Of all of the 15 finalists on for the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2014, there may not be a more complex case than that of former San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo, Jr.
DeBartolo is one of only two non-players among this year's finalists, joining former Colts and Buccaneers head coach Tony Dungy. A maximum of seven candidates can find themselves inducted when the selection committee meets on February 1, and DeBartolo will face some serious competition on the ballot:
It's hard to find an owner in the modern era that achieved more success than DeBartolo, watching his franchise celebrate five Super Bowl championships in a 22-year window. As noted in DeBartolo's credentials in the Pro Football Hall of Fame press release, the 49ers also boasted the NFL's best winning percentage in both the 80s and 90s.
The winning spirit is supported in all of the numbers, including 13 division titles, 16 playoff appearances and 10 NFC Championship Game appearances under DeBartolo's watch. Eddie D's 49ers also became the first franchise to capture a fifth Lombardi Trophy.
Unfortunately, however, the eye-opening numbers don't tell the whole story for DeBartolo's tenure as an NFL owner.
Despite his success as an executive, DeBartolo is also remembered for pleading guilty to felony charges of failing to report an extortion case, as covered in a 1998 report from David Dietz and Howard Arceneaux of The San Francisco Chronicle. His settlement in the case cost the disgraced owner $1 million in fines and two years of probation.
According to Jason Cole of Yahoo Sports, DeBartolo's involvement in the corruption case caught the ire of the league, as well as salary cap violations that surfaced in the aftermath. By 2000, Eddie D was finally forced to fully cede control of his beloved team.
Over a decade has passed since these transgressions took place, which has offered plenty of time to weigh the on-field accomplishments versus the off-field issues. While his scandalous exit will scare away some voters, the overall body of work is well worth a deeper look.
DeBartolo's impact on the NFL cannot merely be measured in numbers or wins but also in his willingness to think outside the box. Cole's report included this quote from former 49ers executive Carmen Policy, which supports this line of thought through the hiring of legendary coach Bill Walsh:
'Vince Lombardi was the image that was projected of NFL head coaches at the time... No matter what Eddie says, his father [the late billionaire Eddie DeBartolo Sr.] was against hiring Bill Walsh. Paul Brown was the icon of football at the time and Paul Brown's opinion was that Bill wasn't head coach material. Eddie saw beyond that and saw something in Bill that was special and, frankly, I'm not sure Bill could have succeeded in the NFL aside from that environment created by Eddie.' - Carmen Policy
Walsh was clearly the architect of the 49ers dynasty that defined DeBartolo's reign, but it's also fair to say that Walsh may never have found his chance without the foresight of his 49ers boss. Considering the impact that Walsh's system (and disciples) still have on the NFL, can that be overlooked for DeBartolo's legacy?
As Elliot Harrison of NFL.com points out, the 49ers were completely transformed from a laughingstock when DeBartolo first took control of the franchise. The leadership that DeBartolo hired helped instill a winning culture and established San Francisco as one of the league's flagship organizations.
DeBartolo's former players clearly echo that thinking as well, according to a second report from Cole before last year's Hall of Fame vote. These ardent supporters include former 49ers greats such as quarterback Steve Young, safety Ronnie Lott and defensive end Fred Dean, all Hall of Famers.
The common theme of Cole's argument? DeBartolo yearned to create a family atmosphere within the organization, always looking to provide his players with whatever they needed to win.
By providing the best care for his employees, DeBartolo felt that he could demand the best results from them as well. The players clearly appreciated the attention to detail but also got the message, and it's hard to argue with the end results.
Eddie D has gone down in Bay Area lore as an owner that wanted to win at all cost and mirrored the passion of his fanbase, both for better and for worse. While his outside life was marred with a costly mistake, his contributions to the game helped change the behind the scenes culture of the NFL.
For his stamp on the modern game, it's time to recognize Eddie DeBartolo with a bust in Canton.
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