Sitting in an office filled with boxes and waiting for his new desk to arrive, the man with the white hair and the three Super Bowl rings fumbled with a box of his new business cards as he tried to explain why he was now Stanford's football coach and not the NFL's highest-paid guru. Wasn't Bill Walsh supposed to be 11 miles away at the San Francisco 49ers' cushy complex in Santa Clara, Calif., leafing through scouting reports in preparation for the upcoming draft, trying to persuade the Kansas City Chiefs to make a deal for Niner quarterback Steve Young and planning for a future without Joe Montana? Of course there was the allure of teaching the game to kids again, Walsh said, and the feeling that at 60, he was too young to be a consultant. And there was something else, too.
"What was that movie with the people who were so close in college, and the problems they had when they got together after being apart for a time?" he said, pausing to think. "The Big Chill—that's it. That's what this is with the 49ers right now, sort of a Big Chill type of experience. The coming together and the splitting of a team. It's crazy, but it's so natural, too. You see it happen all the time in sports."
But has a team as successful as San Francisco—winner of four Super Bowls in the 1980s; an NFL-best 42-11 record over the past three seasons—ever had such a disturbing start to an off-season? Like Walsh, whom he succeeded as the 49er coach three years ago, George Seifert says the Niners are undergoing the same transition that all teams periodically undergo. In the 49ers' case, though, transition is bordering on turmoil. "We might be seeing the empire crumbling before our eyes," says one NFL personnel director. "Without Walsh—and if they don't get Montana back—they could be like the Celtics without Auerbach and Bird."
"With everything that's happened, any intelligent individual would think the dynasty's crumbling," says San Francisco running back and special teams captain Harry Sydney. "But people on the inside don't think that. It's much too early to say that. The dynasty's still intact."
March 16, 1992
But there's no denying that the 49ers have been shaken—from 45-year-old owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. on down—in the 2½ months since they missed making the playoffs for the first time in nine seasons. Most recently DeBartolo has been the focus of an investigation into an alleged sexual assault, and as of Monday the San Mateo (Calif.) County district attorney's office was continuing its inquiry into the incident. According to police, a woman accused DeBartolo, who is married and maintains his permanent residence in Youngstown, Ohio, of assaulting her on Feb. 11 at his Menlo Park town-house after they left a bar with friends.
Also on Feb. 11, in a report on the proposed financial restructuring of Edward J. DeBartolo Sr.'s multibillion-dollar commercial real estate empire, The Wall Street Journal cited confidential documents revealing that a plan was in place last summer to sell 70% to 80% of the DeBartolos' 90% stake in the 49ers. Eddie Jr. refused requests to be interviewed for this article, but team president Carmen Policy vehemently denies both that Eddie Jr. assaulted the woman and that the club is for sale.
Whatever plans, if any, Eddie Jr. may have entertained about selling the team apparently had been dropped by October, when he began talking to Walsh about giving up his job as an NBC analyst to return to the Niners in a front-office capacity. Discussions continued for three months, and the deal seemed to be all but done, when Walsh, sensing he would be stepping on too many 49er toes, suddenly took the Stanford position on Jan. 16. Just the idea that Walsh might have returned so upset the 49ers' administrator of college scouting, Tony Razzano, that Razzano eventually quit on Jan. 31, saying he felt unappreciated. Razzano's son, David, a scouting aide for the Niners, left with him, and two other veteran scouts in an aging department are expected to retire after the draft in April.
In addition, the San Francisco coaching staff has lost its last two links to the Walsh offense—coordinator Mike Holmgren, who became coach of the Green Bay Packers on Jan. 11, and receivers coach Sherman Lewis, who become Holmgren's offensive coordinator nine days later. Defensive backs coach Ray Rhodes, who was well-liked by the players, also followed Holmgren, to become his defensive coordinator. Special teams coordinator Lynn Stiles went to the Chiefs as a personnel man on Jan. 30, and the Niners made defensive assistant Tommy Hart a full-time scout on Feb. 5. Seifert could have kept Lewis as his offensive coordinator—"He definitely should have been the first choice," Sydney says—but Seifert had moved too deliberately. So on Jan. 30 he wound up hiring Mike Shanahan, who was fired by Denver Bronco coach Dan Reeves after last season. In all, six position groups—quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, defensive backs and special teams—will have new coaches in 1992.
Life is just as unsettled among the 49er rank and file. Montana, who will be 36 on June 11, is throwing some 30 to 40 soft tosses a day to rehabilitate his right elbow, which was operated on in October. With Montana talking about being ready to play this fall after missing all of last season, Seifert's quarterback depth chart reads, in order: Montana, Young, Bono. Young was the NFL's top-rated passer last year. Steve Bono led San Francisco to a 5-1 record as the starter while Young was sidelined with a torn ligament in his left knee. The 49ers have to decide whether to trade the pricey Young (his 1992 salary is $2.5 million) or to bring all three of them to camp, potentially creating the quarterback confrontation of the century.
