Better to be lucky than good

Updated: September 12, 2003, 3:40 PM ET
By Ray Ratto | Special to ESPN.com

However this football season plays out, nothing has changed for Steve Mariucci. He remains kissed full on the lips by The Man Himself.

Now you may see the fact that he has chosen to advance his career by lifting the tractor motor that is the Detroit Lions and wonder if he has lost his mind. And frankly, maybe he has.

Steve Mariucci
Steve Mariucci has liked what he has seen from his new team this season. But he has only one game under his belt so far in Detroit.
On the other hand, maybe he just has faith in whoever is upstairs fixing things that he will always be taken care of somehow. Because, frankly, he has been.

New team, bad team. But the NFL schedule opens them at home. Good deal.

But not just home against anyone. Home against Arizona, a team that has had its will to live beaten out of it long ago. Six touchdowns later, Mariucci is 1-0, and Detroit has decided not to compare him unfavorably to Wayne Fontes.

And now, for his first difficult game, he must take Charles Rogers, Joey Harrington and the rest of the fellows to Green Bay, where the Packers are coming off a comprehensive beating at the hands of the Minnesota Vikings.

This tells us two things. The Packers are vulnerable, kind of, and Lambeau Field won't have snow six rows deep. If you have to play at Lambeau, and the Lions face Green Bay twice every year, better to do it in September than December.

Now we aren't stupid enough to announce here and now that Mariucci's star will allow his Lions to beat the Packers this Sunday. Well, actually, we are that stupid, but not in this particular instance.

But it is odd, in a funny, made-for-UPN kind of way, that Mariucci's career has had at least a hint of that hit-on-18-and-catch-a-three kind of way. He knows his stuff, he knows other people who know their stuff, but he also seems to be the beneficiary of a hidden leg-up.

You know the story. He was an assistant coach at Cal when the job came open in the early '90s, and the odds-on favorite to get the job, Bruce Snyder, vacated to go to Arizona State.

Only he doesn't get the job (Keith Gilbertson, the new Rick Neuheisel does). So he gets in a little more pro training while the Cal job deteriorates, and when it comes open again, he is welcomed with open, cash-covered hands.

He does a year, starts fast, takes the Golden Bears to a bowl game, and is preparing to build on a 6-6 year when the 49er job comes free. George Seifert wants a raise, Eddie DeBartolo wants him to get that raise from someone else, and there is Mariucci in Berkeley, minding his own business when he is scooped up and borne to Santa Clara.

He picks up a good but fading team, gets them to the playoffs twice then suffers through two bad years while the salary cap fairy kicks DeBartolo in the thorax. Gradually, he helps get the 49ers back into the league's upper third. He isn't Bill Walsh, and he is reminded of that often while in San Francisco, but neither is he Rich Kotite.

Well, one thing leads to another, and after six years he manages to get up club president John York's nose. He is fired for not beating the eventual Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Grudens, and for angling for a new contract or a better job or some political protection in the reptile house that is the 49er front office, and for not being the most popular figure around the second-floor pastry cart.

Hey, brown happens.

He sits at home counting his fingers until Matt Millen, running the Lions, comes calling with even more money than Mariucci had the nerve to ask for in San Francisco. He wants Mariucci so badly that he is even willing to pay a six-figure fine for not pretending to be interested in minority candidates.

Leverage … a wonderful, wonderful thing.

So now he has this new team, not very good, but they start with a Get Out Of Jail Free card (the Cardinals), and now the Packers on a day when you can not only see the grass at Lambeau Field but actually dig your cleats into it.

You may want to check back in six weeks or so, especially if the Lions revert to their placid, inert ways. Steve Mariucci isn't the luckiest man on the planet, after all, or even particularly special -- just another football coach in a nation full of them.

But there are lots of them who haven't had his gift for fortunate timing. And timing is equal parts luck and skill.

Well, OK, equal parts luck, skill and the Arizona Cardinals. We should never forget that.

Ray Ratto is a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle and a regular contributor to ESPN.com

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