In 2002, the 49ers fired head coach Steve Mariucci, who posted a 57–39 record over six seasons (1997–2002), including the franchise’s last playoff victory (over the New York Giants in a 39–38 wild-card game) due to what insiders described as a power struggle with the general manager, the Los Angeles-based Terry Donahue.
Donahue’s incredible lack of skill and training for the G.M. position was the tipping point for the franchise. After he fired Mariucci, Donahue signed Dennis Erickson to a five-year deal as head coach, a move fans and media immediately blasted. Erickson would go 9–23 in two seasons before being released prior to the start of the 2005 season (Donahue was fired after the ’05 season).
Combined with the Mariucci firing, the Erickson hiring, and mediocre drafts – along with unorthodox strategies regarding player evaluation and a lack of time at team headquarters – the Donahue years set the once-proud 49er franchise back mightily in both development and prestige.
When Mike Nolan was hired in 2005, it was the first head-coaching job in the NFL for the former Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator. Nolan told Northside San Francisco in 2007 that when he arrived, he had never seen such a lack of talent on an NFL team, and he had coached for five teams up to that point and grew up in the game as the son of former 49er head coach Dick Nolan.
However, in his first major player personnel decision, Nolan blundered when, along with Donahue, the team chose Alex Smith with the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, a move the team and fans have come to utterly regret, especially because Cal star and Chico product Aaron Rodgers was not only available but wanted to be a 49er. Rodgers would go on to become the 2011 Super Bowl MVP as quarterback for the Green Bay Packers.
Along with the poor team results was a mixed bag of messages about when and where a new 49er stadium would be built and how much it would cost the city of San Francisco if the team stayed in town.
Nolan lasted three and a half seasons without ever achieving a winning season and recorded an overall mark of 18–37 before being fired on Oct. 21, 2008.
In his place stepped Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary, an assistant coach with the 49ers and a former linebackers coach with the Baltimore Ravens. Based on Singletary’s 5–4 record as interim coach – his only experience as a head coach – 49ers general manager Scot McCloughan announced on Dec. 28, 2008 that Singletary was given a four-year, $10 million contract to become the franchise’s 16th head coach.
Earlier that same day, the team announced that Jed York had been named team president and CEO.
Two years later, after a somewhat stunning and very awkward reign, with the team flailing and its leadership under intense scrutiny, York fired Singletary after disappointing 8–8 and 6–10 seasons.
“In hindsight, I think the fit wasn’t right with Mike and the general manager,” York reflected. “I think that some of the things that Mike brought – he had the passion and the intensity that we were looking for – but I don’t know if that followed through onto the field in terms of success, in terms of understanding how offense and defense work together. That’s the risk with a first-time head coach.”
York quickly added, “That’s part of my job [to fire the head coach] and as the person making the day-to-day decisions you have to make tough decisions. It’s not easy to let somebody go, especially someone that you admire and respect, somebody that’s a Hall of Famer.
“There were definitely positives. Mike’s character, the things that he brings both on and off the field, were impressive. There aren’t many better men in the NFL than Mike Singletary.”
Perhaps that sense of loyalty is what prevented the 49ers from making a change sooner when all signs indicated that Singletary was in over his head. It is the same sense of loyalty, some fans are now saying, that is reminiscent of the way York’s uncle, Eddie DeBartolo, ran the team.
The similarities between the two men are striking. Both took over the 49er franchise at around the same young age – DeBartolo was 30, York 28. Both enjoy speaking in public and with the media. And there is no doubt that since York became team president, as when DeBartolo did, he is in charge.
“He’s not a spoiled young man. He’s hard working. Give him a little bit of time and he’ll show his mettle,’’ said DeBartolo.
In fact, York lists DeBartolo as his biggest mentor and confidante, along with all-time 49er great Ronnie Lott.
During a lively telephone interview from York’s Marina home, he talked to Northside S.F. with confidence and candor about the 49er stadium plan, the recent hiring of general manager Trent Baalke and head coach Jim Harbaugh, and the odds the Bay Area would host a Super Bowl should a stadium be built (“100 percent”), as well as his relationship with the fans and, as a Marina resident, where he likes to hang out locally when he’s in town.
THE NEW STADIUM
Prior to the Harbaugh coup, the young executive was still treading on thin ice. The stadium plan, originally approved by San Francisco voters in 1997 for $100 million, has since been concentrated exclusively on the Santa Clara location.
“Santa Clara is our focus,” said York. “We have a certified EIR (Environmental Impact Report). We have a ballot that was won by a 60–40 margin and that’s where our efforts are focused.
“I’m happy to look at San Francisco as an alternative, but as we stated for the last five years, there are a lot of hurdles that they need to overcome. I am hopeful, with Mayor Lee taking over and a change in the Board of Supervisors, there’s at least a better relationship with the San Francisco 49ers and the city of San Francisco.”
As the person in charge of the team’s stadium future, York was just getting warmed up.
“There has been a lot of deferred maintenance at Candlestick that puts that facility in the position where it’s very difficult to maintain an NFL quality that is the same as say, Jerry Jones’s stadium in Dallas. And, you have to make sure that you keep up your stadium once you build a new one.
