He had me reeled in, I’ll admit. Five yards from my seat in the Levi’s Stadium auditorium, Jed York was accepting complete blame for his football debacle. With no evidence of past smugness or hubris, he confessed to being “humbled” by this wretched 49ers season and apologized for his “mistakes,” saying, “I learned a lot from 2015. A season like this ages you. I think I lost a little bit more hair.”
Addressing the fans directly, looking into TV cameras that aired his words live throughout the region, Jed said, “I understand how much passion you have for this team, and even if it’s in the form of criticism of me, I respect it and you deserve more and you’re going to get more. Nobody wants this team to win more than I do, and I’m going to work at it every day to make sure that we get back to where we belong.”
Wow. Hot damn. Did a political strategist script it? This was going surprisingly well. He even revealed raw details of a 5:20 a.m. phone conversation he had Monday with his famous uncle, Eddie DeBartolo Jr., the chat he should have had a very long time ago with the man he describes as “the best owner in the history of sports.” What did Uncle Eddie, the beloved boss during the team’s dynasty years, have to offer after reaching out and texting his embattled nephew at 5:15 a.m.?
“I’ll leave profanities out of it,” said Jed, actually drawing a few chuckles in a tense room.
But then, at the end of what seemed a sincere attempt at contrition and transparency during his first media interrogation in a year, York went and blew it. Just as he botched the Jim Harbaugh firing, the Jim Tomsula hiring and everything else in one of the worst years an owner has experienced in this sports nation, Jed threw away all the goodwill and positive vibes he’d generated in the previous half-hour. Earlier, he had praised the coach he never should have canned, saying he wasn’t surprised that Harbaugh is enjoying rousing success at Michigan, then managing a smile and wisely declining comment when asked about Harbaugh’s cryptic tweet Sunday night following Tomsula’s dismissal: “Do not be deceived. You will reap what you sow.” York should have walked away while he was ahead.
Instead, he cracked and took a needless cheapshot at Harbaugh. Like a bloodied, knocked-out loser who’d already heard the 10 count, he had to attempt one last feeble, flailing swing at the champion who won this bout in the first round back in, oh, September. Why on earth, York was asked, would he run off a winner like Harbaugh because he and general manager Trent Baalke couldn’t get along with him, only to replace him with a likable misfit, Tomsula, who couldn’t win and was fired after one season? Is a coach’s personality that important to him?
“We’re in need of somebody that can win Super Bowls,” York shot back.
Didn’t the 49ers have that guy in Harbaugh?
“We haven’t won a Super Bowl since 1994,” York zinged as he left the podium, five yards from my seat.
Or, the same distance that separated Harbaugh from a Super Bowl championship only three winters ago, making York appear small and petty in suggesting a man that close to winning a title isn’t ever capable of winning one.
So, after a brief moment of hope, Jed resumed his existence as the misplaced soul who owns an NFL franchise only as a gift from two parents who have no interest in running it. He said nothing that would uplift the fans and plenty that would demoralize them — confirming, for instance, that Baalke remains the GM and will lead the search process for the next coach. Never mind that Baalke has lost credibility after the Tomsula-for-Harbaugh whiff, a washout 2012 draft and other recent personnel gaffes. Never mind that even York voiced concern, saying, “Trent understands that I’m not satisfied with the current state of this team.” Why would we think a possible short-term GM, who isn’t sure if his contract expires in 2017 or 2018 and might not be around for either occasion, could get everything right this time when the 49ers can’t afford another blunder?
“I mean, I think he’s done it in the past, and I think he can do it again,” York said.
Said Baalke: “I appreciate the confidence that ownership has shown in me. But I also understand the gravity of the situation.”
