(Photos courtesy of the San Francisco 49ers)
(Editor’s note: Eddie DeBartolo Jr. is the contributor candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Ira Miller covered the 49ers throughout their dynasty, so we asked him to state the case for DeBartolo)
By Ira Miller
The Sports Exchange
Eddie DeBartolo is known as the owner of the dynasty-era San Francisco 49ers, which won five Super Bowls and played in nine conference championship games in 14 years while winning at least 10 games in 16 consecutive seasons.
But success is fleeting.
Of more lasting significance, DeBartolo’s real achievement, was a revolution in the owner-player relationship, creating a bond between the two. Before DeBartolo, owners owned and players played, and there was often a disconnect between the two. He changed that from boss-employee to a true partnership.
Two decades after the 49ers’ last title, DeBartolo remains revered in San Francisco as much or more than hero players like Joe Montana and Jerry Rice.
Hall-of-Famer Anthony Munoz of the Cincinnati Bengals, who was on the losing end of two San Francisco Super Bowls, was at Candlestick Park for a celebrity game of touch football a year or two ago – the last event before they tore down the old stadium.
“The final touchdown pass, there were probably 30,000 people in the stadium viewing a bunch of old guys playing a flag football game, but to see (Montana) throw to (DeBartolo) for the final touchdown there, and to hear the fans go crazy and to see the admiration from these former players like Ronnie Lott and Joe Montana … that was impressive to me,” Munoz said. “To me, that’s what it’s all about.”
DeBartolo’s contributions to the 49ers dynasty clearly went beyond hiring Bill Walsh and signing big checks.
It’s a cliché, but DeBartolo treated players like family.
Eddie DeBartolo was responsible for backing a minority coaching fellowship program, a pet project of Walsh’s, that sped the pipeline of coaches of color into the NFL. Under DeBartolo, the 49ers were the first team to charter wide-bodied planes for road games and give players single rooms while playing on the road, both designed to make travel more comfortable. To support every player beyond the game, he started a college-degree completion program and a post-career occupational program. He offered family counseling, tax, finance and investment programs, which helped establish a lifetime annuity for safety Jeff Fuller, who suffered a career-ending injury in a game.
Away from the team, he developed the 49ers Academy to keep kids on a safe track and in school.
Walsh once asked if there were anything he ever needed as the 49ers’ coach that DeBartolo failed to provide, answered there was not. Just one thing was asked in return, Walsh said.
Steve Young remembers it from a speech DeBartolo gave the team in 1987: “You tell me what it is you need to be great, whatever it is, and I’ll give it to you. But in return, you better be great.”
DeBartolo did everything he could to make his players comfortable and prepared – and, as Walsh explained, to eliminate possible excuses for failure. DeBartolo demanded the best and accepted no excuses from himself, his players and his coaches.
The relationship between DeBartolo and his Hall-of-Fame coach was hardly lovey-dovey. Both men had tempers. Carmen Policy, the former 49ers’ president, said DeBartolo told him “seven or eight times” to fire Walsh. Fortunately for both men, cooler heads prevailed, sometimes after DeBartolo kicked in a soft-drink machine in the locker room and at least once when Walsh later conceded, he did not know whether to come in to work the next day.
The bottom line, however, is that DeBartolo and Walsh were good for each other because they were both so driven, and that’s what fueled the 49ers’ dynasty.
Maybe it gnawed at the short owner that he could not have been a player himself. He wanted to be around the players, whether it was standing at the locker-room door handing out towels and exchanging hugs after the game or hosting them at a fancy resort after winning a Super Bowl.
To put it another way, DeBartolo was the Babe Ruth of modern owners. He set the standard for those who followed. Dallas’ Jerry Jones, Denver’s Pat Bowlen and New England’s Bob Kraft all trekked to the Bay Area to pick the brains of DeBartolo and his team’s top executives after they bought their teams. Maybe it’s no coincidence that those three have nine Lombardi Trophies among them.
Jones said DeBartolo “was a great owner. Not a good owner – a great one – and what he did really helped the NFL become what it is today.”
Eddie also saw things in people that others might not. Paul Brown, for whom Walsh once worked, told him Walsh was not tough enough to be an NFL head coach. Perhaps it was only fitting that two of Walsh’s three Super Bowl victories came against the Cincinnati Bengals, Brown’s team.
Was DeBartolo perfect? No. His ownership ended in controversy when he acknowledged paying a $400,000 bribe to former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards to try to get a riverboat casino license. DeBartolo was fined $1 million for not reporting the bribe and suspended for a year from the NFL. He eventually turned the 49ers over to his sister.
DeBartolo acknowledged his involvement with Edwards was stupid, saying, “I should have just walked away. I was old enough to know better.”
Of course, if DeBartolo was fueled by a stupid act, he’s hardly unique among football greats. Paul Hornung was suspended a year for gambling, and that goes straight to the integrity of the sport. Al Davis sued the NFL and sided with the league’s opposition in another lawsuit. Even Pete Rozell had brainlock once and permitted the league to play three weeks of games with scab players. George Preston Marshall would not integrate the Washington Redskins. O.J. Simpson … well, we know how he’s been spending his retirement years.
Three times in recent years DeBartolo was a finalist in Hall of Fame voting when contributors were lumped in with players in the voting. Now that there’s a separate category for contributors, he is this year’s nominee and, fittingly, the vote will take place in San Francisco0 the day before the Super Bowl in the 49ers’ stadium.
Let Randy Cross, a star offensive lineman for the 49ers in the 1980s, have the final word.
“He belongs in the Hall of Fame right next to the other owners who have won five Super Bowl championships,” Cross said, pausing and giving a wry smile. “That would be none.”