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Published: Thursday, 2/6/2003

Ford certain Mariucci is Lions' guy

DETROIT - Marty Mornhinweg used to say, over and over, that “the bar is high.”

In reality, when it comes to the Detroit Lions, the bar has been so low for so long that a toddler could step over it.

But it was elevated more than a little yesterday when the Lions introduced Steve Mariucci, who will receive compensation of $25 million to coach the team for the next five years.

A press conference that was equal parts introduction and coronation took place on the floor of Ford Field. Mariucci, a son of the Upper Peninsula, talked about coming home. He talked about how honored he was to be working for the Ford family, about the tremendous organization already in place, the fine coaches on staff, the good nucleus of talent on the roster, the strong leaders in the locker room, the fantastic stadium and the wondrous practice facilities in nearby Allen Park.

Maybe he believes all that. Who can argue about the facilities? As for the rest ...

If the Lions' stock that traded for pennies when the NFL market opened Tuesday morning was soaring by yesterday's closing bell, well, only one thing had changed in the interim.

Mariucci, simply, is one of the game's best minds. He is popular with players, who like his ‘tough love' blend of discipline and conciliation. He is supportive, upbeat, positive. They play hard for him. His 49ers, a young team in recent years, often overachieved because, as a starting block, they were well prepared.

If he can get the Lions to surpass all reasonable expectations, as his team in San Francisco did the last couple seasons, well, that $5 million-per-year contract might be a bargain.

Bill Ford Jr., the Lions' vice chairman, said as much yesterday.

“It's big money, yes, but we were happy to do it,” Ford said. “Obviously, there are no guarantees in life. But we went into this thinking this was [who] we needed. He's a winner. He has a track record.”

An impressive part of that track record to Ford is that it followed a path of up, down and up again. San Francisco went 27-9 in Mariucci's first two seasons, then 10-22 the next two years, then 23-12 the last two seasons.

“He inherited a very good team, then went through salary cap hell, retooled and rebuilt and made the 49ers a winner again,” Ford said.

Ford knows something about how those middle years must have felt to Mariucci. The Lions fired Mornhinweg after a two-year mark of 5-27.

“It has been awful,” Ford said. “I can't stand here and tell you I enjoyed it one little bit. That's why this is a great day for us. I know, I know, the first kickoff isn't until September, but this is a very positive step. Steve is the right guy.”

With the 49ers, Mariucci became the only NFL coach with a winning record to be fired after this past season. By the end, though, all of those who hired him were gone. The franchise went through an acrimonious, in-family ownership change. The owner is a non-football man, but may not know it. Bill Walsh returned to head football administration, bringing his legend with him, and that could not have been a comfortable fit for any coach.

Throw in salary-cap woes attributed by many to Carmen Policy before he left to take over the Cleveland Browns and it was an insane situation. Through it, though, Mariucci displayed sanity and the 49ers rebounded.

The Lions, with one playoff victory in the last four decades, are seeking one of the great rebounds in NFL history.

“I have no time frame and I make no predictions,” Mariucci said. “I can only promise to work day and night to deliver a world championship to this city.”

Others have made the same promise. This time, it didn't seem quite as hollow.

There is a belief throughout the NFL that all teams are created fairly equal. The draft, the salary cap and free agency are structured so that the weak have the opportunity to strengthen themselves.

Often, what separates one from another is the head coach. The right guy in the right place at the right time. There are maybe 10, probably fewer, of those difference-makers in today's NFL.

Mariucci, without question, is one of them, which is why he came at such a steep price.

And he is why the bar, finally, is high for the Detroit Lions.



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