DeBartolo is knocking on the NFL's door again


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Jan 22, 2006
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Is he back?
DeBartolo is knocking on the NFL's door again
By Mark Kreidler -- Bee Staff Writer
Published 12:01 am PDT Saturday, July 8, 2006

The most recent Eddie DeBartolo story made for some great local dust-up because it contained all the necessary elements:
(1) DeBartolo, the former 49ers owner, magnetic and vexing as ever;

(2) Al Davis, the perpetual Raiders owner, garrulous and feisty as ever, and;

(3) The delicious, nougaty center of a rumor that DeBartolo might like to take Team Eyepatch off his old rival's hands -- sooner, later, whenever -- and pack it back to Los Angeles, whence once it came.

Upon further review, not entirely likely. But lost in all the shouting from the Raiders' side (cries of "Never!" cascading down from executive offices in Alameda) was a fascinating subplot: Could Eddie DeBartolo Jr. really jump right back into NFL ownership, just like that?

Despite pleading guilty to a charge in a federal racketeering case, despite being banished from the NFL, fined a million bucks and stripped of the 49ers in a power struggle within his family -- despite all that, DeBartolo is but a formal vote away from being reunited with Tha League.

Getting a team? That's a whole other kettle of fish, many of them piranhas. But first things first: Ultimately, DeBartolo can return if his NFL peers say so.

"His only impediment is getting the approval of the other owners," said NFL spokesman Greg Aiello, who found himself looking into that very question not long ago, after Sports Illustrated suggested that DeBartolo was interested in owning again and that he might have his eye on the Raiders, among other possibilities.

In fact, were DeBartolo to come to the NFL with a team he wanted to buy and a deal to make it happen, he would simply require 24 of the 32 franchise owners to OK it, Aiello said -- the same as any other suitor. While DeBartolo's history undoubtedly would be the subject of lively conversation, it is no longer an automatic disqualifier, as it was during and immediately following his suspension.

DeBartolo's interest, meanwhile, isn't really a question. He has made it clear on several occasions that he'd like to get back into NFL ownership. He made an unsuccessful run at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a few years ago, has been mentioned as a suitor for the Jacksonville franchise and told the San Francisco Chronicle last year, "There are possibilities that linger out there in the not-too-distant future."

"I think he's wanted to get back in for a long period of time," said Joe Montana, the Hall of Fame quarterback whose Super Bowl-winning years marked the zenith of DeBartolo's 20-year ownership of the 49ers, a time in which San Francisco went from perhaps the worst franchise in the league to one of its gold standards.

"I just hope other people are ready to accept him who have been in the NFL," Montana said, "because he will bring some excitement back as a team owner. He'll be more dedicated than you can imagine."

So sold is Montana on DeBartolo's chance for success that, in answer to a question, he said he wouldn't rule out being part of a DeBartolo ownership group if the right opportunity came along.

"Normally, I would say, Probably not," Montana said. "But it would be hard to say no to him if he asked. The only reason I would second-guess is getting into business with a friend … (but) if he would ask me, I would seriously take a hard look."

From his corporate headquarters in Tampa, Fla., last week, DeBartolo politely declined to be interviewed for this story, sending word through his assistant that "the timing probably isn't good right now."

That may have been a reference to the attention directed to the Sports Illustrated article and to a recent 49ers reunion party in Las Vegas that was, by all accounts, epic in scale.

"I can best describe it by saying it was Eddie -- it was first class," said John McVay, a Granite Bay resident, longtime 49ers executive and friend of DeBartolo's.

McVay is among those who believe DeBartolo could make the transition to the new ownership model in the NFL -- an interesting question, since that model bears so little resemblance to what existed in Eddie's heyday in San Francisco. Where DeBartolo spent lavishly and could do things like bring Steve Young aboard as Montana's backup for years, salary caps and strict limitations on "extra benefits" have been instituted with an eye toward parity in the league.

"I still think Eddie's model for how he ran a franchise could be done, because of the way he does it," McVay said. "He gets good people, like he did with Bill Walsh and George Seifert, and he takes tremendous care of them.

"The league has experienced enormous financial growth, and that's what Eddie does well. … I would think it would take him about 12 hours to adapt (to the new league rules)."

Several hurdles have fallen over the past few years that make a DeBartolo return plausible, if not necessarily imminent.

First, DeBartolo is in the clear legally, having paid a $1 million fine and served probation after pleading guilty to failing to report a bribe in a Louisiana gaming scandal. It was that gambling probe, in 1997, that forcibly separated DeBartolo from the 49ers.

Second, Paul Tagliabue is retiring as NFL commissioner. Tagliabue suspended DeBartolo and fined him $1 million in connection with the Louisiana case, and the commissioner made it clear for some time afterward that DeBartolo would not be welcomed back to the league.

DeBartolo was formally forced out of the 49ers' picture in 2000 after he and his sister, Denise DeBartolo York, split their family's corporation. He has since rebuilt his business fortune beyond $1 billion, according to several estimates.

DeBartolo and his sister eventually achieved detente -- and, hey, a vote is a vote when it comes to the NFL owners. He also has the vocal support of people like Jerry Jones in Dallas and Pat Bowlen in Denver, and there are a host of newer-era franchise owners who may not hold old-guard grudges against DeBartolo from decades gone by.

Significantly, DeBartolo also has mended his relationship with his longtime ally and sometime partner in controversy, Carmen Policy -- although, says McVay, "I don't know if there was really anything to patch up."

While public reports had DeBartolo furious at Policy in the wake of the demise of his ownership of the 49ers, McVay, who has known both men closely for years, doubts the rift was ever as deep as was suggested.

"They're buddies. They're friends," McVay said. "You've got to remember that these are two guys who grew up together in Youngstown (Ohio), who have been friends their whole lives."

Indeed, DeBartolo last year said he would not hesitate to throw back into business with Policy, even though the 49ers were tagged several times down the stretch of his ownership for bending or breaking the spirit of the NFL's salary rules. The recent Sports Illustrated article suggested that it is a DeBartolo-Policy combination that is seeking a franchise.

And that's the rub, of course, the part about having a franchise to buy. Assuming the Raiders are off the table -- and Amy Trask, Al Davis' top executive, adamantly declares they are -- then where might the DeBartolo group turn up?

Jacksonville has been identified as a franchise DeBartolo has considered, and Malcom Glazer's declining health in Tampa ultimately prompt a renewed conversation about the Bucs. The NFL's ongoing saga in Los Angeles, meanwhile, has raised the possibility of DeBartolo taking over a distressed franchise (the Saints, say) and moving it there.

In truth, it might take a franchise teetering on the edge of irrelevance -- or extinction -- to produce a scenario in which DeBartolo returns to the NFL. And who would be willing to commit $500 million, $700 million or $800 million, depending on the stadium situation, for a lousy product?

"Well, things were pretty desperate here when he took over the 49ers," McVay said with a chuckle. "There's the thrill of putting something together, like he did here. He's still a young man, in terms of ownership."

DeBartolo is 59, and he lacks a couple of things before he returns to the NFL: a team, a city, and 24 votes. Rather amazingly, the rest of it is in place and waiting.
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