After walking the unemployment line for three months, Joe Thomas returned to pro football last week, taking over as the general manager of the San Francisco 49ers. Predictably, the controversial Thomas arrived in his new hometown with all the subtlety of the 1906 earthquake. At the press conference called to welcome Thomas and the club's new owners to San Francisco, the gathering at the Fairmont Hotel was stunned by the announcement that Monte Clark had been fired. Then it was explained that Clark, the 49ers' popular and successful young head coach, had been let go because he refused to hand over control of player personnel to Thomas. Said a club employee, "This is the sorriest day in 49er history."
Maybe so, but it was just another day in the life of Joe Thomas. The world of pro football has never been quite large enough for Thomas and a head coach, as Norm Van Brocklin, George Wilson, Don Shula, the late Don McCafferty, Howard Schnellenberger and, most recently, Ted Marchibroda all discovered.
While personnel director of Minnesota and then Miami in the '60s, Thomas chafed under the belief that too much credit for the success of those expansion teams was going to the coaches—and not enough to Joe Thomas for procuring the talent. Disgruntled, he left the Dolphins in 1972 after having built the teams that went on to win the 1973-74 Super Bowls. But a few months later Thomas assumed full control of the Baltimore Colts by selling the idea of "owning your own team" to Robert Irsay, a Chicago-based air-conditioning-systems millionaire. In a complicated deal engineered by Thomas, Irsay bought the Los Angeles Rams and then traded them to Carroll Rosenbloom for the Colts.
Thomas tore apart an aging Colt team, discarding such legends as Johnny Unitas and John Mackey, and stood resolutely on the bridge as the Colts sank to last place. Then once again he confounded his critics as the Colts emerged with a young divisional champion led by the new Unitas, Quarterback Bert Jones, who brought Baltimore to the top of the AFC East in 1975 and 1976. But in the process, Thomas went through five head coaches, including himself, and three months ago lost his long power struggle with Marchibroda, the coach he had hired only two years earlier. This time it was Thomas who was fired, by Irsay.
It therefore seemed inevitable that Thomas would get off to a rocky start in San Francisco. Indeed, one veteran Thomas watcher viewed the Clark firing as nothing more than another outbreak of "Robespierre's Syndrome." "Robespierre was the fellow in the French Revolution who was responsible for chopping everyone's head off," he said. "He had a little black book, and if you were in it you were done for. The only way they could stop him was to cut his head off. So that's what they did. That's Robespierre's Syndrome. Joe chopped all the heads in Baltimore until finally he got his own head chopped. And it'll happen again here."
Still, Thomas' dismissal of Clark came as a shock to 49er fans who felt they had found a savior in the 40-year-old coach. Clark, who was a Dolphin offensive coach under Don Shula for six seasons, was the most highly sought assistant in the NFL when San Francisco hired him last year. To get him, the 49ers had to agree to his terms, which in the words of his four-year contract, included "any and all changes or alterations" in the squad.
Clark won over San Francisco's critical fans early in the season when the 49ers shut out the hated Rams 16-0 in Los Angeles in a nationally televised Monday night game. Clark received a hero's welcome when the 49ers landed in San Francisco. Fans crowded around Clark at the airport, chanting "Clark's No. 1, Clark's No. 1," and it was a long time before he could make his way to the safety of his car.
When the 49ers won their final game to finish at 8-6, their first winning record in four seasons, the players gave Clark the game ball. As Defensive End Cedrick Hardman said last week, "The game ball wasn't so much for anything that had happened in the season we had just completed but for what we all felt lay ahead in the future." As it turned out, what lay ahead was the end of Clark's coaching career in San Francisco. The 49ers had been for sale for more than a year, and in Ohio there was a family that had been thinking of buying an NFL franchise for almost 20 years.
The Edward J. DeBartolo Corporation of Youngstown is America's leading developer, builder, owner and operator of shopping centers and enclosed malls. Ten years ago Edward J. DeBartolo Sr.—called The Boss or Mr. D, never Ed or Eddie—met Thomas at the College All-Star Game in Chicago. They talked about the business of pro football for three hours, and over the years they stayed in touch. When Thomas, then unemployed, called two months ago to see if DeBartolo might be interested in buying the 49ers, Mr. D said yes, with one condition: that Thomas agree to run the team. DeBartolo signed Thomas to a contract, assigning him, as it turned out, most of the same responsibilities Clark had, then negotiated to buy the team. When the $17 million purchase was completed, he named 30-year-old Ed Jr.—called Eddie—president. For two weeks, Thomas, Clark and their lawyers tried to reach a compromise on their overlapping job descriptions. Negotiations continued until late on the eve of the press conference at the Fairmont.
Clark remained outwardly calm in public, but a close friend described him as "uptight. I mean he's walking around really uptight." In return for handing over his control of the team, Clark was offered a two-year extension to the three years remaining on his contract, a raise—retroactive to Jan. 1, 1977—from $57,500 to $72,500 for this season and an annual increase of $5,000 instead of $2,500.