Former 49ers exec Carmen Policy talks to SI.com's Don Banks about the vibe in San Francisco now that the 49ers play in Santa Clara, Chip Kelly's chance at success, the NFL's relocation drama, and his rooting preference for Super Bowl 50.
YOUNTVILLE, Calif. — Super Bowl 50 and its week-long fanfare feels like the quintessential San Francisco moment, a celebration of the entire Bay Area and its rich NFL history. And who better to give voice to San Francisco’s turn on the big stage than Carmen Policy, the former 49ers club president who had an integral role and superb vantage point from which to view the making of perhaps the league’s preeminent dynasty, the 49ers of the 1980s and first half of the ‘90s?
Policy, who also served as the CEO and club president of the expansion Cleveland Browns from 1999–2004, wakes up every day living the dream at the picturesque 14.5-acre Casa Piena vineyard he and his wife, Gale, own and operate, about 75 minutes north of San Francisco in the heart of the Napa-Sonoma wine country. While nothing will ever duplicate the thrill and competitive rewards of his long and successful NFL career, these days Policy wears the perpetual smile of a man who hit the jackpot, and knows it. He loves to show off the grounds of the vineyard he purchased in 2003 to visitors, as well as the spacious and stylish home he and Gale have on the property. There are many mementos and keepsakes of his days in the NFL.
And while his boutique winery business occupies some of his time, Policy, at 73, remains an avid NFL fan who also happens to have impeccable ties within the league and its team ownership groups. I drove out of the Super Bowl frenzy in the city on Tuesday to spend some time with Policy at his vineyard, and get his takes on a variety of NFL topics. We discussed the Hall of Fame induction chances of former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr., the endgame of the NFL’s recent relocation drama (which he had involvement in), the current state of his beloved 49ers with their bold new coaching hire, Chip Kelly, the impact of the Super Bowl coming to the Bay Area, and even the Browns’ new-age front office management experiment.
As usual, Policy was expansive, colorful and forthright in his opinions as we sat in a sunny room that faces the rows and rows of vines that produce some of Casa Piena’s choice Cabernet Sauvignon, of which he was kind enough to share a taste of their fine 2012 vintage. Football and the Super Bowl seemed rather far away in that relaxed early-afternoon setting, but Policy still feels strongly about the game and the NFL’s place in the bay area.
Don Banks: He’s been a Hall of Fame finalist as a contributor to the game three other times and failed to reach the 80% vote total to win induction, but why do you think the time is right for Eddie DeBartolo Jr. to finally reach Canton?
Carmen Policy: I really do believe that with some people who occupy certain positions, they have to be judged like a fine wine. You’ve got to sit back after a proper aging process to really sample the intensity and appreciate the nuances and what it’s all about, and how it ultimately came together. And I think Eddie’s situation has arrived at the point where it’s ready to be uncorked and enjoyed.
He really was the heartbeat of the 49ers. You can talk about Bill Walsh and the coaches being the brains of the operation from a football standpoint. You can talk about the players being the muscle. But Eddie was the heart and soul, and when you talk about the culture of the 49ers, it was Eddie who created the culture in an image and likeness he envisioned. And after he helped create it, obviously it doesn’t get off the ground without winning. Because no matter what his wishes were, there’s no complement to the desire or launching of the strategy without winning on the field.
But once that all started and once the winning began, I honestly believe it was what Eddie put in place. And that culture we’re talking about, he not only maintained it but promoted it to the five Super Bowl wins that we enjoyed. He really was a sportsman, in the classic sense of the word. He was a sportsman far more than a business man when it came to the NFL and it came to the 49ers. The Niners were different. And you can’t the tell the story of the NFL in the ‘80s and ‘90s without telling the story of the 49ers, and that story began with Eddie’s vision. It truly is that simple.
DB: Is he hopeful? Is he optimistic that it’s his turn to be inducted?
CP: He’s convinced he will not get in, privately, and I think he’s saying that because he wants to get in so badly. It’s self-protection. He doesn’t dare think that it could happen. He just doesn’t dare think it could happen. He’s of a mind that this is probably the most important thing in my life next to my family at this point, and I just can’t allow myself to think it’s going to happen, because if it doesn’t I’ll just be crushed.
DB: What about you? Are you optimistic for him?
CP: I am cautiously, and I underline cautiously, optimistic for him, because I think the time’s right. And I don’t think I really drank the Kool-Aid. I think I’m analyzing this from the standpoint of real objectivity, and I mean that with my right hand raised up. I think now it’s all come together, from the hiring of Walsh to the death of Walsh, from the view of the players who have stepped up on the stage and made the Hall of Fame as 49ers. It’s now a completed portrait, and when I look at the completed portrait, I say to myself he belongs there.
