Eddie DeBartolo's confounding case for the Hall of Fame

Eddie DeBartolo's confounding case for the Hall of Fame
January 11, 2013, 12:45 pm
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At some point, Eddie DeBartolo's case will have to be more national, and more compelling than, “His players say he was a great guy.” (AP)

Eddie DeBartolo is again a Pro Football Hall of Fame finalist, which means . . . well, something. And given the events of Wednesday and the Baseball Hall of Fame, that’s as vague as we can be.

Some finalists get right in. Others come and go. Others still do a quick Whack-A-Mole turn and disappear. And DeBartolo is one of those candidates who frankly confounds voters.

As he should. He was a perfectly confounding owner, and the further you get from the epicenter of his work, the more confounded you are.

To this day, the chicken-and-egg mystery of how much credit he should get for the 49ers has never been answered. Oh, his friends have one and his detractors another, but the truth lies maddeningly between those two poles.

He was persuaded to hire Bill Walsh, and he had the wit on enough occasions to stay out of his way. On the other hand, Walsh built and developed the football team, and created the system by which it thrived, so it is hard to know exactly how much credit DeBartolo should get for that.

And no, “Well, he hired the guy,” isn’t enough, any more than Dominic Olejniczak should get credit for hiring Vince Lombardi. And yes, when you ask “Who is Dominic Olejniczak?” the point is made.

[RELATED: Former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo again a finalist for Hall of Fame]

DeBartolo did sign checks, that he did. He listened to Walsh enough to allow him to assemble his own front office and not offer a lot of ideas on who should play when. And while his temper also allowed him to fire Walsh a bunch of times before Walsh actually retired, he did leave the football people to do the football things.

But the question of whether that is sufficient to go into the Hall of Fame remains an open one. He would be only the second owner who wasn’t an actual builder of the league to be inducted (the other is Dan Rooney, whose father Art formed the Pittsburgh Steelers), and Rooney worked on a number of league committees, which DeBartolo did not.

In fact, let’s break it down further:

* Bert Bell owned the Steelers and Eagles and was commissioner of the league for 14 years.

* Charlie Bidwill owned the Chicago Cardinals for 14 years, and was probably a “He’s a good guy so let’s put him in” inductee in 1967.

* Al Davis, George Halas, Lamar Hunt, Curly Lambeau, Tim Mara, Art Rooney and Ralph Wilson were league founders, and Wellington Mara, Tim’s son, was an owner for 68 years.

* George Preston Marshall owned the Redskins for 37 years, and moving the team to Washington clearly made him more appealing to voters back in the day than his well-documented racist beliefs.

* Dan Reeves owned the Rams for 30 years and opened up the Pacific Coast to the NFL.

Next to all that . . . next to all that except for Charley Bidwill, anyway . . . Eddie DeBartolo doesn’t cast that long a shadow.

So what is the argument for him then? His players loved him, in large part because he lavished riches upon them in an era when that was allowed. He owned the team when the team dominated a decade. This makes him . . . well, it makes him Jerry Jones. Pre-playoff flameout Jerry Jones.

And the questions that must follow make that a debatable proposition, to wit:

•       Is that sufficient to sway voters from other parts of the country who otherwise would have no particular connection to what he did, or even be able to define it?
•       Are those voters willing to overlook his failure to report a felony during his massively ill-considered foray into Louisiana gambling?
•       Can they come up with a compelling reason to induct him before the late Art Modell, a fellow finalist whose work creating the TV contracts that made the NFL the powerhouse it is have so far been negated by his abandonment of Cleveland?

DeBartolo brings a curious set of credentials to the final 17, then. His induction would extend the definition of Hall of Fame owner well beyond their original bounds, as well as force voters to see in other contemporary owners if they could meet the DeBartolo rather than the Halas/Davis/Rooney/Mara standard.

Somehow, in a crowded field that includes Modell, Larry Allen, Jerome Bettis, Tim Brown, Cris Carter, Kevin Greene, Charles Haley, Jonathan Ogden, Bill Parcells, Andre Reed, Warren Sapp, Will Shields, Michael Strahan and Aeneas Williams, plus veterans committee nominees Curley Culp and Dave Robinson, it seems unlikely that voters want to take that particular task on this time.

And to go further, it will not be an outrage if DeBartolo doesn’t get in, either. At some point, his case will have to be more national, and more compelling than, “His players say he was a great guy.”

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