Eddie DeBartolo was watching a football game Saturday - his 8-year-old grandson, Asher's, flag football game - when his phone rang and the voice on the other end gave him the good news: the former 49ers owner was a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, a stage he never had reached before.
DeBartolo said he was surprised, humbled and honored by the development, which prompted a flood of memories from his 23-year run as one of the most successful owners in all of sports. Asked to pick out one, DeBartolo said it was impossible, but he did touch on perhaps his biggest and best move -- hiring Bill Walsh in 1979.
"Obviously, one thing led to another with our success," DeBartolo said. "We had rough going for a couple of years. I met Bill Walsh. He and I had an interview. I hired him in less than 10 minutes."
He said his richest memories, however, are the relationships he built, and for DeBartolo that's not a cliché. He was renown for his largesse and warmth and for treating everyone in the organization, from top to bottom, with dignity and respect. "We treated everybody like they were part of the family and not just a number," DeBartolo said. "'Is he married? What's his wife's name? Are his parents still alive?' I didn't do it because everybody else did it. I did it because that's the way we operated in Youngstown, Ohio. That's the way my father ran his business."
The 49ers success in the 1980s and 90s made them the model for sports franchises at the time, and new owners often sought DeBartolo's advice. Jerry Jones did so when he took over the Cowboys in 1989. Jones visited the 49ers' facility at the time, and some of his lieutenants spent weeks with the 49ers to see how the organization was run.
DeBartolo was forced to relinquish control of the 49ers to his sister, Denise DeBartolo-York, in 2000 after DeBartolo was entangled in a Louisiana gambling scandal. The team struggled mightily in the decade following that transfer, and it is in the playoffs this year for the first time since 2002.
DeBartolo, who has been open about his desire to own an NFL franchise again, said he looked at the 49ers' recent success with pride, especially because there are so many similarities between him and his nephew, Jed, who runs the day-to-day-operations of the 49ers. DeBartolo was 30 when he took over the team in 1977. York is currently 30.
DeBartolo said that York always was around the team as a boy, and the two speak regularly on the phone. In fact, when the 49ers hired Jim Harbaugh exactly one year ago, York immediately dialed his uncle and put Harbaugh on the line.
"It almost fits," DeBartolo said of York becoming the de facto owner. "I hate to say it happened naturally. I'll call it 'a rite of passage,' how's that?"
The list of 15 hall-of-fame finalists will be winnowed next month to the five-member class of 2012.
-- Matt Barrows