INDIANAPOLIS -- The Hall of Fame selection meeting takes place each year on the eve of the Super Bowl. More times than not the meeting produces greater intrigue and suspense than the game itself, because there are 15 modern-era finalists competing for a maximum of five open spots.
What could make Saturday's session more interesting than previous years is that for the first time in at least two decades there are no shoo-in, first-year candidates. That means deserving finalists previously caught in a numbers logjam will have a better shot at breaking through.
And yet the thing that could really make this year noteworthy is the candidacy of former San Francisco 49ers">49ers patriarch Eddie DeBartolo Jr., who is seeking to be the first modern-era owner inducted at Canton. The 12 owners currently in the Hall of Fame purchased their teams before the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, and their candidacies revolved around their contributions to the health and growth of the league in its formative years.
DeBartolo oversaw one of sport's great dynasties as owner of the 49ers from 1977 to 2000. His nomination is important because it could provide insight as to how modern owners will be judged in the future.
Currently there are no hard guidelines. The bylaws for the 44 voters state: "The only criteria for election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame are a nominee's achievements and contributions as a player, coach, or contributor in professional football in the United States of America." What that means depends on whom you're speaking with.
"What I look for is a guy who; A) saved or transformed a franchise; or B) had a larger role within the league itself," says
DeBartolo's team won like no others had. In his 23 years San Francisco qualified for 16 playoffs, won 13 division titles, reached 10 NFC Championship Games and won five Super Bowls. The Niners' 16 consecutive seasons of double-digit wins -- including seven years of 13-3 or better -- is a league record, and the five Super Bowl wins are the most by an individual owner in league history. (The Steelers' six titles are spread over two generations of the Rooney family.)
DeBartolo's first stroke of genius was hiring Bill Walsh from Stanford University; his second stroke was giving the silver-haired coach whatever he needed to win titles. DeBartolo was the Steinbrenner of the NFL, and operated under the mantra that he would pay his employees in gold, but he wanted diamonds (Super Bowl rings) in return.
"He gave the players what they wanted," said former San Francisco defensive lineman Dwaine Board, "and they gave him what he needed."
"He was the man that was going to provide you every resource that you needed to not only win, but win it all," said UCLA coach Jim Mora Jr., a San Francisco assistant from 1997 to 2003 who still receives letters from DeBartolo. "You really felt like he was invested in what you were doing and cared about it. He knew everyone's names, you wife's name, your kids' names.
"I'll never forget coming off the field after we lost to the Packers in the NFC Championship and he was standing there in the locker room and he'd give you the towel as you came in. I just had this utter sense of disappointment because I felt like I let him down. This guy has invested so much -- money, yes -- but also his heart and soul. He cared. He cared about you as an individual. He cared about you as a team. He cared about your family. It was great."
His commitment to championships was one reason he was beloved and admired by players on his own team and around the league. Chris Doleman, a defensive end who spent most of his career with the Vikings and is a finalist for the Hall of Fame this year, once approached DeBartolo on the field after Minnesota beat San Francisco in a playoff game and told him how much he respected him and hoped to play for the 49ers down the road, which he did from '96 to '98. Two weeks ago, on the eve of the NFC Championship Game, retired New York Giants defensive end Michael Strahan hugged DeBartolo, looked him in the eyes and told him how he always wanted to play for him.
People knew that DeBartolo treated his team as family. When safety Jeff Fuller lost the use of his right arm after a hit in an '89 game, Mr. D, as he is known, set up a fund to pay Fuller $100,000 a year for life. He was under no obligation to do so. Players could always count on a card on their birthday, flowers after the birth of a child, notes of condolence after a death in the family.
DeBartolo worked to create an environment in which nothing would get in the way of winning. When players complained about being crowded on planes, he became the first owner to charter wide-body jumbo jets. When some players groused about being fatigued from traveling two or three time zones the day before games, he arranged for the team to depart on Friday instead of Saturday. Hotels? Strictly five-star, which was unusual in those days.
DeBartolo helped create an aura around his team, and gradually it took hold of the league and caught the attention of fans and television networks. That's critical to understand because the NFL was not the monster of popularity in the late '70s and '80s that it is today. TV contracts were still measured in millions instead of billions. To take that next step, the league needed a larger than life team -- a "Beatles," if you will. The 49ers were that.
They had Joe Montana, the blue-eyed, blonde-haired, cool-under-pressure quarterback; Dwight Clark, the Southern charmer who caught passes and the fancy of the 1980 Miss USA winner; Ronnie Lott, the intense, "cut off the tip of my finger and tape it up so I can play" safety; and, later, Jerry Rice, the small-school wideout with big dreams and bigger potential.
People talk about coaching trees -- DeBartolo has an ownership tree. New England's Bob Kraft, Dallas' Jerry Jones and Denver's Pat Bowlen are among the modern-era patriarchs who sought his counsel after purchasing their teams. He never turned them away, opening his doors and laying out his blueprint for building a championship franchise.
"Eddie is a good friend," Bowlen says. "I respected and liked the way he ran the 49ers. He was good for the league."
DeBartolo also was at the forefront of the minority coaches internship program, believing that to increase the number of non-white head coaches the league would first have to improve the diversity of its assistant coaches. He not only helped fund the program, but also was the first to institute it.
His fingerprints were no less prominent in the community. Shortly after taking over the Niners, San Francisco was grieving from the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. Hundreds of residents had died at Jonestown, and AIDS was sending a current of fear through the Bay Area.
"In the wake of the assassinations of George Moscone and Harvey Milk, the Niners helped a broke city heal," wrote U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, who was mayor of San Francisco from '78 to '88. "When the 49ers played, the city came together. I can truly say that the first Super Bowl victory in 1981 united a fractured city."
DeBartolo's ownership fractured in 2000, after he was suspended by the NFL for a year after failing to report that he was extorted of $400,000 by former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards. DeBartolo's sister, Denise DeBartolo York, and her husband took over the team when Eddie stepped away to deal with his legal troubles, but the two siblings quickly became engaged in a feud. The dust-up was settled in March of 2000, when Denise assumed full ownership of the team while Eddie took over the family's real estate holdings.
The DeBartolo era was dealt another blow when the NFL penalized the Niners by taking two draft choices and levying $900,000 in fines for circumventing the salary cap in contracts with Steve Young, Brent Jones, Jim Druckenmiller and Lee Woodall.
Still, time and his undeniable role in the Niners' dynasty has returned some of the luster to his name, and he is in good standing with the league, according to former commissioner Paul Tagliabue and current commissioner Roger Goodell. He even has presented four former players at their induction into the Hall, and now they feel it's time for him to join them in Canton.
Will he? As a member of the selection committee, I can't wait to have that discussion with other voters on Saturday.