The Love of the Game

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Steve Mariucci on 40 years of coaching, talking and living football.

Steve Mariucci is a family man. He’s the son of a coach, with two sisters and two brothers, one of whom is a college athletic director. A proud dad, Mariucci has called Monte Sereno home for years. His kids attended Los Gatos area schools, and, as we learn from this interview, he wishes they would all return. As any devoted father might.

Outside the family, Mariucci is a bona fide star. The former head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, Mariucci led his team to four playoffs behind Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young and Young’s favorite target, fellow Hall of Famer Jerry Rice. Mariucci then moved on to Detroit, in his home state, to become the highest-paid head coach in the NFL.

Ten years ago he left the NFL and took a TV gig, and has since become an icon on the NFL Network. Despite all of this success—maybe what drives this success—Mariucci (“Mooch” to his many fans) remains an obviously decent, regular guy.

Michael Jacobi—you know him as the impresario behind Jazz on The Plazz—interviewed Mariucci in November 2015 for his ‘Talk of the Town’ program on KCAT. The conversation touched on topics ranging from Mooch’s time as a quarterback at Northern Michigan to the extensive charity work of the Mariucci Family Foundation to his work dealing with concussions in the NFL and beyond. What follows is an edited version of that conversation. —Eric Johnson

Michael Jacobi: I must tell you my favorite clip. You’re on the sidelines with Steve Young. You know the story: very, very important moment. And Steve’s listening, and the tension—you can cut it with a knife. And you looked at him and said, “Are you having fun?”

Steve Mariucci: Yes, I said, “Is this fun or what?” And it was just raw, organic—it was like I was talking to my kid or my wife or my friend.

You’ve gotta have fun when you’re a coach. I mean, there’s enough pressure, there’s enough criticism, there’s enough of all of that. Even more now with social media. You’d better find a way to enjoy it.

And obviously, when Steve Young was on the team, and Jerry Rice and that bunch, it was much more fun coaching then.

When it comes to the NFL Network: Is this fun?

Yeah, it’s fun. Ten years now.

Tell me the difference in hours.

Well, last year, even the year before, I was telling my wife, “I’ve got to get back into coaching. This is killing me.” Because my schedule—we started Thursday Night Football with the network and we did it for the first nine years. And we traveled.

So you travel on Wednesday, most games to the East Coast—Eastern Time Zone. It’s travel Wednesday, do your meetings and shows and everything Thursday, fly back here on Friday, and then Saturday morning­—boom. I’m right back down to the studio in Los Angeles for the weekend. And then I come back home, and I have a studio in my home. I do shows from my house on Monday.

So I have one day off a week: Tuesday. And that’s a prep day. You’ve got to get ready for all of these interviews or XO’s or whatever you do. I was in a hotel three, four nights a week, and on an airplane four days a week,.

At least when you’re coaching you sleep in your own bed. There’s only eight trips [for road games].

Albeit two hours a night, at least you sleep in your own bed.

Yeah, it’s not much, but you sleep. The off season’s different. I actually have a life in the off season.

You can get the handicap down in the off season.

You know what? I quit golf a long time ago, Mike, because I was terrible.

I travel, see my kids. I hate being an empty nester. All my kids went to schools around here. With all their friends, the house was always Grand Central Station. I loved it. So you go from 90 miles an hour to zero. It’s like, “Whhaah?”

Having conversations with your wife again.

Yes. When the kids left, I said, “So, how you been?” (Laughs).

“… and you are?” (Laughs)

So we do a lot of traveling to see the kids. My wife just came back from Boston to visit our daughter and I know she’s going again in two more weeks.

I have one son, Tyler, who is Associate Athletic Director at the University of Maryland. He has oversight of 11 sports and he’s very busy. He’s married, he’s got one on the way, all of that. He’s doing great, but he’s on the other side of the country.

My son Adam is in New York City, working and living there and loving it. And one son’s in San Diego. And so they’re gone. And I’m just kind of hoping and praying they show up and come back here at some point.

•  •  •

We tried to find a clip of the 1975 National Championship game when you were quarterbacking Northern Michigan. Those must be all tied up in the courts, ‘cause there are no clips available.

Oh, I got clips. (Laughs.) You should have said “bring some clips.”

So 1975, Northern Michigan University, who are you playing?

Well, we played Western Kentucky then. But let me just tell you about back then, okay?

You had helmets, right?

