Sometimes it's easy to overlook the front men.
Of the 253 men in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, only 11 are owners or founders. They include Curly Lambeau, who coached and helped found the Green Bay Packers, late New York Giants owners Tim and Wellington Mara, Pittsburgh patriarch Art Rooney and his son Dan, and Al Davis of the Oakland Raiders.
Considering that coaches commonly suggest that the most important guy in any organization is the owner, something appears to be just a little out of whack with the ratio.
Of course, most people would prefer to celebrate the players who take the field, hence this year's induction class of cornerback Darrell Green, wide receiver Art Monk, offensive tackle Gary Zimmerman, linebacker Andre Tippett, defensive end Fred Dean and cornerback Emmitt Thomas.
But you have to wonder how many headlines these men might have produced if not for figures such as former San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo, a controversial man who was successful and flamboyant. So much so that he irritated fellow owners to the point that he was ultimately forced out of the league following a felony conviction as part of a corruption scandal in Louisiana.
"When you consider the fact that he won five Super Bowls in (22 years) that puts him in very rare company in our league," New York Giants co-owner John Mara said. "Anyone with those credentials probably deserves serious considerations."
While titles are a good measure, they are only part of the legacy of DeBartolo, who is presenting Dean. DeBartolo, who declined an interview for this article so as not to distract from Dean's induction, brought Bill Walsh into the league at a time when most people didn't think Walsh fit the Vince Lombardi profile.
"Using a different calculator, I see Eddie as a no-brainer," said Carmen Policy, who served as DeBartolo's right-hand man with the 49ers before he went to Cleveland to work for the Browns. "If you're able to remove yourself from the way that the game pulls you in in terms of history, he is huge figure in the history of the game."
Under DeBartolo, Walsh was able to create a different type of business approach to football. The game went from rough and tough to more cerebral as DeBartolo showered the team with whatever it needed to win and a whip to make sure everyone was accountable.
"Vince Lombardi was the image that was projected of NFL head coaches at the time," Policy said. "And I know because I was there – I did Bill Walsh's contract for the 49ers. No matter what Eddie says, his father (the late billionaire Eddie DeBartolo Sr.) was against hiring Bill Walsh. Paul Brown was the icon of football at the time and Paul Brown's opinion was that Bill wasn't head coach material.
"Eddie saw beyond that and saw something in Bill that was special and, frankly, I'm not sure Bill could have succeeded in the NFL aside from that environment created by Eddie."
The environment fostered winning which filtered down to members of Walsh's staff such as Mike Holmgren getting a chance to move on and development their own successful atmospheres.
"I think (the DeBartolo-Walsh partnership) had a great deal to do with changing the NFL," said Holmgren, currently head coach of the Seahawks. "The organizational set up of the 49ers greatly influenced the league … If Bill could think it up, Eddie would pay for it.
"Eddie is about the best owner you could ever work for. He was passionate about his team. He was generous to the point that the league had to come up with a lot of rules. We went to Hawaii for a (Super Bowl) ring ceremony and he took everybody, players, coaches, families, everybody."
That was evident by the reaction of Karen Lott, the wife of former 49ers defensive back and Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott. As her husband was talking about how other top players would come up to him and talk about how they wanted to play for the 49ers, Karen Lott said: "The wives, too."
"Eddie was so filled with pride, so driven and passionate about building the team into something great," said Ronnie Lott, a 2000 HOF inductee. "It was really something to me because here he was the son of this real estate magnate – his dad basically came up with the idea for strip malls – and he was driven to accomplish something himself.
"I remember when we went to Hawaii and Eddie brought everybody, players, families, the front office, everybody. His father was 80-something at the time and had never been off the continental United States. But he went to Hawaii for that and you could see how much that meant to Eddie, that his father was so proud of him."
While that generosity and flamboyancy worked in San Francisco, it angered other owners along the way. When he was implicated in the corruption case of then-Louisiana Gov. Eddie Edwards, the league came down hard on him. After he left the team and salary cap violations were revealed, that only further cemented the view by some other owners that DeBartolo was a rogue.
"If it were the other owners in the league, he probably wouldn't get in. But it's the writers who do the voting, so they might now view those transgressions the same way," a league source said.
The source further said he doubted that DeBartolo, who has floated the idea of buying a team again, would ever be approved as an owner again. Another source disagrees with the assessment and believes the changing of the guard in ownership over time might help DeBartolo.
Bottom line: DeBartolo isn't the easiest figure for the NFL to deal with. Last year, when Dr. Harry Edwards was giving the eulogy at Walsh's funeral, he talked strongly about how DeBartolo deserved to be in the Hall of Fame. One person in the audience who was sitting near NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and other league officials said Edwards' words caused some squirming.
"I don't think that was the easiest moment for them," the person joked.
Then again, losing the 49ers wasn't the easiest thing for DeBartolo. Perhaps that can be his penance for his sins against the league.
"If you know Eddie DeBartolo, it was the ultimate sacrifice for him to lose that team," Policy said. "When he lost the team, he lost a portion of his identity. That was a hell of a price to pay. Hopefully, as time goes one, people can look at him with untinted glasses and understand what he brought to the league."
- Bill Walsh
- Eddie DeBartolo