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Family approach leads Eddie DeBartolo to steps of Hall of Fame

By Ira Miller, The Sports Xchange
Family approach leads Eddie DeBartolo to steps of Hall of Fame
Former San Francisco 49ers former owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr, speaks to the crowd of nearly ten thousand people gathered to honor San Francisco 49ers Head Coach Bill Walsh in a public memorial. (UPI Photo/Aaron Kehoe) | License Photo

Eddie DeBartolo is known as the owner of the dynasty-era San Francisco 49ers, who 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 on the field is fleeting.

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Of more lasting significance, DeBartolo's real achievement was a revolution in the owner-player relationship - and that, as much as anything, explains why the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee will vote on his induction as a contributor a day before Super Bowl 50.

DeBartolo created an organizational bond. Before DeBartolo, owners owned and players played, and there was frequently a disconnect. He changed that from boss-employee to a true partnership.

Two decades after the 49ers' last title and a decade-and-a-half after giving up the team, DeBartolo remains revered in San Francisco as much or more than hero players like Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, and players of all stripes from those San Francisco teams still pay their old boss a loving visit when they are around his hometown of Tampa, Fla.

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"They stop in to see me, we'll have lunch, we'll have dinner," DeBartolo said on a conference call Thursday. "I know when there's problems in players' families, I know when people are sick. This is the way I operated, and I guess it's the way I'm going to operate until the day I die. I considered every single person, no matter who he was and what he did for the organization and the franchise, as part of my family."

Steve Young, the Hall of Fame quarterback on the 49ers' last Super Bowl title team in the 1994 season, said "the players were what mattered" to DeBartolo, and that changed the face of the NFL as other teams began to follow the 49ers' model.

"In most of the league, the players were chattel," Young said. "What I see in the league today are owners who have made their players partners. That changes the nature of the NFL."

Election to a Hall of Fame is always a magnificent honor for anyone, of course, but it's hard to think there could be a more fitting locale for the vote on DeBartolo than the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco.

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The building is named after George Moscone, the San Francisco mayor who was assassinated along with Supervisor Harvey Milk in 1979. Around the same time, more than 900 people, most of them from San Francisco, committed ritualistic suicide and a Bay Area congressman, Leo Ryan, was assassinated at a cult temple in Guyana.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who succeeded Moscone as the mayor, credited DeBartolo and the 49ers with doing much to heal the fractured city. Two years later, the 49ers won their first Super Bowl.

Although four championships followed, DeBartolo called the first one "the most memorable."

DeBartolo, three times previously a Hall of Fame finalist before a rules change put contributors into a separate category with a simple yes-or-no vote, admitted he hasn't been getting a lot of sleep lately thinking about the possibility of enshrinement.

"It is an emotional thing," he said. "When you're talking about something like the NFL Hall of Fame, this is something that's hard to get out of your mind, but it's hard to realize, too. ...It would be the culmination to me of everything that's good, everything that happened over my lifetime as an owner."

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The 49ers ownership passed to DeBartolo's sister and her family after Eddie pleaded guilty to failure to report an extortion scheme in 1998 when former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards demanded $400,000 from him for a casino license. DeBartolo paid a $1 million fine. The incident did nothing to change the way San Francisco fans felt about him.

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-and-a-half ago - the last event before they tore down the old stadium.

"The final touchdown pass, there were probably 30,000 people in that 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 to me was impressive ... to me, that's what it's all about," Munoz said.

"I tried to run the 49ers like a family rather than a business," DeBartolo said. "I viewed the players and myself really, basically, as a partnership. Our goal was to win the Super Bowl every year, and we had to do that together."

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And they succeeded five times in 14 years. No individual owner has won more Super Bowls.

After the Louisiana case, DeBartolo was suspended from the NFL for a year. He could have returned to the 49ers, but made what he concedes was a wrenching decision to give the franchise to his sister in exchange for other parts of the family business. In large measure, he has said that one reason he got out was the knowledge he could never replicate the early successes, that all those players were by then retired and even DeBartolo, now 69, was getting on.

"I just figured there was more to do with my life at that time," he said. "I had succeeded and done a lot with the 49ers. It meant the world to me, but I just figured with my daughters getting older and having grandchildren ... that it would be best for me to be a grandfather, a good husband and a dad and do what I wanted to do, maybe travel a little bit and spend more time with my family."

Ira Miller is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the National Football League for more than four decades and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He is a national columnist for The Sports Xchange.

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