Erickson fired with three years left on deal

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Owner John York eventually came to the same conclusion reached much earlier by most of the San Francisco 49ers' fans -- Terry Donahue was the wrong man to rebuild this once-proud franchise, and Dennis Erickson was the wrong man to coach it.

York fired his coach and dismissed his general manager on Wednesday, cleaning house just three days after the 49ers finished with the NFL's worst record. The owner made a rare public appearance to announce the dramatic changes to his team, which went 2-14 to match the worst season in San Francisco history.

The new coach and general manager will get to use the first overall pick in the upcoming draft, but the 49ers' reputation has declined steadily since York and his wife took over the team in 1999. York believes he can fix things -- and boost the 49ers' attempts to raise support for a new stadium -- by hiring new people who can quickly transform his club.

It's an expensive solution, however -- Erickson will get all of the $7.5 million still owed to him in the three remaining years of his contract, while Donahue reached a financial settlement just four months after getting a four-year extension reportedly worth $5 million.

"Sometimes, even when everyone works very hard, the formula for winning just isn't there," York said. "We're going to use the extreme disappointment that we all have felt as our turning point.

"We know how much passion 49ers fans have, and we understand that this is unacceptable to our fans. We need our fans to know that it is equally unacceptable to us. We take our responsibility as owners seriously," he said.

Erickson went 9-23 in two seasons as Steve Mariucci's successor, never reaching the postseason. He won two national championships at
the University of Miami but is 40-56 in six seasons as an NFL head
coach in San Francisco and Seattle.

Erickson got the news in a meeting with York on Wednesday morning. He has little reason to be bitter -- he's leaving one of the NFL's biggest messes, and he got paid roughly $1.39 million for every victory with the 49ers.

"There really wasn't much more than that, other than I thanked him for the opportunity," Erickson said. "They wanted to go their direction, I've got to go my direction. It's a divorce. It's final

The 49ers won five championships from 1981-94, but on York's watch they've had just two winning seasons and won just one playoff game. Erickson is the second coach fired by York in slightly less than two years, following his abrupt dismissal of Mariucci just days after a second-round playoff loss at Tampa Bay.

York said he plans to hire a winning head coach with NFL experience before replacing his general manager, though he doesn't expect one man to hold both jobs. He has a shortlist of fewer than 10 candidates, including a few coaches still working for playoff teams. Under a recent rule change, assistant coaches with teams still in the playoffs are allowed to interview for other jobs.

York didn't deny an interest in speaking to former Patriots and Jets coach Pete Carroll, who wrapped up his second straight national championship with Southern California on Tuesday night.

"I think we all watched the game last night. That was a tremendous game," York said. "They were very dominant, and he's a great coach."

Donahue, the longtime UCLA coach, was the hand-picked successor to Bill Walsh, who led the team's rebuilding from a similar salary cap-induced funk five years ago. Since taking over from Walsh in 2001, Donahue has been criticized for mediocre drafts and unorthodox strategies, from his difficult salary cap relief plan to his reliance on unusual player evaluation methods.

"I am very disappointed that I do not have the opportunity to remain with the 49ers," Donahue said in a statement. "There is absolutely no doubt in my mind with the improvement in the salary cap situation, the return of a lot of injured players, along with a good draft, that we would have experienced a great deal of success in the future."

While Erickson took much of the heat for the 49ers' record, many of their shortcomings were due to a stripped-down roster assembled by Donahue, who waived several veterans and pared the payroll last summer in an effort to rid the 49ers of the "dead money" -- being
paid to players no longer with the team -- on their salary cap.

San Francisco had nearly $29 million in dead money this season despite the departures of receiver Terrell Owens, quarterback Jeff
Garcia, running back Garrison Hearst and standout offensive linemen
Derrick Deese and Ron Stone, among others.

The 49ers knew they would struggle this season with that young,
inexpensive roster, but few expected them to match the 2-14 marks set by the club in 1978 and '79.

"Nobody thought we'd be sitting here at 2-14," York said. "Absolutely nobody."