The other glaring personnel dilemma is at linebacker, and it involves bookend pass rushers Tim Harris and Charles Haley. Harris, who was acquired from the Packers on Sept. 30, has just completed four weeks of alcohol rehab and still faces a drunk-driving charge stemming from an arrest last fall in San Jose. As for Haley, who between tirades and clashes with Seifert had only seven sacks last year, the 49ers must decide if they can live with his wild mood swings.
Trading Young and Haley might net San Francisco two additional first-round choices in a draft rich with talent. The 49ers badly need some young impact players; they've drafted only one, defensive lineman Pierce Holt, in the past four years. What's more, three offensive stalwarts—wideouts Jerry Rice (who is unsigned) and John Taylor, and fullback Tom Rathman—all turn 30 this year. That's Big Chill age.
At the end of another long workday recently, Policy spied Niner p.r. director Jerry Walker in the outer office and recoiled in mock horror. "Every time I see Jerry," said Policy with a wince, "I say, 'Oh, no! What have you got today?' "
A few words of optimistic caution here: Although the Montana-less Niners started 4—6 last season and missed the playoffs, they finished superbly, routing three playoff-bound teams by a total of 66 points while racking up six straight wins. San Francisco ranked third in the league in scoring (24.6) and fourth in points allowed (14.9). Nonetheless you have to wonder, given the tremors generated just by the wooing of Walsh, What toll will the off-season upheaval take on the team?
It all began when DeBartolo invited Walsh to be his guest at a National League Championship Series game in Pittsburgh. While the two men had clashed during Walsh's 10 years as the Niner coach-football czar, Walsh had become a DeBartolo confidant, and he still cared about the team. In fact, when Walsh heard about Montana's sniping at Young in training camp and early on last season (Montana thought Young was a whiner who wouldn't accept his role as a backup gracefully), he contacted the two quarterbacks individually—unbeknownst to the 49ers—and counseled both players on the matter.
Anyway, that night in Pittsburgh, Walsh and DeBartolo hatched the idea of Walsh's returning to the team as a consultant. In follow-up meetings involving Walsh and members of the 49er brain trust—namely DeBartolo, Policy and Seifert—Walsh's role with the team was ironed out: He would oversee the draft, recommend trades and maintain the offense he had implemented as coach by working with the new offensive staff.
One club source says Seifert became "real uneasy" when Walsh, obviously close to rejoining the team, outlined his ideas for the 49ers' immediate future in an interview that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on Jan. 13. "The loyalty factor in the building could have been splintered," says Walsh now. "It wouldn't have been fair to George to have me lurking in the background. I wanted George to be the central figure, and I'm not sure it would have worked had I been around."
What will San Francisco miss most without Walsh? His backbone, perhaps. Walsh doesn't shy away from being the bad guy. And the 49ers may need someone like that when the time comes to tell Montana he's finished. It might be this fall, or it might be three falls from now. But knowing Montana's competitiveness and the love for him in the locker room, he might not bow out gracefully. Who will have the guts to tell Montana it's over?
The realization that Walsh was a handshake away from rejoining the Niners opened old wounds for Tony Razzano. As chief of scouting, he had never liked how the team's chain of command worked for the draft—with the coach digesting the scouts' input and dictating every pick—even though both the team of the 1970s, the Pittsburgh Steeltrs, and the team of the '80s, the 49ers, were built that way. Razzano thinks the scouts were ignored by Walsh, who relied on his coaches' opinions and his own gut feelings. Razzano also believes he deserves the credit for the Niners' having picked Montana in the 1979 draft. Instead, he says, all he hears is how the decision was Walsh's and how Walsh made Montana a great quarterback.
"My whole problem emanates from that—Bill profiting from a kid he did not want," Razzano says. "He wanted Steve Dils [a Stanford quarterback in Walsh's first stint as the school's coach, in 1977 and '78], and I'll go to my grave knowing that. Over the years Bill began thinking he was a genius personnel man, but he wasn't even close to being a good one. The success of the 49ers is Joe Montana. We could have been a true dynasty, but Bill made drastic mistakes."
Razzano wants to write a book, in part to discredit Walsh's reputation as a personnel expert. "Yes, it is a vendetta," he says. "But the public has a right to know these things."
"I feel bad that Tony is that bitter," says Walsh, who personally scouted Montana the day before the '79 draft. "I had worked with Ken Anderson and Dan Fouts, and I developed two NCAA passing champions at Stanford, and I'm going to let a scout tell me who to take at quarterback? When I saw Joe work out, he was poetry in motion. I wanted him. I knew Steve Dils was at best a backup player in the NFL."
In January, Policy says, he told the 66-year-old Razzano that the '92 draft would be his last one with the 49ers, after which the team would like him to work as a consultant for two years. In other words, the Niners would ease Razzano into retirement. "We would have given him a computer to put in his home," says Policy, "and we told him his son was going to get a substantial promotion and raise. How much more could we have wrapped our arms around Tony?"
"There was never an offer, per se," says Razzano. "All Carmen was doing was suggesting I stay on for this draft, then they'd kick my ass out of here."
So here are the 49ers, six weeks before a critical draft. No Walsh. No Razzano. And Seifert is preoccupied with breaking in four new assistants. "I feel more of a sense of urgency to get the staff working together," Seifert says. "In the past, we as a coaching staff have really hammered the draft. We won't be into it quite as much this year."
