Mariucci brings out the sunny side of Cal First-year coach guides Bears vs. Navy in Aloha

December 22, 1996|By ALAN GOLDSTEIN | ALAN GOLDSTEIN,SUN STAFF

HONOLULU -- The University of California's first-year coach, Steve Mariucci, remembers growing up in Iron Mountain on Michigan's frigid Upper Peninsula.

"I don't hunt or fish," said Mariucci. "And if you grow up in those parts and don't hunt and fish between shoveling snow, you were considered different. But there was no way I could sit around with a pole and wait for something to bite."

No way, indeed. Seemingly, Mariucci has been on the move since leaving Iron Mountain and is considered one of college football coaching's rising stars.

He has much in common with Naval Academy counterpart Charlie Weatherbie, whose Midshipmen will play the Bears in the Aloha Bowl on Christmas Day. Both coaches are 40 and upbeat. More importantly, each quickly turned around a struggling program.

It took Weatherbie two years to produce Navy's first winning season (8-3) since 1982. Mariucci inherited a team in chaos that had won only seven of 22 games the previous two years.

Fresh from tutoring quarterback Brett Favre with the Green Bay Packers, Mariucci guided Cal to five straight victories, including a 22-15 upset of Southern California that earned the Bears a No. 21 ranking.

A season-ending knee injury to star running back Tarik Smith and the loss of several offensive linemen led to a 1-5 slide and 6-5 finish. But Mariucci's magnetism has Cal alumni and supporters convinced that the Bears soon will be Rose Bowl regulars.

He has been described by the California media as part Vince Lombardi and part Billy Graham.

"That's how I coach," he said. "I go 100 miles an hour."

The first thing Mariucci did upon greeting his players last spring was to establish the discipline that was sadly lacking under predecessor Keith Gilbertson. He barred cellular phones and beepers from team meetings and instituted a strict dress code.

"The biggest thing was when he first came here he laid down the law," said senior defensive end Andy Jacobs. "He said, 'This is how it's going to be. Jump on the train or get out of the way.' "

As a case in point, fullback John Tavake, frustrated in preseason practice, had punched a hole in the locker room wall. Mariucci ordered Tavake to patch and paint the hole while he filmed a video to use as an example to others.

"Everybody in this world likes structure. You need it, and these kids were yearning for it," Mariucci said.

Said senior Todd Stewart, "It wasn't like we had a lot of bad people on our team that needed a spanking, but we needed direction, and Coach Mariucci provided it."

An All-America quarterback at Northern Michigan, where he led the team to a Division II championship as a sophomore in 1975, Mariucci signed with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League after graduating in 1977, but quickly decided to pursue a coaching career.

There were stops as an assistant at Cal State-Fullerton, Louisville and UCLA and with the Orlando Renegades in the short-lived U.S. Football League. He then joined the staff at Cal as offensive coordinator and was considered the heir apparent when Bruce Snyder was fired in 1991.

He wept publicly when he was passed over in favor of Gilbertson, but the next day, Packers coach Mike Holmgren hired him as quarterbacks coach. He helped transform Favre into the NFL's Most Valuable Player.

"It was a tough decision to leave Green Bay this year and lose a chance to go to a Super Bowl," Mariucci said. "It had to be a special job to tempt me, and Cal was where I wanted to be."

Mariucci borrows from coaching minds such as Holmgren and John Robinson, now back at USC. He also studied the West Coast offense, a controlled passing attack first credited to former San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh.

When Cal's running game sputtered, Mariucci turned to senior quarterback Pat Barnes, who produced a school-record 3,499 yards passing and 31 touchdowns.

Mariucci also has proved a master psychologist, convincing his team that "the fourth quarter is ours." Cal beat Oregon State, 48-42, in a seven-quarter overtime thriller, and Arizona, 56-55, in a four-overtime marathon that made Division I-A history by lasting 3 hours, 36 minutes.

When his players get tired, Mariucci tells them the story of a childhood trip he took with his father in the woods. Thirsty, he found a well and began pumping, but it produced no water. His father pushed him to keep priming the pump until, with Mariucci near exhaustion, the water arrived, sweeter than any the boy had tasted.

Now when things get rough late in the game, the Bears gather in the huddle and chant, "Keep pumping!"

Asked if "The Pump" tale is apocryphal, Mariucci smiles and says, "It's a story. But so was 'The Three Little Bears.' "

Pub Date: 12/22/96

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