DeBartolo planted roots for modern rise of NFL

The SportsXchange

As they prepared for Saturday night's playoff game against the Green Bay Packers, the San Francisco 49ers received news that former owner Eddie DeBartolo was among the 17 finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame's class of 2013.

And the events may not be a coincidence, as many in and around the organization believe that the 49ers recent return to glory has been due to the passionate leadership of Jed York, who has been likened to his uncle Eddie.

DeBartolo's five Super Bowl titles are the most by an individual owner in NFL history and he is a finalist for the second straight year. In 2012, DeBartolo didn't make the cut from 15 to 10 finalists. Under DeBartolo's 23-year ownership, the 49ers won 13 division titles and had 16 straight 10-win seasons

There are those who mistakenly believe DeBartolo accomplished all this by simply throwing money at it. If that is the case, then why is Dan Snyder still looking for a Super Bowl in Washington?

DeBartolo was known as a player's owner and not just because he paid well. He treated the 49ers like family.

Former 49ers guard Randy Cross, in a segment of NFL Network's "A Football Life" put it this way: "He belongs in the Hall of Fame right next to the other owners who have won five Super Bowl championships." (Wry smile, pause) "That would be none."

Former 49ers beat writer and fellow Hall of Fame selector Ira Miller says that defining DeBartolo's career by championships, however, would be an injustice, kind of like saying, well, Joe DiMaggio had a nice streak that one year in 1941.

Continuing the baseball analogy, Miller declares that DeBartolo was the Babe Ruth of modern owners. He set the standard for those who followed.

One of them was Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who said DeBartolo "was a great owner, not a good owner, a great one, and what he did really helped the NFL be what it is today."

Another is Bob Kraft, who molded the New England organization into a not-as-successful version of DeBartolo's 49ers. Where did Kraft get his ideas on putting the organization together? One of his first acts after buying the franchise was to fly to San Francisco to see how the 49ers did it.

In the absence of some absolute rules or definitions regarding exactly what defines a Hall of Famer, there has been one overriding saying that is often applied -- can you write the history of the NFL without him?

It would be impossible to write it without DeBartolo. Just like it would be without coach Bill Walsh, the West Coast offense innovator who is less known for starting a minority coaching fellowship with the 49ers that has greatly helped to grow the number of black coaches in the NFL.

Of course, Walsh could not have created that program by himself. He had to work with his team's owner, that DeBartolo guy.

DeBartolo's passion went far beyond writing checks.

His players will tell of the day DeBartolo kicked in a soda machine or berated Walsh in front of them all, or all the many days he stood inside the locker room -- not outside where he could be seen publicly, but inside, in private -- handing out towels as the players came off the field and hugging the sweaty hulks, staining his fancy suits.

In fact, DeBartolo's critics even use his largesse against him, saying the NFL instituted the salary cap just as a weapon against his spending. On that one, we have the testimony of no less than the former commissioner.

"I don't think Eddie's spending or the 49ers' spending had anything to do with the salary cap," said former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue. "Eddie and the 49ers were very strong supporters of that labor settlement and of the salary cap and the revenue sharing that went into the salary cap in the early '90s."

Still, DeBartolo's legacy is what he did for the team and its players, not for the league, although his stewardship of the 49ers virtually created the FOX television network and all the billions that put into the NFL's pocket.

When DeBartolo left the NFL, control of the 49ers passed to his sister, Denise DeBartolo York. Their families were estranged at the time but the wounds have healed. DeBartolo's nephew, Jed, now runs the franchise, and one of his early acts was to make his uncle the very first enshrinee in the team's Hall of Fame.

And now, as the team returned deep into the playoffs for a second consecutive season, it seems only appropriate that DeBartolo's name is among the finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, class of 2013.
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