NEW ORLEANS – Suggesting that Eddie DeBartolo Jr. doesn't deserve a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame sends Steve Young into an agitated state.
"I would challenge anyone to say that what Eddie did didn't have a huge impact on moving this game forward," Young said of the San Francisco 49ers' former owner. "I go around the league in my job as an analyst and see things that the 49ers put in with Eddie and Bill Walsh. Whether it is tactically or how players are treated, things that were initiated with the 49ers have taken root in the league. … When I go to New England, it reminds me of the 49ers."
Like so many other 49ers, including fellow Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott, Richard Dent and Fred Dean, Young leads a loud contingent of former players who say DeBartolo deserves his place in the hall. On the flipside of that is a strong-yet-silent group of NFL executives and owners who chafe at the mention of DeBartolo, particularly when compared with former Baltimore Ravens owner Art Modell and New York Giants coach Bill Parcells. Those three are among 17 men who will be considered Saturday for induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Or as one owner said after giving a long and passionate endorsement of Modell, "I have nothing to say about Eddie DeBartolo."
DeBartolo's aggressive and hyper competitive mentality remains a sore point among owners. They note that he broke salary-cap rules in the 1990s and got into trouble with the law (he was eventually convicted in a corruption case involving former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards). Those incidents ultimately led to DeBartolo being forced out of the league and surrendering ownership to his sister, ending a run that included five Super Bowl-winning teams between 1977-2000.
But as one NFC team executive admitted in noting that DeBartolo dominated the NFL like no other owner: "Eddie pushed the entire league to be better. He drove people crazy trying to keep up, but he was the model. Whatever it took to win. The reason we have a salary cap is because of Eddie. He was willing to spend whatever it took to win."
That last part is oversimplified – the cap is there for multiple reasons, including a financial floor to make sure everyone spends a minimum amount – but there is a vein of truth to the general argument. Between hiring Walsh, building the first modern training facility and creating an organization that featured players such as Young, Lott, Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, DeBartolo constructed a football Valhalla.
"When I left, even to go to the Raiders, you realize pretty quickly the difference between what the 49ers were doing and what everybody else thought they were doing," Lott said. "It was even the way people talked. I remember when I was in Kansas City and I was talking to one person and they talked about how, 'I hope we win this Sunday.' We didn't look at it that way in San Francisco. Winning was expected, not hoped for."
Dent and Dean both tell stories about coming to San Francisco at the end of their careers and immediately noticing a difference in style that started at the top with DeBartolo.
"When I was in Chicago with the McCaskeys [the family that owns the Bears] and Mike Ditka, it never felt like they were working with me to bring out my best," said Dent, who was part of the great, Super Bowl-winning Bears defense of 1985 before winning a second title in his lone season with the 49ers in the 1994 season. "Ditka was always talking about replacing me, not helping me be the best player I could be. He felt like that was the way to motivate me.
"I got to San Francisco and it was like, 'What do we need to do to help you?' It was a whole different idea."
Even if that meant sharing a cigarette.
Dean, who helped San Francisco win its first two titles after being traded there from San Diego, remembered getting busted smoking behind the 49ers' old training facility in Redwood City after being told by Walsh that DeBartolo would be mad. He was smoking with a teammate when DeBartolo walked up.
"Eddie looked at us and said, 'Hey, can I have one?' He just had a way of making you feel comfortable," Dean said. "I enjoyed my time with the Chargers, but the 49ers were just different. It was like you were part of a family."
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That was a product of DeBartolo's upbringing. His father, Eddie Sr., built a retail real estate development business in Youngstown, Ohio, based on the principle of treating employees with great dignity and respect.
"We had 600 or 700 employees and my father made sure that everyone felt like they were truly appreciated," DeBartolo said. "That was how he felt he got the best out of them and that's what I tried to do with my players with the 49ers."
Postseason parties were often held in far-flung locations like Hawaii and included wives and children. Dent remembers little touches, like having a fruit basket in his room on every trip.
"It was little things, but that's the stuff that makes you feel special," Dent said. "You talk about that stuff in customer service all the time. It's not always about how much you spend, but the effort to do even a little thing to make somebody feel good."
The goal: Cultivate an environment that compelled and demanded that a player perform at his best.
"I literally came from the bottom of the league," said Young, who was traded to San Francisco by Tampa Bay, which was owned by the penurious Hugh Culverhouse. Young had also spent two years in the USFL, a fledgling start-up league where he once had to pay for the team bus ride to a game.
"I came to the 49ers when [Montana] was still playing and I had to sit and that created all sorts of controversy as I waited. But I stuck with it because I realized pretty quickly this is a place where you could find out how good you are. I was invested in being a 49er. … Bill Walsh was the facilitator of that, but Eddie set the tone. We were going to be the best and all he wanted to know was, 'What do you need to be great?' "
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