Heading up San Francisco's draft effort this year—grading and ranking the prospects—are vice-president John McVay, who usually handles contract negotiations; executive administrative assistant Dwight Clark, who was a 49er wide receiver from 1979 to '87; and regional scout Vinny Cerrato, who was hired in 1991 after five years as recruiting coordinator at Notre Dame. Cerrato, 32, is something of a rising star without much of a portfolio. (Irish coach Lou Holtz recommended him to DeBartolo, who is a Notre Dame grad and ardent follower of the Irish.) Policy says he wouldn't be surprised if someday Cerrato became the club's college scouting director.
Last month Clark and Cerrato attended the scouting combine in Indianapolis, where they interviewed many of the top prospects for the draft. Clark has never been a full-time scout, but he visited about 20 colleges last fall. He refused SI's requests for an interview, perhaps in part because his mouth has gotten him in trouble before. For instance, after San Francisco lost to the Los Angeles Raiders last year, Clark found fault with Young's quarterbacking, saying, "These are the kinds of games Joe Montana wins in his sleep." Holmgren was so angered by the remark that he called Clark into his office and told him to knock it off.
Clark, Walsh's lOth-round draft pick in 1979, has also criticized Walsh's drafting, and in December he wrote a five-page letter to DeBartolo urging him not to be hasty in rehiring Walsh. "I've done a lot of research on the draft," Clark told the Santa Rosa (Calif.) Press Democrat after the season. "I don't have anything against Bill. I'm just not convinced he's the greatest personnel man. I don't believe he was the guru everybody says he was."
It's no secret in the Niner front office that Clark's goal is to be an NFL general manager. "The jury's out on Dwight," Policy says. "He's loyal, energetic and a great guy. The next two years will tell how high he'll go within this organization."
Meanwhile, the jury will be weighing in on other, more important, matters:
•Ownership. One of the more flamboyant owners in the league, Eddie Jr. has been wounded by the assault story. "He's hurt," Policy says. "He's built a strong franchise and gained stature in the league, and he feels his reputation could be really hurt because of this."
The Wall Street Journal's article was almost as damaging to DeBartolo, who has reveled so publicly in his 15 years atop the 49ers. He has spent lavishly when they won, heaping gifts and vacations on his players and their wives, leaving other owners to shake their heads at his largess. One league source estimates that despite the Niners' on-field success, DeBartolo lost about $25 million on the team between 1981 and '90.
The confidential documents obtained by the Journal described a plan that had the 49ers being sold in the first half of 1992. It won't happen, says Policy: "Before he sells this team, the whole bottom would have to fall out [of the DeBartolo empire]. This is the last thing Eddie would ever sell."
•Players. Young could make life easier for the 49ers by lobbying for a trade, but he won't. "I want to stay in San Francisco," says Young, who is attending Brigham Young law school. "I made my decision about that last year, when I could have left if I had pressed the issue." However, if Montana is on course to play this season, San Francisco would be foolish not to see what the market will bear for Young.
Trouble is, the Niners won't know by draft day, April 26, if
Montana will be able to play, and draft day is when most big NFL deals are done. Dr. Michael Dillingham, who performed the surgery to reattach a tendon and muscles to a bone in Montana's right elbow, says that because no other NFL quarterback is known to have had the operation, he can't be sure that Montana will be ready this season. "My gut feeling is he will be able to play," Dillingham says.
As for Haley, he says he won't make up with Seifert, having learned from his three years with Walsh that you don't have to like a guy to play for him. "I want to stay with the 49ers," says Haley. "To be honest, going to the Super Bowl [as a spectator] and then to the Pro Bowl convinced me. Other players kept telling me that we'd never win our division again, that we'd never get back to the Super Bowl. They attacked my ego. It made me want to prove we can do it." That's now. Let's see what August, and November, bring—if Haley's still a Niner.
•Coaching. When asked how the 49ers will fare this season, Walsh says, "The critical factor will be not so much what they do with the draft. It will be the loss of Mike Holmgren. He's the last link with me, and when I say 'me' I mean the gathering of an offensive system that has its roots with Sid Gillman, Paul Brown and Al Davis, as well as my input. But the link's broken, and there has to be a concern for play-calling and game-planning."
Shanahan has already been to Palo Alto to meet with Walsh, and the Stanford defensive coaches have spoken with San Francisco defensive coordinator Bill McPherson. "We're cousins," Walsh says. "Things will work out. The 49ers are going through an evolution right now, and they'll come out of it fine."
Indeed, that's the expectation among those with the team. "Don't feel sorry for us," Seifert says. As a matter of fact, Policy has made two positive moves in the offseason, deftly finagling a second-round draft pick out of the Packers for their having taken Holmgren and signing highly sought Plan B safety Thane Gash.
Still, things could be chilly in San Francisco for a while. Kansas City Chiefs president Carl Peterson recently talked with Policy about acquiring a quarterback, and Policy told him the Niners would be willing to deal Young for the right price. But when Peterson and Seifert spoke, Seifert said that Young wasn't available. Get your signals straight, guys.