They were not leather, either, Jacobi. Back then, in the ‘70s, there were only two divisions. There was Division I and Division II, where we won the National Championship. That’s kinda cool and I’ll tell you why: Because the year before we were O and 10.

We were the only team ever, in the history of the world, to go from winless to National Championship. In any sport. Look it up.

It was different then because of who Division II included. We had to beat Boise State in the semi. They’re pretty good. We had to beat teams like Delaware, Central Michigan, Troy, Western Kentucky, Eastern Kentucky—many of those teams are now Division I.

Division II back then was really strong. It was very, very competitive. So, yeah, we were lucky enough to win it. And then the next year we were pretty good too.

Well, then it’s a matter of the pro scouts beating a path to your door, and you make the move for two weeks to Canada.

I actually started coaching as soon as I was done at Northern Michigan, and I asked permission from my head coach, “Can I try [playing] in the NFL or the CFL?” He said, “Yeah. Come back if you don’t make it.”

I told him: “I’ll be back in a couple weeks.” And so that’s my start of my coaching profession a long time ago, 40 years ago.

Did you coach under Walsh?

I didn’t coach under Walsh, but when I was the head coach at the Niners, Bill was the GM and then president.

The first day, when I showed up at the Niners from the University of California, he cornered me. He said, “All right, here’s the deal. You just got off a fast treadmill over there at Cal and you’re going to be jumping onto one even faster here. You need to take your wife and your family on a vacation.” I said, “What, right now?” He goes, “Yes. You need to get freshened up. Go on a vacation.” That was the last thing that I thought he would say to me.

He was great. And he wasn’t meddling. He would watch. He would answer questions if I asked them. But he was always there.

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I would think that whereas you wouldn’t want a General Manager to be meddling, there must be a great deal of security in the fact that Yoda is up there.

But if you recall, and you could write a book about all this: My first year with the Niners was ‘97. Carmen Policy and Eddie DeBartolo hired me. I remember when they came over to the University of California in a limo. They picked me up from the football offices, and we went down to the president of the university, with the athletic director. And he said, “All right, we want your coach.” I had only been there one year.
And it was bizarre.

I wasn’t expecting it. I didn’t interview for the job. It was really weird, to be honest.

Now, they put the money in a brown paper bag, or was that in a suitcase?

I didn’t see any of that. All coaches in college have a buyout contract, and there was a buyout in my contract. And Mr. D. says, “We will do the buyout times two, and more than that, whatever it takes.” I mean, he didn’t want to upset the Cal fan base or the president of the university.
And he was very generous to the university to, you know, steal their coach.

And you had a good run.

Yeah, it was fun. It was amazing. But you’ve got to remember then, after one year, Eddie DeBartolo’s gone. Carmen Policy, after a year and a half, he’s gone. He went to Cleveland as a 10 percent owner and president. Dwight Clark, our GM, gone to Cleveland. Marketing, gone. There was nobody left in the building my second year.

Was Walsh still president?

Well, see, Bill had left. When I first got there, he was there for a few weeks and then he was gone. So we had to hire a general manager. So we hired John McVay. John McVay is as good as it gets.

Nice guy.

Oh my God, he was the voice of reason. He was the wind beneath your wings. So we brought him back, thank God, because he had to help me with the salary cap and contracts and all that. And then we eventually needed a president, and we brought Bill Walsh back as the president.

He had worked with John McVay before, so we became whole again. But it was the second year, there was nobody in the front office. I’d come in after a win, nobody would pat you on the back. You come in after loss, nobody there yelling at you. It was like a ghost town.

A few years later, you wound up signing the contract with the Lions, which at the time was the largest contract in history for a head coach. And most of that’s documented pretty well, so I don’t want to go into that deeply. But overall, what you walked away with is knowledge. Has that helped you, going through something like that?

Oh yeah. When you coach for 30 years, you’re gonna have some great years and great days, and you’re gonna have some down years and down days, and you’re gonna have everything in between.
That’s the beauty of coaching, whether you’re a high school coach or college or Pop Warner, it doesn’t matter. Coaching is teaching, and that’s why I went to college. Tom Izzo and I, our influencers growing up were our parents and our coaches and some teachers.

You have to enjoy knowing that you can impact kids. At the college level, you’ve got these 18, 19, 20-year-old kids that are trying to figure out who they want to be, what they want to be, very impressionable age. They don’t all want to play pro football—very few do.

