Jed York the secret behind 49ers return to greatness
The once-proud 49ers were also-rans not too long ago. Then Jed York took over. Jason La Canfora says the youthful, visionary York is the big reason for San Francisco's resurgence.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Imagine you are Jed York at 28 years old -- with a youthful face belying even those years -- and have been entrusted with one of the more storied franchises in the NFL, though one that has fallen on decidedly hard times.
The 49ers had suffered through a family tussle for control of the team, with a roster in disarray, cycling through coaches and saddled with one of the most out-of-date stadiums in the NFL.
You have inherited all of this under the massive shadow cast by your uncle, the beloved Eddie DeBartolo, once the boy genius of the league who began creating the 49ers empire as a 30-year-old himself in 1977. And you take over at a time when your father, John York, was being questioned loudly for his stewardship of the club. The old guard of the NFL is skeptical you will be able to navigate much of this -- by appearances at least, you are overmatched. The future of the franchise seems bleak, the inter-familial dynamics are awkward and complicated at best and should you attain even a modicum of success advancing the cause of the San Francisco 49ers, well, that alone would be an accomplishment.
Now let's fast forward five short years, to the present. You suffered through some uncomfortable missteps -- the turbulent Mike Singletary era, for instance -- but followed your gut and stuck to your plan. You went on to assemble what some would call the strongest front office in the NFL, hiring a first-time general manager in Trent Baalke and nabbing a big-fish head coach Jim Harbaugh, who was widely sought after in the pro and college ranks. With that tandem you came one play from winning a Super Bowl last February in New Orleans, and, during Super Bowl week, managed to further reconnect the York and DeBartolo families, while also mending fissures with some 49ers greats from their dynasty days.
Your office now sits next a glistening state-of-the-art stadium that is set to open in 2014, overcoming steep odds to do so considering the state of the Bay Area economy and the extreme environmental hurdles California presents. Oh, and that facility (Levi's Stadium -- you also are primarily responsible for securing those lucrative naming rights as the point-person on that project from Day One) will host one of the NFL's all-time crown jewels, Super Bowl 50.
You are a father now with a young family, and you are hardly satisfied, still eager for that first ring of your own, and deflecting all attention and accolades to those who work under you. But make no mistake, the rebirth of the 49ers is a decidedly Jed York creation, and given the dynamic manner in which he has led this ascent, there is every reason to believe that York's ultimate vision for a franchise that once again wins multiple Super Bowls will one day come true.
"It's really all Jed," said Paraag Marathe, the 49ers COO and someone who works very closely with York. "He deserves a ton of credit. Everything we've achieved, this is all his vision. He's just got the 'It' factor. He just sort of always has a great pulse on what's coming next, and the other thing is he doesn't get flustered. He's always calm despite how bad things might get.
"His compass is always pointing North. It's always pointed in the right direction, man. I'm not sure where he gets it from, but he's so wise beyond his years. You really feel like sometimes you are working with someone who has the maturity and knowledge of a 50-year-old."
York has clearly come into his own.
This vision of his -- a term you hear used by those throughout this organization -- has included shunning groupthink, being cunningly aggressive, taking some chances, and addressing issues head-on. Where in the past it might be unusual for players much his elder to be working for him, it's no longer even worth noting. When York, who chooses his times to address the full team quite judiciously, commanded the attention of the players on the flight back to San Francisco following their heartbreaking loss to Baltimore in the Super Bowl, telling them how proud he was of them, how inspired he was by them and how certain he was that they would back in the title game again in a year, he did so emboldened by the fact that all 53 men believed in the young owner.
"That was one of the moments," said long snapper Brian Jennings, the longest-tenured 49er entering his 15th year with the club, "where for him as the leader of the organization he was taking those steps. It doesn't have to be publicly and it doesn't have to be regularly, but you could just see he was understanding the weight that his voice does carry. When ownership speaks it does carry weight for him to make certain comments at certain times. And for sure this organization is moving in the correct direction. Jed has this set up to thrive for years to come."
Jennings can remember York as a teenager, literally, having been here since 2000. "They were kids when I got here," Jennings said, who saw first-hand the crumbling of San Francisco's dynasty and lived through the worst of times. He speaks of York's accomplishments with part astonishment, the rare long-snapper who shares something of a personal relationship with an NFL owner. "We converse on a personal level that I really appreciate."
Jennings saw the transition from the end of the DeBartolo era -- where spending lavishly and bestowing every creature-comfort imaginable upon the players was the norm -- to the more stoic, much more fiscally-restraining period when John York took over. Things were far less whimsical, a quiet pragmatism replacing magnetism in the owner's box. And the 49ers became also-rans.
From 2003-10, a span of eight seasons, a franchise that won five Super Bowls from 1981-94 failed to finish above .500, with a combined record of 46-82.
"In hindsight, you can see we really weren't built to have success in some of those years," Jennings said. "And there's a lot that goes into that. It's not all simple solutions."
Animosity brewed between some of DeBartolo's Golden Boys and the new breed of ownership. There were complaints about not nearly enough money being spent, an inability to connect with the Yorks, who seemed disengaged to some. The old guard felt alienated; new stars and free agents no longer strove to be a 49er. This is the cauldron that Jed York stepped into when he assumed the team's presidency in 2008.
