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Tuesday, October 21, 2008
Updated: October 22, 8:55 AM ET
York family's comedy of errors is no laughing matter for 49ers fans

By Mark Kreidler
Special to ESPN.com

Given that the history of replacing NFL head coaches in midseason historically has had the success rate of, say, starting the car with the battery cable disconnected, Mike Singletary already is off the hook in terms of wins and losses.

Anything he does for the woebegone 49ers is a bonus.

But if Singletary manages to win some games in his first go-round at any coaching level beyond valued assistant, it will mark one of the great accidental results of the York family's very accidental ownership of the franchise. And if you're trying to figure out how the 49ers could have fallen so far so fast, this is precisely where to begin.

Steve Mariucci
The York family fired Steve Mariucci after a successful 2003 season. Since then, the 49ers have gone 27-60.

Let me take you back. The year is 2003. The Yorks have just fired Steve Mariucci, a week or so after the 49ers were drubbed in the playoffs on a January day by the eventual Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

John York, in explaining why Mariucci had to go, assures reporters "This is not a performance issue."

Let's hope not. Because the 49ers' performance, post-Mariucci, has been glum and glummer, a collective 27-60 since the start of the 2003 season.

And this goes back to the fact -- and it's still startling after all these years -- that the Yorks never did have a Plan B after firing Mariucci. They whacked a coach with a 57-39 career record, coming off a great wild-card comeback win over the Giants and that desultory loss to Jon Gruden's Bucs … and they just didn't have a plan.

Oh, there were some vague ideas. Maybe they could get Pete Carroll interested. There was some warm talk with Rick Neuheisel. (You may remember this, since Neuheisel's weaseling on the subject was part of his termination from the University of Washington later that year.) Perhaps Mike Holmgren or Denny Green would bite. After all, these were the 49ers, right?

Well, yes and no.

The 49ers, as the NFL knew them, existed in a certain time and with a certain owner. The owner was Eddie DeBartolo, the since-exiled brother of Denise DeBartolo York. And the era was the uncapped free agency of the old Wild West NFL, when DeBartolo's largesse and postseason Hawaii team trips not only bought player loyalty, but things like Steve Young holding Joe Montana's clipboard for four years while earning serious coin.

But Eddie couldn't stay out of trouble, and he finally accidentally got himself under federal investigation in Louisiana on a casino issue, and that's how the Yorks wound up accidentally taking ownership control of the franchise. And it has been one ongoing accident since.

The elevation of Singletary in itself is a perfectly fine stopgap measure. It represents the honest assessment that Mike Nolan had run out of growth potential in this particular job, with this particular team. The Yorks -- and their son Jed, who is slowly developing pride of ownership in the franchise -- needed to do something, anything, to shake awake a somnolent San Francisco fan base that was growing accustomed to meaningless Novembers, let alone Decembers.

But the big picture? Nolan was a former assistant coach with an NFL pedigree (his father, Dick, head-coached the 49ers himself) and no experience in a top job. Singletary comes to the job as a former position coach with an NFL pedigree (a Hall of Fame bust in Canton, for starters) and no experience in a top job. It's a very Yorkian move.

In their time, the Yorks elevated Terry Donahue to a position of decision-making power, with disastrous results; slowly alienated Bill Walsh; cut loose Jeff Garcia, Walsh's hand-picked heir to Montana and Young; hired Dennis Erickson and then Nolan as the on-field directors of the team; and watched as Erickson and then Nolan ground down the franchise and wiped out purported cornerstone Alex Smith in a series of botched decisions and darkly comic turns.

If they wanted to separate themselves from Eddie D., mission accomplished. These 49ers certainly don't ring a bell.

Mark Kreidler's book "Six Good Innings", about the pressure of upholding a small-town Little League legacy, is in national release. His book "Four Days to Glory" has been optioned for film/TV development by ESPN Original Entertainment. A regular contributor to ESPN.com, Kreidler can be reached at mark@markkreidler.com.