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The losing years were soon over, and then DeBartolo forgot how to lose. He can be the kindest man on the planet, but when he's mad, Napoleon can kick in. "When he's mad? He can be a real s.o.b.," says DeBartolo's friend Lopatta. At various times, Eddie has pulled phones out of walls, screamed at his own employees and even offered to "kick ass" in the case of a San Francisco Chronicle beat writer who correctly predicted the 49ers' loss to the Bears in 1988. DeBartolo was so disgusted at losing to the Vikings in the 1.987 playoffs that he went off on a two-week Caribbean vacation with Candy and a few other couples and forbade anybody to talk football. At an exhibition game in London the next season, Montana and running back Roger Craig were late to a press conference. "That's not unusual," DeBartolo said. "They didn't show up at our playoff game with Minnesota, either." Sure, everybody on the 49ers is part of a family. Of course, sometimes this family bites.
But would you want to go back to those phlegm-filled days of losing? Nowadays, even when he's winning, DeBartolo worries about losing. Early in last season's Super Bowl, the Niners were ahead 7-3 and starting to drive. Walsh, who retired as coach after the '88 season and was a guest in the owner's box, turned to DeBartolo and said, "Considering the way Denver is lined up on defense, this could be a huge rout."
It was his fourth Super Bowl win in nine years, a record matched only by the Pittsburgh Steelers' Art Rooney (four in six years) and certainly unmatched by DeBartolo's father, who lost $10 million on the Pittsburgh Maulers of the USFL and has taken a bath on the Penguins as well. So there it was. The Prince had outdone the King in at least one thing.
"I think that meant a lot to Eddie," says Moses. "I think it means everything."
Says Eddie, "I never tried to be my father. If I had, I'd have become the biggest failure that's ever been."
Now his problem is, he's too good.
Not everybody likes DeBartolo. He can be a bit too macho for some. One of his two luxury boxes in San Francisco is subdivided so women watch the game on one side and men on the other. "I would never watch a game with a woman" DeBartolo says. "They'd chat." He has no great understanding of journalists, either, despite his friendship with Cooney. DeBartolo once tried to ban Frank Blackman of the San Francisco Examiner from covering the Niners because Blackman had written some negative stories about the team. But nobody dislikes DeBartolo the way some NFL owners dislike him. To them, he's the Man Who Killed Parity.
"The issue here," Eagles owner Norman Braman said, "is that the rules should apply to everyone, but they didn't apply to everyone, and things have gone to hell.... I fear for the family businesses—the clubs owned and operated by families."
Braman and other owners claim that four years ago DeBartolo secretly transferred ownership of the Niners from his personal portfolio to the DeBartolo Corp., of which he is president and chief administrative officer. (The 49ers insist that the transfer was made clear in documents presented to the league that year.) NFL rules say that only someone whose primary business is football can own a team. Braman and the other owners complain that corporations can use their losses as tax write-offs, while families can't. Never mind that Washington, Minnesota and Houston all have arrangements similar to DeBartolo's. Braman and the others know that DeBartolo not only can afford the San Francisco 49ers, he could practically afford San Francisco. Anything he pours into the 49ers is pretty much tip money.