“That’s our plan for Santa Clara: to make it not just a one-time expense of building it, but you keep modifying, you keep updating the stadium so in 30 years or 40 years you’re not looking at tearing it down and building a new one. You’re looking at doing what the Kansas City Chiefs were able to do, which was build a state-of-the-art stadium in the 1970s, maintain that stadium for 40 years, and then revamp that stadium so they could have it for another 25 or 30 years until they need to make another big modification.”
York envisions a state-of-the-art facility maximizing Silicon Valley technology to create an unparalleled game-day experience for the 49er faithful.
“The way we’ve approached it is we’re not going to be the biggest stadium and we’re not going to be the most expensive stadium, but we’re going to be the smartest stadium,” he said.
However, much of the financing for a new stadium was to come from the NFL’s G3 program, which subsidizes stadium construction or renovation. The loans are repaid with the visiting teams’ share of club-seat revenue once the project is finished. With the expiration of the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement on March 3, 2011, and with reports of G3 funding drying up while in the midst of a global financial crisis, York will have to be financially creative to reach his goal of a new stadium by 2015.
THE NEW COACH
None of the stadium talk will matter unless the 49ers get their football house in order, and here’s where the connection to Uncle Eddie comes into play again.
When the 49ers hired Harbaugh, the most coveted coaching prospect in the nation, off “The Farm” (Stanford University) on Jan. 7, 2011, comparisons were instantly made between the new hire and the old architect of the team’s Super Bowl championships, Bill Walsh. York can be very serious and analytical when discussing stadium particulars as he is involved in every aspect of construction and planning, but he became truly vivacious discussing his new head coach.
“When I look at what we are trying to rebuild, the legacy that my uncle started with the San Francisco 49ers and Bill Walsh, Jim understands that,” he assured. “We’re not trying to duplicate that but they [Harbaugh and Baalke] understand the blueprint of what we’re trying to do.
“When you get into the tactical level, Jim understands offense better than most people in the world. And when you look at what he’s done with quarterbacks, how he scouts quarterbacks, how he develops quarterbacks, that’s something that’s essential if you want to compete for Super Bowls in the National Football League.”
As to the inevitable comparisons between Harbaugh and Walsh, who had known York his entire life until his death in 2007, York said, “I think it’s the little things between the two of them. Just kind of the quirkiness in each of their behavior, attitudes and how they look at things, where it’s not black and white. They bring fun and excitement to the game. They bring an advanced level of intelligence to the game that is different than a straight-line, old-school, hard-nosed football coach.”
While York considers the building of the team and the stadium as the most important missions of his job, he believes that the fans are the key to his and the NFL’s survival.
“I understand as president of the 49ers that the fans are your No. 1 stakeholder. And that’s who I answer to everyday,” he said. “Until I’m satisfied with where we are – which I’m not satisfied right now – I can’t imagine that the fans are satisfied with a 6–10 record and drafting No. 7 overall. That’s just not good enough. We need to make sure we continue to build and that’s why we made changes and that’s why Jim Harbaugh’s our head coach. That’s why Trent Baalke’s our general manager. When I’m happy that’s when I’ll think the fans are satisfied.”
OFF THE CLOCK
With the head coach and general manager hirings, York has carved out some breathing room for himself for the first time since he became team president. Life in the public eye can be daunting but it also has its rewards. After attending the Super Bowl, York took his two sisters to the NBA All-Star Game in Los Angeles. And when he’s in town, you just might bump into York at a number of spots in the neighborhood.
“I love going to some of the farmers’ markets and there’s one right down the street from where I live at Fort Mason that I try to hit on the weekends,” he disclosed. “I love walking around the City and checking out different places. I love going to Swan Oyster Depot – on Saturday mornings, Saturday afternoons I’ll stop in there, that’s always a standard once a month or every six weeks.
“There are so many great places to choose from in the City it’s hard. You have to make a concerted effort to not continue to go to the same places all the time because there are just too many good ones to choose from. I just try to experience a lot of them.”
When he’s off the clock, York has an array of favorite restaurants in the Marina and Cow Hollow: “I like Terzo a lot. Bistro Aix – I really like that spot – and I love Delarosa; I love the fact that its open late and I usually don’t get home early when I do come back to the City so its nice to be able to go grab dinner at 9–9:30. I pop into the Brazen Head – that’s a good spot, too. And I love Betelnut. I know Betelnut’s been around a little bit but I love to go there.”
York says that when he is recognized in public, “75 to 85 percent of the time it’s a positive, like ‘Go Niners’ or something like that, but there’s always somebody who will throw out a comment like ‘you need a quarterback’ or ‘you need to change your coach.’ That’s part of my position. But usually when I go out and get noticed it’s fun, and it’s always cool to see fans and the way they care about the game and the team and chat with them when you’re having a beer.”
The last decade of 49er football is a hard act to follow, especially with the bar set as high as it is with the five Lombardi trophies on display at team headquarters in Santa Clara. But with a management team led by devoted team president Jed York and new head coach Jim Harbaugh, the future is once again looking bright.
“I think it’s going to be a very exciting season. I think it’s going to be a very exciting run with Trent as our G.M. and Jim as our head coach and I’m very optimistic about the future of the San Francisco 49ers,” York said. “I feel like we have one of the best coaching staffs in the league; there’s a lot of work to be done but its going to be a lot of fun watching this team build and grow and get back to being a champion. We all have something to prove and that’s what we are working toward right now.”