New England's Romeo Crennel will be the first to officially interview.
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- While Pete Carroll of USC publicly dismissed the 49ers on Thursday, another top candidate, New England Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, moved to the top of the team's to-do list.
Crennel, 57, will become the first candidate to interview for the vacant coaching position when 49ers officials meet him Saturday in Boston.
Carroll, meanwhile, responded to increasing speculation linking him to the 49ers job, saying: "I have not been contacted, I don't expect to be contacted, and I'm not interested."
Sources from the 49ers and in Southern California have indicated that Carroll remains high on owner John York's wish list.
Crennel, though, is first up in the 49ers' search to replace Dennis Erickson. The 49ers received permission from the Patriots to interview the well-regarded assistant and will discuss the job him this weekend, one day after Crennel interviews for the Cleveland Browns' vacancy.
The 49ers' move delights Harry Carson, the former nine-time Pro Bowl linebacker. Carson was a young player with a New York Giants staff that included Crennel and also Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick, who have gone on to win multiple Super Bowls as head coaches.
"There is absolutely no reason why Romeo can't be as successful as they were," Carson said by phone from New York. "It's sort of like all of those coaches who came out from under Bill Walsh and who continued to carry on his tradition and his strategy.
"Romeo learned a lot from Parcells and a lot from Belichick. He's at the point now -- actually, he's at the point where he's long overdue -- to get his chance."
Carson serves as the executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, a group that promotes minority hiring in the NFL. Earlier Thursday, John Wooten, the chairman of the group, called York and endorsed five current defensive coordinators as candidates. The list included Crennel, Ted Cottrell of the Minnesota Vikings, Jerry Gray of the Buffalo Bills, Ray Rhodes of the Seattle Seahawks and Greg Blache of the Washington Redskins.
Wooten made the call as reports intensified that the 49ers were targeting Carroll, who just won a second consecutive national title at USC. Sources indicated that the 49ers are in the midst of a hard push for Carroll, with York apparently willing to pay top dollar.
Wooten is glad the 49ers' list has grown beyond one name.
"Even if your candidate is so good that he can bring salt from the earth, you should still take two more days to look around," Wooten said. "Competitive balance is what drives things -- competitive balance is what makes the NFL great -- so you can't lock in on one guy. I'm not knocking Pete Carroll, but hasn't he been in the league before? And how did he do?"
Carroll was 27-21 at the Patriots coach in 1997-99. He also had a one-year stint with the New York Jets, going 6-10 in 1994.
NFL rules require that teams interview at least one minority candidate. Last season, Commissioner Paul Tagliabue hit the Detroit Lions with a $200,000 fine for hiring Steve Mariucci without interviewing a minority candidate. Tagliabue threatened fines of $500,000 or more for future violations.
Though Crennel is the only interview scheduled, others may come soon. The 49ers might also be interested in New York Jets defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson, Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator Brad Childress and Blache, who was a finalist in 2002 before Erickson got the job.
More on Carroll
Carroll's statement Thursday about not wanting the job was a blow, but probably not fatal to the 49ers' chances. College coaches frequently deny interest job openings because publicly flirting with another employer could scare off recruits.
A source familiar with Carroll said the coach has long considered the 49ers a dream job but would return only if he were sure that York had his priorities straight as owner.
In the meantime, the coaching search will start with Crennel. The Lynchburg, Va., native is in his 24th NFL season and in his fourth as the Patriots' defensive coordinator.
Crennel was the NFL assistant coach of the year in 2003, when his defense allowed a league low 14.9 points per game and led the league with 29 interceptions.
"Romeo has seen both sides of the road. He's seen Parcells, who is the master motivator. And he has seen Belichick, who is very laid back -- no expression," Carson said. "In a way, both of those coaches know how to press guys' buttons and when to lay off. Romeo learned how to do both and should have no problem motivating guys."
Crennel will interview with the Browns today. His window for talking ends Saturday, however, because of an NFL rule preventing assistants from interviewing while their current teams are preparing for the playoffs. Crennel gets a one-week opportunity because his team has a bye.