The CEO insists big money is available for a big-name coach and a free-agency splurge. York says “this is going to be a very important offseason for us” and wants to seize the team’s high position in the draft. And yet, he’s somehow loyal to Baalke instead of turning it all over to a football man more equipped to fulfill the mission statement. A candidate such as Sean Payton, despite his connection to Baalke as fellow branches on Bill Parcells’ protege tree, surely prefers complete control of football operations over shared power. “I’ve seen Trent build a championship-caliber roster. I believe in his ability,” York said. “We need to figure out what the right talent is outside of this building, what the right talent is inside of this building, and make sure that we knock it out of the park this year in the draft.”
Amazing that York sees Baalke as “championship-caliber” but not Harbaugh. And yet, when asked if he’d considered retaining a search firm to hire a head coach as the woeful Cleveland Browns have done, York didn’t exactly laud Baalke’s ability to locate a coach. He brought up … DeBartolo? “I don’t think there’s anybody better to help me as a mentor — as somebody that’s been there and done it — than my uncle,” York said. “We talked for a long time. And I know that if I need direction, if I need guidance, if I need somebody to help, I’ve got a person that’s on my side that I can turn to anytime.”
Then why not let Eddie hire the new coach? Or, better, let him help run the franchise. I am not joking. With the fumes long vanished from a gambling fraud scandal that led to a one-year league suspension, DeBartolo is free to work for the 49ers or any other team. It’s a new generation in sports, but I’d trust him with a huge decision, even at 67 and away from the 49ers since 2000, more than Baalke. Alas, it sounds as if York used his uncle more as a sounding board/crying towel about the public’s harsh reaction to him. Jed knows that the fans loathe him. “I hear the criticism, loudly — whether that’s talking to fans directly, whether that’s social media or from planes flying over my head,” he said, referring to the derogatory airplane banners over Levi’s. He also scaled back his Twitter involvement, finally figuring out that his every tweet was mass-mocked. Personally, I love poking fun at the Twitter twits. York doesn’t have that luxury.
“I think I’ve taken things too personally. Interactions with the media, some of the criticism from fans. I think I’ve internalized that too much,” said York, who went out of his way to shake the hand of a particularly strong critic, columnist Lowell Cohn. “We can get into tweets I’ve sent — and thank god you can’t see tweets I didn’t send. Those things aren’t helpful for the team. It’s hard enough to win games in the National Football League. It’s harder when you have somebody who tweets something that’s a distraction to the club, and I can’t do that.
“I’m emotional. I learned that from my uncle. Both of us put holes in walls. Both of us have screamed and yelled and said things that we wish we could take back — some behind the scenes, sometimes in front of the public. The world is so much different today than when my uncle ran the team. It’s not a one-day news cycle. It’s a 24-hour, literally a second-by-second news cycle, and I can’t add to that.”
That is a copout. York doesn’t have to tweet — it’s kind of stupid, really — but the public does need to hear from him regularly, front and center, to develop familiarity and trust. When he doesn’t interact with fans and media, it’s perceived as running and hiding. Jerry Jones has been blistered during a long run of futility as the meddling owner of the Dallas Cowboys, yet he’s always front and center, to a fault, as the face of the franchise. York wants his new coach to be that face, but for it to be an effective optic, the coach has to be good.
Payton is said to be targeting the New York Giants’ opening. Chip Kelly is making a push for the Santa Clara gig, but he comes with social baggage from Philadelphia after giving a contract extension to a player, Riley Cooper, who uttered a racial slur. ESPN commentator Keyshawn Johnson says Kelly’s reputation is soiled to the extent that he’ll have to prove, in his next locker room, that he can earn respect of African-American players. Do the 49ers, who’ve had enough internal strife, want to deal with the Kelly fallout? More likely, Jed and Trent will have to settle for the best coordinator available.
It was kind of surreal, watching York try to channel Vince Lombardi. “I don’t know if I’ll get the quote right, but Vince always talked about, ‘We can’t attain perfection, but if we strive for perfection, we can catch excellence.’ I believe in that. I believe in chasing perfection.”
At this point, Jed might want to aim for mediocrity as a pursuit.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.