49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. carries complex legacy into Hall of Fame

Shutdown Corner

The Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2016 gets inducted on Saturday. Shutdown Corner will profile the eight new Hall of Famers, looking at each of their careers and their impact on the game.

Edward DeBartolo Jr., owner
San Francisco 49ers, 1977-2000

Greatest moment

For a man who oversaw five Super Bowl titles under his ownership, it’s hard to pick one moment of DeBartolo’s greatness. It would be easy to choose Super Bowl XVI — the franchise’s first championship to cap off the 1981 season. Or perhaps you could go with XXIX, which was the franchise’s fifth title in a 15-year span.

Eddie DeBartolo carries a complex legacy into the Pro Football Hall of Fame (Getty Images).
Eddie DeBartolo carries a complex legacy into the Pro Football Hall of Fame (Getty Images).

But the foundation of the 49ers’ greatness was built in a three-month span when the dysfunctional team hired Bill Walsh to be its head coach and then drafted Joe Montana in the third round. In the 10th round, they added a receiver named Dwight Clark. That might be as good an offseason as an NFL has ever had — right up there with the New England Patriots landing Bill Belichick and Tom Brady in a similar span more than two decades later.

DeBartolo handpicked Walsh, who was a Paul Brown disciple but a decidedly against-the-grain head-coaching candidate at the time. It’s hard to believe it now, but NFL teams still believed that coaches were more successful in the Vince Lombardi mold than in Walsh’s cerebral approach to the game, which was very much anathema at the time. Even DeBartolo’s father reportedly was against his son hiring Walsh.

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But in Walsh, DeBartolo saw potential greatness and the kind of leader that other teams would wish they’d have in time. His gamble paid off with unprecedented success. Walsh and Montana helped establish a redoubtable empire — an insane average of 13 wins per season, including playoffs (except for the strike-shortened 1982 season) from 1981 to 1998 — that carried on with their replacements, George Seifert at head coach and Steve Young at quarterback.

Impact on the game

Not only were DeBartolo’s successes on the field striking and historic, but his role as an owner also set the tone of how many of them were viewed in the generations beyond. He was a flamboyant and edgy owner who became something of a celebrity in an era in which many of the men who ran NFL teams were seldom heard from in the public and who rarely formed deep relationships with many members of the organization.

And certainly owners rarely got close to players in that era. But DeBartolo was a “players’ owner.” He was frequently around the team — during practices, public appearances and in the locker room — in spheres that owners rarely ventures in those days. He maintains close friendships with many former players, including Montana and Young, to this day.

That kind of owner might be common now, with the likes of Jerry Jones, Robert Kraft and others. But it was a rare thing in the late 1970s and early 1980s, making DeBartolo a trailblazer as a lavish showman of sorts.

Case against his bust in Canton

DeBartolo’s flair and fiery personality rubbed some other owners of the day the wrong way, to the point where he was the target of other teams’ ire. So when he was implicated in an extortion case involving then-Louisiana Gov. Eddie Edwards, DeBartolo became an easy mark to be brought down hard — by the law first and then the NFL, with the blessing of many powerful and influential team owners who wanted to see what they felt was his comeuppance paid in full.

Although he tried to regain control of the 49ers, it became clear that it wouldn’t come easy. DeBartolo essentially walked away at that point in 2000, but damage was done and a price was paid for his reputation. That his legal troubles were gambling-related hurt him even more inside the buttoned-up league circles, especially in the NFL offices on Park Avenue. He later took more hits that hurt his candidacy. When the 49ers were found to have violated salary-cap restrictions under his watch, it only furthered his reputation as a win-at-all-costs rogue.

Despite being viewed as a pioneer and a visionary, DeBartolo also was known as being hot-headed, volatile and petty at times. He was angry after losses, even famously calling out Bill Walsh in front of the 49ers team in 1986, which led to Walsh threatening to quit on the spot. In addition, DeBartolo was once accused of sexual assault in 1992 (settled out of court) and of throwing punches at his advisor, Edward Muransky, after being taunted by some Green Bay Packers fans in 1997.

DeBartolo became only the 13th team owner or founder to be inducted. The “contributors” category of the Pro Football Hall of Fame is a bit murky at times, and its 24 members who fall into that category consist of less than 8 percent of the 303 total members. So the debate in this case becomes: Is DeBartolo worthy among that top 8 percent? Or is the Hall perhaps a bit too stingy with its induction for men who didn’t wear pads or blow whistles? Both could be true.

Owners can be crucial team builders and businessmen, but critics have argued that other than inheriting his father’s wealth and hiring Walsh and Carmen Policy, what did DeBartolo really do that was Hall-worthy?

Case for his bust in Canton

It’s easy to draw a line from when DeBartolo bought the 49ers to when he relinquished control of the team and see that it coincides with their greatest years by far. The organization was in dismal shape when he paid $11.7 million for it in 1977, having made the playoffs a mere four times in its first 20 years of existence.

But DeBartolo poured money — some said bled — into the team and spared no expense. Winning eventually cured some of it, but DeBartolo has said that he personally lost $44 million in his first 17 years of ownership, and that even cost him the family business in Ohio eventually.

His lavish spending was widespread, from top to bottom. It could be paying for media members’ hotel rooms or flying family members of Pro Bowlers to Hawaii. But from a business standpoint, it also included him green-lighting free-agent additions to help push the 49ers over the top, such as Fred Dean and Deion Sanders. That eventually helped lead the NFL to institute cap limitations, but what DeBartolo did (well, most of it anyway) was within the boundaries of the rules at the time.

DeBartolo was famous for hiring smart people and putting them in leadership positions. He hired Walsh, who trained an incredible lineage of coaches in his decade there, and team vice president (and later president and CEO) Policy, who oversaw the business side of things. DeBartolo’s 49ers eventually became one of the most successful NFL franchises in history.

When DeBartolo stepped away from the team in 2000, keeping the team in the hands of sister-in-law Denise DeBartolo York, the 49ers were worth $379 million — a more than 3,200% increase over the price he bought it at 21 years earlier. The franchise now is one of the NFL’s most valuable at $2.7 billion, and DeBartolo built the foundation.

He also served on the NFL’s relocation and expansion committees and helped over see both a tumultuous time in league history (the relocation of the Colts, Cardinals, Browns and Raiders franchises, the latter more than once on his watch) and a successful one (with the addition of the Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars in 1995).

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Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at edholm@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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