Eddie Debartolo is a revered figure in 49er land, and rightly so. It was during his tenure, that the 49ers won five Super Bowls and were an NFL powerhouse for 20+ years. However, he was, in the long run, a very poor owner and was directly responsible for the past ten years of franchise disarray.
This thought is usually a form of heresy to Niner fans, but they speak from their hearts, not their heads. Mostly, Eddie was flat out lucky to be in the right place at the right time, where even his vices turned out to be virtues — for a while. His run of success was due almost entirely to Bill Walsh and when Walsh left, the franchise quickly disintegrated. His hires before Walsh and after Walsh were total disasters. And his petulant and abusive personality played a significant role in hastening Walsh’s decision to retire.
Eddie possessed the redeeming qualities of generosity and genuine fondness and loyalty for his players, coupled with his profligate spending habits. Unfortunately, his attention to duty lasted only about ten years, to one generation of players, and those are not at all the qualities necessary for a franchise owner and long term success. Eddie had no long term view. Everything was instant gratification to him. A kid in a candy shop.
The franchise began to crumble in the ’90’s, but there were still so many holdover star players and coaches from Walsh’s teams that nobody much noticed the rot that was setting in. Or wanted to notice, perhaps. When the generation of players that brought Eddie his success got old and either retired or left via Plan B free agency, Eddie lost interest in the team (his toy) and turned it over to his crony Carmen Policy, while Eddie poured his attention into the gambling ventures in Louisiana that led to his downfall.
Policy was a slick operator, more style than substance, who maintained the 49er fortunes not by hiring good people, but by cheating on the salary cap. It was this cheating that eventually came to light under the York’s regime and resulted in completely gutting the team of any and all talent. And it was his hiring of Dwight Clark as GM that led to a three year period of disastrous drafts and FA signings. Add two or three more years of nobody in charge of anything because Eddie was under indictment and barred from the franchise operations, and you have a recipe for becoming the Cleveland Browns in a hurry, which is fittingly where Policy and Clark took their act and achieved the same wasted results. Steve Young, Jerry Rice, and Bobb McKittrick held the whole crumbling house together, but when Young went down at the beginning of the 1999 season, the end came quickly.
That is no way to run a franchise or any other business. 49er fans have made a habit of blaming the Yorks for the past ten years, but they inherited Eddie’s mess and are cleaning it up, methodically and no doubt more slowly than fans would like, setting the franchise up for long term stability and viability — something that never occurred to Eddie or did not attract his interest. Jed York will be a far better owner than Eddie ever was. Jed is committed to being an owner, a good one, and not just playing cards for a few years till he moves on to other pursuits.
It’s often said about sports that it is better to be lucky than good. In Eddie’s case, and 49er fans, no truer words can apply. But luck sooner or later runs out. And Eddie’s did.