"You have no idea how bad it was," one former high-ranking official said. "Jed saved the day, because if things stayed the way they were, I think they would have crashed and burned. Jed was a Godsend. He listens to new ideas, he's open-minded, he's current. He was able to get the team to spend more money. He's not a vindictive guy."
With their lack of success for that period of time, the York's were ripe for criticism. However, as others are quick to point out, give John York (married to Eddie DeBartolo's sister, Denise) credit for having the gumption and great sense to give his son such power at such a young age and at such a critical time in the team's history. And, lest we forget, it's not as if Jed isn't close to his parents. They have been sounding boards and provided a foundation upon which he has helped steer the team to greater prosperity on the field and off. Some of these spoils must be shared as well.
"It should be pointed out that Dr. York did some good things, too," said Baalke, entering his ninth year with the team. "Jed just brought a passion and a vision; he brought an understanding to the organization that has energized it."
The turnaround began with the assembling of this front office.
Following Mike Singletary's meltdown as head coach in 2010 (with Jim Tomsula finishing the season in that role on an interim basis), York outmaneuvered the Dolphins and several top college programs to secure Harbaugh, already in the Bay Area at Stanford. After interviewing a bevy of more experienced previous general managers, Baalke was promoted to hat position and Marathe, already with a big role in business, ticketing and stadium affairs, was by then serving as the team's chief contract negotiator as well.
It wasn't particularly conventional, but was fitting a bold streak that Marathe describes as a "carefully aggressive strategy."
"Think about it," Marathe says, "bringing in Coach Harbaugh, having the resolve to hire Trent as the GM when Trent at that time in league circles was a relative unknown, but knowing Trent had the chops to be a really good GM. Shoot man, giving me a chance and putting me in charge of contracts without a ton of experience seven or eight years ago, even down to securing the naming rights [to Levi's Stadium]."
Baalke said: "Any time you're dealing with the acquisition of talent -- and I don't care at what level -- there is risk involved, there is unknown involved, and what is your risk-tolerance? Obviously, Jed's is very high."
The 49ers' tremendous success in the draft (punctuated by landing quarterback Colin Kaepernick in the second round in 2011), their willingness to be proactive in getting key players signed to long-term extensions, and their ascent to the NFC Championship Game in 2011 and the Super Bowl in 2012 are well documented, with a roster comprised to maintain competitiveness into the future.
Jed York, who was not with the team today while tending to business in New York, also became the more gregarious, lively, outgoing conduit of ownership, opening a dialogue with fans on Twitter and elsewhere with personal touches like using a black-and-white picture of him as a child next to Bill Walsh and DeBartolo as his avatar for a spell. He was working behind the scenes to repair the 49ers brand with their legion of great former players and to restore relations between the Yorks and DeBartolos, with fissures dating back to when Eddie DeBartolo's legal problems eventually led to him ceding control of the team to Denise in 2000.
When the 49ers established their Hall of Fame two years ago, Jed made Eddie D the first person inducted and reunited the families at a big gala in downtown San Francisco. Jed York has been eagerly involved in a media campaign to get DeBartolo into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, making the rounds at radio row during Super Bowls (unless, of course, his team happened to be playing in it). During long road trips, with multiple games on the East Coast, the 49ers have spent the week between games training in Youngstown, Ohio, where the DeBartolo family was based.
DeBartolo was the 49ers' honorary captain at the past two NFC Championship Games, and photographers captured the sheer emotion in the postgame celebration this year as DeBartolo handed the trophy to the Yorks, Jed's uncle, mother and father in harmony as the 49ers headed back to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1994. Jennings, who actually played on DeBartolo's last team as owner, with Steve Mariucci as head coach and Walsh still running the draft, was particularly touched.
"For the Jed/Eddie relationship, and whatever that is, I think it strengthens us as an organization on a national scale, on a large scale," Jennings said. "That's something I for one am so happy to see ... I think it makes us stronger when Eddie is involved -- to whatever appropriate extent Jed sees fit -- and the legendary players, to whatever extent they can be involved, it definitely makes us stronger.
"I agree, it did seem to be an awkward situation for a period of time, and it seems to be that Jed had said, 'Wait, at the very least we want to make peace in a way that strengthens us.' And I think he's pulled that off miraculously."
Mariucci, the last coach before Harbaugh to take the 49ers to the playoffs and still a fixture in this community, put it this way: "Jed is doing a remarkable job of bringing the organization back to where it should be."
As one former 49ers player pointed out, things aren't entirely back in order, noting that DeBartolo's connection with Jed has brought some former stars back into the fold, but "there is still some fence-mending that needs to be done," he said. "Jerry [Rice] still doesn't come around. There is still some distance with some of the older guys."
But there were plenty of former old 49ers in New Orleans last year as they prepared for the Super Bowl, and few would be surprised to see even more in New York next February with San Francisco a legit favorite to land another world championship. And if that day comes, this sixth Lombardi will belong to Jed York more than anyone else, though the man himself would never contemplate it on that level.
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