And even in the pros, I mean, they’re not all like Steve Young—he was 38 years old, or when I was in Green Bay, Reggie White, who had a family. They’re not all like that. Most of these kids in the pros are single guys, under 26 years old.

Living the life.

Well, they’re living the life of football, and they’re trying to figure out, you know, “Who am I? How do I earn a living and where do I go from here?”

You’re at a point now, and you have been since you left coaching, whenever there is a rumor of a head coaching job or college coaching job, you’re like an Elvis sighting. People say, “Oh he’s coming. He’s coming here.” I imagine that’s kind of endearing?

Yeah, it’s flattering.

Any interest at all?

… … No.

I kind of hesitated there.

I know you did.

I’ve had some interest to go back as a head coach in the NFL several times. I’ve had some calls to go back into college several times. And I’ve respectfully declined.

Here’s my philosophy. When you’re younger and you’re trying to climb the ladder and get to where you want to be someday, you make professional decisions. Meaning: Okay, do I leave an assistant coaching job at the Green Bay Packers, coaching Brett Favre? Which is a lot of fun—you know you’re gonna win.

But I took the Cal job because it was professionally the right thing to do. If you want to be a head coach, you’ve got to go do it if you have that opportunity. Or do you move your family?
Do you bounce from one place to another because of a raise or a title? Those are professional decisions.

Later on in my career, and this is mainly in the last years after Detroit, I made family decisions. They’re not the same.
Every time I had a chance, a phone call from an owner to come and be their head coach, I would go, “All right, family, huddle up.” I’d say, “I’ll get back you. I have to talk to my family.”

And I’d get the whole family and I’d say, “We’re voting. We have a chance to go here and coach. Who wants to do this? Should we do it? Should I think about it? How does it impact us? Vote.” And I would get “No, no, no, no, no, no.” So I would respectfully call them back and say, “I can’t do it. It’s not right for my family.” Because I moved my wife 18 times.

Wow.

Then again, there’s good and bad. You’ve got friends in every city in the world, it seems. I coached in Florida and Michigan and Wisconsin and Kentucky, in Southern California, and it’s kind of cool to learn about different parts of this great country. But you get tired. Wives get tired of moving. Kids get tired of moving.

Let’s do a little current events. Tell me about what you’re doing with the concussion committee.

Okay. As soon as I leave you, I’m gonna go home, and we have a conference call today for the NFL Player Safety Advisory Panel. We do this once a month. We study the injury data. And our committee—with Ronnie Lott, John Madden, Ernie Accorsi, Roger Goodell, some attorneys, some doctors­—we study the injury trends. And then, based on what we know, we make recommendations to the Competition Committee. We have changed some things. We were instrumental in moving the kickoff to the 35-yard line.

Now do these go to ownership for vote, or how do those get implemented?

It’s a lengthy process. The Competition Committee’s got to deem it worthy of discussion and a vote. And then it’ll usually go to ownership for a vote. For example, moving the kickoff from the 30 to the 35. What did we do? We created more touchbacks. Why did we do that? Because the most dangerous play in the football is the kickoff. So we’ve reduced concussions on kickoffs by 50 percent.

That’s great.

And over the last three years, because we’ve been doing a lot of this—staying off the quarterback’s helmet, defenseless receivers, all those rules—we’ve reduced concussions every year by like 33 percent. And that’s progress. Is it perfect? No, but it’s reducing our most serious injury. That’s our biggest concern.

And then, we’ve recommended that there’s less padded practices during the season. And there’s a trickle-down effect, in the colleges and hopefully high schools.

You know why it’s been hard in high schools to get things changed? Because every state has its own governing body. Texas is different than Florida is different than Michigan and different than California. Some have spring-ball tackle practices, some don’t. And so there are a lot of different high school rules state by state.

Growing up the Midwest, you played padded and tackle in fifth grade.

Yeah, I did.

I grew up in Illinois; we went through that.

Well, yeah. There’s Pop Warner, and that’s up for discussion too.

I know. It’s a discussion that needs to be addressed.

Get a concussion at age 10? That’s not a good start. And so we’re studying that too. We have these youth football programs now that require the coach to be certified. You can’t be one of those guys that just wants to relive his childhood, and smashes the kids together for two hours.

No. They’ve got to learn how to tackle with your head up, and keep the head out of the game and all those sorts of things. You know, we’re talking about conditioning and hydrating and all the other things that go with it too.

