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."
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.