York follows 49ers blueprint of his uncle

Jed York explains what went into Jim Harbaugh's QB decision

York follows 49ers blueprint of his uncle
February 1, 2013, 12:30 pm
Share This Post

Eddie DeBartolo raised his first of five Lombardi Trophies at the age of 35; Jed York is 31. (JED YORK)

I couldn't be more proud if he were my own son.
—Eddie DeBartolo Jr. on Jed York

NEW ORLEANS -- Before Eddie DeBartolo became hailed as one of the great owners in professional football, he spent several seasons as one of the most hated figures on the Bay Area sports scene.

The 49ers were a bad team. Worse yet, the 49ers franchise had become loathsome off the field, too.

DeBartolo had to do something to reconnect to the fan base. He fired longtime family friend Joe Thomas, who alienated the fan base, ostracized former players and made a string of disastrous personnel moves.

Thirty years later, DeBartolo's nephew, Jed York, experienced problems of his own after his parents, John and Denise York, promoted him to team president in 2008.

York's first big move was the firing of coach Mike Nolan and the promotion of Mike Singletary. The losses continued to pile up, along with one broken public promise of a playoff guarantee.

York often sought the council of his uncle during that period. One piece of advice continues to resonate to this day as the 49ers prepare for the franchise's first Super Bowl in the post-DeBartolo era.

"If you make a mistake, own up to it, move on, don't dwell on it," said York, now the 49ers' CEO. "And I've made mistakes.

"He (DeBartolo) hired some coaches that didn't work out. I hired a coach that didn't work out. But if you see that, don't try to hide it. Don't try to sugar coat it. Move forward and go change what you need to change to make your team successful."

That's exactly what DeBartolo did in January of 1979, and it turned around the franchise.

There are many parallels to be drawn from DeBartolo's decision to hire Stanford coach Bill Walsh and the decision of January 2011 to hire Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh. York promoted Trent Baalke to general manager, and Baalke and York finalized a five-year, $25 million deal to bring Harbaugh aboard.

"It's come full circle," said George Seifert, who won three Super Bowl rings as a defensive assistant under Walsh and two more as 49ers head coach.

"Eddie got his butt knocked around in those early stages. And he hired this guy from Stanford and everything took off. Now the Yorks become owners, and they're getting their butts knocked around, and they hired a guy from Stanford. It's ironic how that worked out."

It took Walsh three seasons -- after records of 2-14 and 6-10 -- to turn the 49ers into Super Bowl champions. Harbaugh immediately turned the 49ers into winners after an eight-year playoff drought.

The 49ers were 13-3 in Harbaugh's first season to be named NFL Coach of the Year. After going 11-4-1 in the regular season, the 49ers will play in Super Bowl XLVII on Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens in Harbaugh's second year.

"I don't think Jed hired Jim Harbaugh because I hired Bill Walsh," DeBartolo told CSNBayArea.com. "I think Jed hired Jim Harbaugh because he was the very best coach available and he happened to be coaching at Stanford."

DeBartolo does not plan to attend the game on Sunday -- or even be in New Orleans this weekend -- unless he is inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday. DeBartolo is among 17 finalists. As many as seven individuals will be inducted into the Hall of Fame on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. (PT).

DeBartolo said he prefers to remain out of sight this weekend. He does not want to take any of the focus away from the franchise's current ownership.

"It's their time," he said.

Two weeks ago, DeBartolo was in the center of the 49ers' celebration after the victory over the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game. DeBartolo was chosen as an honorary team captain for the game, and he was on the podium, along with his sister, her husband, John York, and his nephew to accept the George Halas Trophy.

Jed York said it was a proud moment to be able to bring DeBartolo on the stage with his parents to share in the jubilation.

"I remember Jed as a young kid, running around," 49ers Hall of Famer Steve Young said. "He really did appreciate the time with Eddie. I felt like they were really close, and he took a lot from Eddie. I get the sense that if Jed could do it similar to Eddie, that's really great."

Jed York, 31, does not have the combustible personality of his uncle, who was 35 when he hoisted his first Super Bowl trophy. York is a lot more polished around the edges, yet their passion for winning is comparable. That's why York said he would never even think of watching a game with DeBartolo.

"That would not be a good thing -- way too much nervous energy," York quipped. "I think the time continuum would explode."

DeBartolo was flattered by the entire experience in Atlanta. He spoke with numerous 49ers fans and he was embraced by many current players.

"Tradition is what you build on, and Jed has done a tremendous job of building on the tradition that existed before he came there," DeBartolo said.

DeBartolo's contributions to the 49ers extend beyond his involvement in the team's past. When York was searching for an antidote to snap the franchise out of an extended period of futility, he went to his uncle.

"We talked a lot early on. He was having his problems and they were going through tough times," DeBartolo said. "I think the best advice I ever gave Jed, and it took me awhile to learn it myself was 'Hire the very, very, very best people you can.'

"Don't overload the organization where you have people making multiple decisions and doing multiple jobs. Hire the best people you can and give them the full autonomy to do their jobs and to step back. And when you're needed for a decision, that's when you step in."

The 49ers won their fifth Super Bowl under DeBartolo in January 1995. But dark days would follow.

DeBartolo gave $400,000 to then-Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards in March of 1997 in an attempt to secure a riverboat gambling license. DeBartolo eventually pleaded guilty to a felony offense, failure to report an extortion attempt, and was suspended for a year by NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

He never returned to the 49ers.

A family dispute ensued, complete with dueling lawsuits, and eventually DeBartolo was forced to transfer control of the 49ers to his sister.

The franchise floundered under the direction of chair John York, who was accused of being a skinflint. The 49ers made a string of poor decisions, beginning with the appointment of Terry Donahue as general manager.

Jed York guaranteed a division title in 2010, only to see the 49ers lose their first five games. York fired Singletary with one game remaining in the season after the 49ers were eliminated from playoff contention.

But the perception of the franchise took an immediate turn with the successes of Harbaugh and Baalke.

"I think what I've learned from him is trying to do things in a first-class way, making sure that you don't interfere with what your experts are trying to do," Jed York said. "That doesn't mean you don't put together the vision and put together the pieces, which I think he did very well. And, hopefully, I can do to some level of his expertise and his level of excellent going forward."

York has already accomplished something his uncle could not. Jed York spearheaded the effort to win a ballot measure and secure financing for a $1.2 billion stadium, which is set to open in Santa Clara in time for the 2014 season.

So the 49ers are winning on the field . . . and off.

"I think his biggest accomplishment is doing them both and being able to have that team on top when he had such a job to do with the stadium," DeBartolo said.

"For a man his age, he's doing an absolutely, totally phenomenal job. I couldn't be more proud if he were my own son."

More Team Talk