I think Eddie can serve as a model in some ways for new owners, coming into the league. Because of the fact he was a sportsman and appreciated the sport and the game and put it first. That’s even more important today than when Eddie came in, because we have more of a hedge-fund mentality these days. You’ve got to keep the game first, you’ve got to keep the passion in front of the bottom line. Players always knew Eddie was legit from day one, and that he cared about them and the game.
DB: Do you think the fact that the Super Bowl is here, and it’s San Francisco and the Bay Area's moment in the spotlight, will help DeBartolo with the Hall of Fame voters? Is there potential synergy there?
CP: I think you’re right. I think there is. San Francisco, 49ers. Eddie DeBartolo. The city. The era. The team of the ‘80s and part of the ‘90s. It all feels right, the timing.
DB: What do you think of your city’s turn on the Super Bowl stage so far? The game will be played way down in Santa Clara, while you long favored keeping the 49ers in the city. Has the vibe changed for the 49ers being down in Silicon Valley? Has anything been lost in gaining that shiny new Levi’s Stadium?
CP: It’s my opinion that had the Niners stayed in San Francisco, they would not have lost any of the fervor they would received from Silicon Valley or the South Bay. But the city is special and that’s where the vibrancy is. I think staying in San Francisco would have been the better move short term and long term, because again, I don’t see any compromise in that process.
I do sense there has been a bit of a disconnect from the people in San Francisco and the North Bay. They feel a little disconnected, partially because of geography, and partially because you don’t have the feel the 49ers are as present in the city as we did in the past.
However, that might just be a viewpoint of an age group. It could be very temporary and it could pass away in the next five years. The Super Bowl is going to be successful, and if we get through this week and if it turns out to be a really grand event, you might say, ‘You know, this is working out just fine.’ And the 49ers did get a new stadium and it is Super Bowl quality, so all’s well.
DB: But you do hear a lot about how the 49ers have lost their home field advantage in the new stadium, like the way the Cowboys have once they left Texas Stadium for Jerry World, and Washington once it vacated RFK Stadium for FedEx Stadium. Has that happened here?
CP: What I’ve heard from fans who are not only avid fans but avid game-goers, people accustomed to going to six to eight home games a year, they don’t feel there’s much spirit in the stadium. They feel there’s something sort of, I hate to use the word corporate, but almost non-sports like. There’s not enough energy. You never want to compare it to Candlestick, because you’re always afraid you’re going to come up short, but people are saying there was more of a spirit and soul at Candlestick.
And maybe because there was nothing else to do there but sit in their seats and yell. But I don’t sense the 49ers have an advantage there, no. I really don’t, and that’s too bad because when I to to Seattle and I witness what occurs there, it’s incredible. I just hope again some how some way there will be some life breathed into it. I hope it’s just a cyclical thing.
DB: Give me your snapshot opinion of the current state of your old team. What did you think of the 49ers hiring Chip Kelly?
CP: I just don’t know about the Chip Kelly hire, but I didn’t know whether it was the right thing for Philadelphia to hire him either. That’s one of those really risky things that teams will engage in, and you start saying to yourself, ‘Was this the right thing to do?’ I think they probably could have engaged in a much safer decision. They could have hired a Mike Shanahan, but he really didn’t want Colin Kaepernick at quarterback, and maybe that made a big difference in the equation.
But Shanahan (the former 49ers offensive coordinator with the 1994 Super Bowl champions) could have came in and given them four years and kind of stabilized things and maybe brought back a little of the foundation, and that might have been a little safer. Perhaps the upside’s bigger with Chip Kelly. But when things aren’t going well, you like to regroup and settle things down, and make a safer choice.
However, I do think unlike last year, their decision has become a matter of great interest. I knew last year I wasn’t going to enjoy the season after they hired Jim Tomsula. But now I’m interested, I’m intrigued, I’m looking forward to the season: How’s this going to work? I want to study and pay attention to it. That’s half the battle. They’ve got me on the edge of my seat ready to look and see how this turns out.
DB: And if Kelly can solve the Kaepernick issues?
CP: Then they solve two problems at once. And God bless ‘em. At least it’s a move that keeps the fans intrigued and attached. I’m just a fan at this point. But part of it is I know what Mike Shanahan’s done for us, and maybe I’m too wedded to the past. But my instincts tell me do the safe thing right now, get yourself back on solid ground. We’ll see.
DB: You were hired last May to head the effort of the Chargers and Raiders building a stadium together in Carson, in the three-team race to relocate to the Los Angeles market. Now that the end game of that process and the league’s decision to move the Rams from St. Louis to L.A. has been largely completed, what were your takeaways from the NFL’s final resolution?
