(First in a three-part series)
The San Francisco 49ers were in shambles in 1978. And the locker room scene after the final game that season did nothing to ease the concerns of the players.
The 49ers played the season finale at the Pontiac Silverdome. They had just experienced a defeat for the 14th time that season. Coach Fred O’Connor, who had taken over for the fired Pete McCulley at midseason, issued a challenge to the players.
“He was saying that we were going to turn it around next year,” former 49ers offensive tackle Keith Fahnhorst said. “He said we were going to go through the toughest training camp ever next year. I remember thinking, ‘No, that’s not the answer.’ ”
Owner Edward J. DeBartolo Jr.’s popularity was at an all-time low. Shortly after buying the 49ers for $17 million in 1977, DeBartolo fired popular coach Monte Clark. He hired immensely unpopular Joe Thomas as general manager. DeBartolo was young and brash. The native of Youngstown, Ohio, was an outsider in the San Francisco Bay Area. Patience was running thin with the so-called “49ers faithful.”
Three decades later, the 49ers are in even worse shape. The 49ers are well on their way to franchise-worst sixth consecutive losing season. And just like in 1978, the 49ers have already made a midseason coaching change from Mike Nolan to Mike Singletary. And in the early part of 2009, the current ownership can only hope to duplicate DeBartolo’s masterstroke of 30 years earlier.
In 1979, DeBartolo changed the fortunes of the organization when he fired Thomas – and O’Connor – and replaced those men with Stanford coach Bill Walsh.
Walsh, of course, was the architect what the 49ers would become. He took control of the team’s personnel department. He worked trades on draft day like a maestro. He drafted the likes of quarterback Joe Montana, defensive back Ronnie Lott and wide receiver Jerry Rice – three undisputed greats in NFL history. Walsh worked another trade to acquire pass-rush specialist Fred Dean, who was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame earlier this year.
The 49ers went on to win three Super Bowls under Walsh. The first championship came at the Silverdome – just three years after O’Connor held court in that very locker room. Walsh’s successor, George Seifert, won two more Super Bowls, largely with the systems and players he inherited from Walsh.
DeBartolo is nowhere to be seen these days. Late in the 1997 season, DeBartolo handed control of the 49ers to his sister, Denise DeBartolo York, after becoming the focus of a federal investigation into gaming fraud in Louisiana.
The 49ers would never be quite the same.
John York, Denise’s husband, became the most powerful figure in the organization. In many ways, he was the antithesis of DeBartolo, with whom he never got along. DeBartolo was known to be a free spender, who routinely ran substantial deficits even while the team was winning championships. He was ultracompetitive, displaying a win-at-all-cost mentality. He allowed Walsh to piece together the best team money could buy. Largely because of DeBartolo, the NFL leveled the playing field with a salary cap in the mid-1990s.
Meanwhile, York has been viewed as a skinflint throughout his time with the 49ers. The perception is that the bottom line was attached to revenues and not the 49ers’ win-loss record.
But from the early days of the York ownership, during which the 49ers were near the bottom of the league in team payroll, the 49ers have been spending more money on players. But while they have forked over big money to acquire talent, the 49ers have not always spent their money wisely.
York took control of the day-to-day operations of the 49ers in February 1999. He and Denise York figured the control would be temporary – until DeBartolo’s legal issues were resolved. However, DeBartolo’s problems lingered.
In March 1999, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue fined DeBartolo $1 million and suspended him for conduct detrimental to the league. Months earlier, DeBartolo pleaded guilty to failure to report an extortion attempt, a felony. The 49ers’ dysfunction went public, as sister and brother filed dueling lawsuits. Denise sued her brother, charging him with reneging on a $94 million debt to the family company. DeBartolo responded a month later with a $150 million lawsuit accusing her of breach of contract.
“She’s my sister,” DeBartolo said. “Genes did that; I didn’t.”
In April 2000, the Yorks took official and permanent control of the 49ers with DeBartolo receiving stock and real-estate holdings. The siblings agreed to drop the lawsuits. With Eddie DeBartolo out of the picture, it marked the end of an era in Bay Area sports. Today, he makes his home in the Tampa area, where he has rebuilt his real-estate empire to a reported net worth of $1.4 billion.
He is a beloved figure in Northern California. At a public memorial service for Bill Walsh at Candlestick Park in August 2007, the crowd erupted into an impromptu chant of “Eddie! Eddie” when he rose to speak.