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THE HAND THAT FEEDS THEM
Rick Reilly
September 10, 1990
To Eddie DeBartolo Jr., the most generous owner in sports, nothing is too good for a San Francisco 49er
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September 10, 1990

The Hand That Feeds Them

To Eddie DeBartolo Jr., the most generous owner in sports, nothing is too good for a San Francisco 49er

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The 49ers' popular coach, Monte Clark, refused to work with Thomas and quit. No problem, said Thomas. His football philosophy, he told DeBartolo, was that "running backs, wide receivers and coaches are a dime a dozen." Thomas then set out to prove it by bringing in a string of empty suits as coaches. Or do the names Ken Meyer, Pete McCulley and Fred O'Connor ring many bells with you? Thomas's two drafts (1977 and 1978) were disasters. Of his '77 picks, not one played for the Niners more than a year.

But DeBartolo had promised "unbending patience" and stayed with Thomas. His father had taught him his secrets: Treat your key employees like family, pay them like royalty, and fire them only for disloyalty. Boneheadedness you can work around. So the heat found its way to Youngstown. One columnist called DeBartolo a "5'7" punk," another called him a "gunslinger from the East." The average fan figured DeBartolo for nothing more than a spoiled brat who'd broken the Christmas toy Daddy bought him at Franchises 'R' Us.

That galled them both. "You can't give somebody a $17 million gift," says Senior. "You'd have to pay half of that again in taxes. He bought the goddam team. It was no gift." Of course, Eddie Jr. wasn't exactly a self-made man. Still, buying the team was his deal, and keeping his father out of it was not just what Eddie wanted, it was what he needed. "Eddie was going to either rise, or fall on his face," says his buddy Porter, "but he was going to do it on his own."

The Niners lost the way Chicagoans voted—early and often: 5-9 the first year, 2-14 in 1978. Every other weekend, Candy and Eddie would fly back grim-mouthed from San Francisco. The losing was jangling their marriage. "It put a damper on our relationship," she says. "You're not yourself. You're not pleasant seven days a week." In fact, Eddie was hardly pleasant three days of the week. If the Niners lost, it would be Wednesday before his office door stayed open again.

The losing drove him to his knees, literally. At a game late in '77, a half-full can of beer hit DeBartolo on the head, and he buckled. "You son of a bitch!" he hollered up at nobody. "At least you could've drank it first!" But even that wasn't rock bottom. Rock bottom arrived during another game, at home. A man spit in DeBartolo's face from three feet away. "And I mean a big ol' hocker," says DeBartolo, still cringing. "I was so steamed and so frustrated. I didn't know what to do. And all I could think was, 'What the hell am I doing here? I could be back in Youngstown playing golf.' " Some way to treat a prince.

Meanwhile, Thomas was becoming less and less earthbound. "He was falling apart," Candy remembers. "You'd see him, and he'd be ranting and raving, a nervous wreck. He'd be so paranoid, he'd be sweating through his leather coat." On Monday, Nov. 27,1978, San Francisco mayor George Moscone and city supervisor Harvey Milk were shot to death by Dan White, a depressed former supervisor. The Niners were playing Pittsburgh at home that night, and Thomas wanted to cancel the game, but for the wrong reason. He was worried about his own safety. "I knew then that I had to make a change," says DeBartolo.

He hired the anti-Thomas, Bill Walsh of Stanford, as coach and general manager. Walsh, DeBartolo, sanity and a little luck helped launch a dynasty.

"What should we do with this Notre Dame kid?" Walsh teased DeBartolo when the 82nd pick came up in the third round of the '79 draft and Joe Montana was available.

"What the heck," said DeBartolo.

"He's a Notre Dame kid. How can you go wrong?"

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