CP: It was truly an intriguing process, and I’m not sure other than in the Russian Politburo that you can find another example of this kind of behind closed doors decision making. It was a daily changing scenario with a result that in the end, ‘Okay we should have know this from the beginning.’ But the truth is the league did go through a very complicated and fluid process.
In then end, in comes (Rams owner) Stan (Kroenke) again almost with the force of a tsunami, and elevates the grandeur of his project. It wasn’t just the video, it was everything. He took it up to $3 billion (the cost of the project), he’s putting a billion of equity in it, and here you are, you’re right there by Hollywood, and it’s going to be part of a development.
And then it was, ‘And oh, by the way, I want the Chargers and they can come right now, as opposed to holding them back and making them a second class citizen. They can come right now and enter the new building with me.’ It was just the sea wall couldn’t withstand it any longer.
DB: Were you shocked that the league’s six-man Los Angeles opportunities committee voted 5–1 for Carson, but then that support quickly evaporated?
CP: I was. I thought the committee’s recommendation would carry more weight. I really did. What happened was the scope and magnitude of the project just overwhelmed everybody, and throwing in the element of the Chargers being able to come now, that salved everyone’s conscience. ‘Okay, we’re taking care of (Chargers owner) Dean (Spanos), too. We’re taking care of the Chargers, too. In some ways, you know, this might be better for them than Carson.’ That way, everybody was able to do it and not hold their nose in doing it.
DB: Are you of the opinion that the Chargers agreeing to stay in 2016 could result in them finally getting a stadium resolution and staying in San Diego?
CP: I do believe there’s a deal well under way and significantly in place between the Rams and Chargers (for Los Angeles). I also believe the Mayor of San Diego has been advised that the Chargers don’t have to come back to us, they’ve been granted the right to relocate. They have an option, a structure of a deal is in place. So in some ways it becomes a moment of truth for everybody. If you want the Chargers here, here’s what you need to do. I agree they could stay, but it all depends on the will of the politicians and the desire of the people of San Diego. Do they want to keep the team or don’t they? One thing they know at this point is, this is not a bluff.
DB: And where are the Raiders in all of this? They came away with very little, and still have no stadium solution on the horizon.
CP: One good thing for the Raiders is they have an extra $100 million, which is nothing to sneeze at. And the Raiders are not looking for Jerry World. Mark Davis really wants a home for his Raiders and a place that’s appropriate. He doesn’t need the Taj Mahal, just a place where their fans can come and have a great game day experience and a comfortable home. I don’t think he’s looking for a place that can host a Super Bowl.
So, all of a sudden, you’re looking at probably a third of the financing being submitted by the league, probably the team could produce another third, and now you’re looking for another third to be created creatively by community and maybe development. That doesn’t sound impossible.
DB: So eventually it could be a win-win-win scenario for all three teams long term?
CP: I think so. But I feel badly for St. Louis. I do think it’s a good sports town.
DB: In another blast from your past, what’s your view of the Browns’ newly remodeled front office structure, with a headline hire of Paul DePodesta, the former baseball front office executive and analytics maven? Another new start in Cleveland always sounds oh so familiar.
CP: The good news is, forgetting about being NFL centric, the people they’ve hired are smart, good people. But again, sometimes I think a safer and more proven traditional start is the way to go to build a foundation, to take a breath and say ‘Okay, let’s get this thing up and running in the right way.’ As opposed to, ‘Well, we are the new breed, we are the new cutting-edge concept, we are going to re-invent the wheel.’ So it’s going to be interesting.
DB: Almost 12 years after you left the Browns, is it painful for you to watch that once-proud franchise continue to flounder?
CP: Stuff seems to happen and they just don’t get out of their own way. I pray this works and if it works, you mark my words, the NFL is a copy-cat league. You’re going to find guys from the NBA going into the NFL, you’ll find all kinds of things. But I just don’t think Moneyball works in the NFL. I think it has a chance to work in baseball, but that’s a wholly different sport than football.
DB: Back to Super Bowl 50 on Sunday. Who are you rooting for, and who’s going to win, Broncos or Panthers?
CB: I do like Peyton Manning, and in San Francisco we always had a lot of ties and great tradition of a rivalry with the Denver Broncos. We used to have a trophy for the preseason game we played against them every year, the Best of the West trophy.
But I also have so much regard and respect for (Panthers owner) Jerry Richardson and he and I go way back. I was on the expansion committee back in 1995, when the Panthers were born, and they were in our division (in the NFC West) for a while. I just worked with him on the relocation issue as well. I’d probably have to say my leanings would be toward the Panthers, because I do think they’re going to win. But I’ll also be one of those people who will be delighted to see Peyton walk off the field with a trophy.