We’re trying to make the game safer. We will never be perfect because it is such a collision sport, but we’re trying to provide information and data to make this more doable, more acceptable for moms.

“We’re trying to make the game safer. We will never be perfect because it is such a collision sport. But we’re trying to make this more acceptable for moms.”

In our last couple of minutes, I want to talk a little bit about your charity events and get the word out about that.

Good.

You’ve got the bocce tournament—the Madden Mariucci.

Eighteen years we’re doing this. I wanted to do a charity event. I did not want to do another golf event. There’s 7,000 golf events. No offense. So I talked to Tom Albanese over there at Campo di Bocce. He was just opening up that restaurant. So we said, “We’re going to do a bocce ball fundraiser.”

It started when I was with the Niners. It was awesome. Celebrities, you name it, they were there. And I would give my team off-practice. I said, “All right, you’ve got a choice. You’re going go to the bocce event, or you’re gonna practice.” It was unanimous: Bocce.

So everybody’s there, and so we started raising money. When I moved to Detroit, I did the same thing at Palazzo di Bocce over there, a big new venue, Tony Battaglia owns it. It’s indoor courts, outdoor, big restaurant. So when I was there, I called up John Madden ‘cause he thinks he’s a good bocce ball player (he’s really average) and I said, “John why don’t you add your name to my tournament and we can have a Madden-Mariucci, ‘cause I want to keep it going when I’m away.” He said, “Yeah.” So it’s still going 18 years now.

We’ve raised five million dollars. We’ve donated to Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, the Los Gatos Police Department—we’ve done a lot of different things. We cut a $100,000 check for Special Olympics.

Now it goes also to my Mariucci Family Foundation. We support Down Syndrome football camps and hospitality houses for hospitals, juvenile diabetes and diabetes research. And so it’s kind of morphed into that.

Do those choices come from any personal challenges?

Yes and no. So, Tom Albanese, John Madden and I, we run the tournament and it’s bare bones. We don’t pay for people coming in or hotels or anything. People come there on their own to just donate their time. That’s why it’s so awesome. It’s very efficiently run. After we pay for the spaghetti, we divvy it up three ways.

Tom Albanese can take his third and go anywhere he wants. He’s the one that goes 100 percent Special Olympics. Mine goes 100 percent to the Mariucci Family Foundation, for our Down Syndrome football camps, which we’ve started to spread through the country.

Did you have someone in your family…?

Our first child … when Gayle and I went to Louisville, Kentucky to coach at the U of L, we lost our first child with a genetic birth defect. It wasn’t Down Syndrome, but still, a genetic birth defect. So I guess we have some association with that.

John Madden is close to juvenile diabetes because, I believe, one of his grandsons is going through that. So yes, there are some reasons why we steer money in certain directions. There are so many charities that are deserving. It’s always a tough decision. We had to get focused and narrow it down to a certain four or five, and that’s what we’ve done.

To those folks who are certain I was going to say Jazz on the Plazz: I want to, I didn’t. Just so we’re clear on that. So, talk to me: You have a five year plan? When you went to the NFL network, did you say ‘I’m going to try this out?”

Yeah.

And it just keeps getting better? Five years from now, you want to stay?

Oh yeah I love it. I think I want to be one of those guys. You know who are a couple of my heroes in this profession?

No.

Lee Corso. I worked with Lee Corso in the Orlando Renegades. In the USFL I coached with him. He was crazy then and he’s still crazy. I love him to death. He’s 80 years old and he’s a rock star.

College GameDay is phenomenal.

Oh my God. Puts the hat on and everybody goes crazy. Last week he had this little Michigan State hat and he couldn’t get it on. And then all of a sudden he throws it away and he puts the big Michigan hat and they go crazy.

Or Dick Vitale. He’s so good at what he does. And these guys are 80, 76 years old. And I’ve said to my wife: “You know what? I kind of want to do that.” I want be the guy that stays in it a long time, and is knowledgeable about the sport, ‘cause you coached it, but is entertaining and fun to watch. And I said, “I, I think I’d like that path.”

You get to stay. You’re not front-and-center, but you talk about it. The sport that you love.

Yeah.

Coach for 30 years and now 10 years in this. So for 40 years after I graduated, it’s been all football. To be able to say that you get to work or talk about or play or whatever, a sport that you love, and they pay you for it.

That’s right.

I mean, that’s all we can ask for.

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