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Thom Loverro: Return to New Orleans an ugly reminder for 49ers

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Sports,NFL,Thom Loverro

The San Francisco 49ers are scheduled to arrive Sunday in New Orleans for Super Bowl week. It will be bittersweet because this is the town where it all went wrong for the franchise during its glory years.

This is the town where the head of the family got caught and was exiled.

The 49ers are enjoying a two-year run of success under coach Jim Harbaugh that has everyone remembering the glory days of the franchise -- the Joe Montana, Bill Walsh and Steve Young years, when San Francisco won five Super Bowls from 1981 to 1994 and was a perennial playoff team.

That era, for all intents and purposes, ended when 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. got caught stuffing the pockets of the governor of Louisiana.

Former Gov. Edwin Edwards was on trial in 1997 for racketeering and extortion. One of the prosecution witnesses was DeBartolo, who testified about bribes he offered to pay Edwards for riverboat gambling licenses.

DeBartolo pleaded guilty on a bribery charge and was fined $250,000 and sentenced to two years' probation. He was fined $1 million and suspended for the 1999 season by NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

By the time the suspension ended, no one -- not the commissioner and certainly not DeBartolo's sister, Denise DeBartolo York, or brother-in-law, John York, who had taken over control of the franchise -- was eager to welcome him back.

"It's just not in the cards," a spokesman with a sense of humor for the new 49ers bosses told the New York Times in 2000.

The franchise fell on down times after that but has been resurrected with the hiring two years ago of Harbaugh, who took the 49ers to the NFC title game last season and now has them in the Super Bowl.

The new era, though, has a long way to go to replicate the high times of this franchise during the DeBartolo years.

Eddie DeBartolo Sr. bought the franchise in 1977 for $11.7 million. Three years later, he tried to purchase the Chicago White Sox but was turned down by Major League Baseball because his name appeared in numerous government investigations in connection with organized crime business associates.

He turned the team over to his son, who began paying big salaries and rewarding players with gifts, trips and cash for success -- even spending his own money to do so.

One of the primary driving forces behind the NFL salary cap was DeBartolo's willingness to spend large sums of money on players.

But according to the San Francisco Chronicle, the DeBartolos lost $44 million in their first 17 years of 49ers ownership. No one who owns an NFL franchise loses money.

DeBartolo's name will come up this week in closed-door debate among football writers. He is one of 15 finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

I wonder whether the Louisiana casinos have odds on whether he will get in.

Examiner columnist Thom Loverro is the co-host of "The Sports Fix" from noon to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on ESPN980 and espn980.com. Contact him at tloverro@washingtonexaminer.com.

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