that, I think I'd have been contacted,'' Rhodes said.

Rhodes and Mariucci coached together briefly in Green Bay under Mike Holmgren, a 49ers coaching product himself.

``He's got a good offensive mind,'' Rhodes said of Mariucci, who developed Packers quarterback Brett Favre into the two-time Most Valuable Player he has become, then constructed Cal's potent offense. ``They know Mariucci can come in there with an offensive system and move the football.''

Of course, the Niners could have reached within their immediate family to replace Seifert, but seem to have decided against it long ago.

Defensive coordinator Pete Carroll is a leading candidate to replace Rich Brooks as head coach in St. Louis, and offensive coordinator Marc Trestman, regarded as one of the game's better minds, was rumored to be on the way out of the organization after players questioned his play-calling during the season.

Trestman, who was with the Niners' staff at Senior Bowl practice, declined to comment when asked about the situation. He and his colleagues were the subject of much sympathy around the field.

Officially, Seifert decided to retire while on a recent fishing trip. Niners president Carmen Policy and owner Eddie DeBartolo said they were surprised at Seifert's decision.

Coaches here scoffed at that assessment. There were rumors Mariucci would replace Trestman in 1997 with an eye toward replacing Seifert in 1998, after Seifert's contract expired. The undercurrent here is that Seifert was pushed out, and that this is a bad sign for what the league is becoming.

``It's shocking for everybody to hear about - that he would resign . . . or whatever,'' said Art Shell, former Raiders coach and current Chiefs offensive line coach. ``Everybody wants to win now. With the two expansion franchises doing what they did this year, that just adds more fuel to the fire. You don't have four or five years anymore, regardless of how good your team is. I don't know if that's good for the business.''

Ironically, Shell belongs to a staff of a team that was expected to contend for the AFC crown, but failed to make the playoffs. Still, head coach Marty Schottenheimer, who helped rebuild the Chiefs to an NFL power, was given a four-year extension two days ago. And Shell was given five years to try to win with the Raiders.

Such has been the norm in the NFL coaching business; programs are given time to show success, and past successes often extend the lives of their engineers.

That is changing. St. Louis gave Brooks the boot when he led the Rams to a 13-19 record in two seasons and showed improvement. But Brooks didn't even make the playoffs. Seifert did, and won a game.

The already high paranoia level among coaches just rose.

``Unbelievable,'' one coach muttered.

``It makes you wonder,'' a scout said.

Not really. The message seems clear for every team that didn't play Sunday: If expansion franchises Carolina and Jacksonville can reach the conference finals, and if Bill Parcells and Holmgren can take over teams in New England and Green Bay and reach the Super Bowl within five years, why not us?

If anyone seemed safe, it was Seifert. He went 12-4 this season, tied for the third-best record in the league. The offense sputtered at times, but former MVP quarterback Steve Young missed parts or all of eight regular-season games with various injuries. The Niners finished sixth in the league in yards gained and third in scoring.

True, the Niners twice lost to the Panthers, thereby losing the NFC West title and the accompanying bye. True, the Packers embarrassed the Niners in the divisional playoffs, 35-14. That was the Niners' third consecutive loss to Green Bay and the one Niners players and coaches here blame for Seifert's departure, forced or otherwise.

But the Niners lost to Green Bay largely without Young, who injured his ribs in the opening round against the Eagles and played only briefly. Furthermore, defending Super Bowl champion Dallas, the '90s' other NFC superpower, lost to the Panthers the same week Green Bay beat San Francisco.

Niners players seemed as shocked as the coaching community.

``Everybody knew . . . around the locker room [there would be changes],'' 49ers defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield said. ``We knew something was going to happen. We didn't know it was going to be George.''

And they don't know if it's only George.

``You don't know what's going to go down right now,'' receiver J.J. Stokes said. ``I'm kind of in the dark about everything . . . The head coach is gone. They might be cleaning house. ''

They certainly are changing the house's ruling heirarchy. The San Francisco Chronicle reported former Niners coach Bill Walsh will move from his advisory role to director of football operations. Left unclear was the status of Dwight Clark, currently in that post.

The shadow Walsh cast in his advisory position this season made Seifert uncomfortable, Niners insiders have said. That shadow certainly would have grown. Perhaps that, along with reports Seifert would be a coach with a one-year contract who had to deal every day with speculation about who would replace him, caused Seifert to call it quits. Seifert said the Niners' brass offered to extend his deal a year, but there are reports to the contrary.

Regardless, whether it was Seifert's call all the way or the result of pressure from above, Seifert, who reports say probably will receive the $1.6 million due him for the 1997 season, didn't seem bitter or burned out.

``It's time for some new blood,'' said Seifert, who said he would coach again. ``I'm not saying my blood is stagnant. But I'm saying let's just pass this on to someone else. There's a natural process to this thing. You don't stay a head coach for infinity.''

Certainly not with the current expectations.

``From what I understand, Seifert is always under pressure to win the Super Bowl,'' Niners cornerback Tyronne Drakeford said. ``It keeps mounting each year he doesn't win it. That's part of the business. You take it as it comes.''

It's coming hotter and heavier every year. Jacksonville coach Tom Coughlin's rapid success helped raise the intensity - a process that every coach, even Couglin, can see as a daunting change.

His voice quiet, Coughlin said, ``It's the nature of the game.''

And one reason for Rhodes's sour puss.

SEIFERT'S RECORD

REGULAR SEASON

Year Team W L T Pct

1989 San Francisco 14 2 0 .875

1990 San Francisco 14 2 0 .875

1991 San Francisco 10 6 0 .625

1992 San Francisco 14 2 0 .875

1993 San Francisco 10 6 0 .625

1994 San Francisco 13 3 0 .813

1995 San Francisco 11 5 0 .688

1996 San Francisco 12 4 0 .688

Totals 98 30 0 .766

POSTSEASON

Year Team W L T Pct

1989 San Francisco 3 0 0 1.000

1990 San Francisco 1 1 0 .500

1992 San Francisco 1 1 0 .500

1993 San Francisco 1 1 0 .500

1994 San Francisco 3 0 0 1.000

1995 San Francisco 0 1 0 .000

1996 San Francisco 1 1 0 .500

Totals 10 5 0 .667

Overall Total 108 35 0 .755

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