Former San Francisco 49ers owner Edward DeBartolo Jr. will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall Of Fame this summer, following years of waiting. After three years as a finalist, DeBartolo will be only the third member enshrined in the contributor category, added in 2015.
Every year, the Hall voters debate the merits of each finalist the day before the Super Bowl. Each finalist has a voter presenting their case. ESPN's Jim Trotter had the responsibility of presenting DeBartolo for the Hall of Fame vote. He was generous enough to take some time to share exclusively with Niners Nation what it was like to be inside the voting room.
Trotter has a long history with the 49ers franchise, having been born and raised in the Bay Area. He was humbled and proud to be bestowed the responsibility of presenting DeBartolo to the 46 Hall of Fame voters. The part about our conversation that I found most intriguing was that the 51 minute "debate" was not a debate at all but rather nearly an hour of people talking about why DeBartolo should be in the Football Hall of Fame.
Here's the full interview.
Tell us about your history with the 49ers.
It actually goes back to my childhood. I was born in San Francisco so I grew up watching the Niners and the Raiders and the first football game I ever attended was actually a Monday night game with the 49ers, John Brodie was quarterbacking. My memories of the 49ers go back to that but also just being a fan of the 49ers growing up, I still remember after so many down years when they finally got good, and all of the sudden we start to learn more about Eddie DeBartolo and the culture he was trying to create. Never once did I realize, one, that I was going to go into sports writing or two, I was going to wind up getting to know him. I just had a great respect for him back then because he made the team good. So those are my early memories of the team and of Eddie.
Have you previously presented someone for the Hall of Fame?
No. Actually the previous times that he was up, I think Nancy Gay presented him each time. I might be wrong but it was either Nancy or Ira Miller or both. I think this time, maybe after you've presented a guy a few times, if he doesn't get in, that sometimes it's good to have a different voice. Truthfully, I don't remember if I was asked to present Eddie this time or it was just sort of assumed that I would do it, but I was honored to do it and humbled to do it because I believed all along that he belonged in the Hall of Fame.
That was actually my next question, who asked you to present, or if it just happened.
Yes, I wish I could remember, honestly I think as you get older you tend to forget some details. I know when Nancy and Ira were all pushing hard for him I was in their corner, so however it came about, I had no reservations about presenting him, but I also knew it was a huge responsibility because there was a very real chance that if he didn't get in this time, it might not happen because we had created a new contributor category and this was the second year of the category and typically what happens with contributors and with veterans, if you're presented to the room, it's a yes or no vote. So if you don't get in, there's a very real chance that the feeling is among the voters, you had your chance and it's time to go on to someone else.
What type of research did you do for the presentation?
You do the obvious stuff, you go back and review what the team's record and accomplishments were during his watch. Then you start to look at what impact that had on the game, on opponents, you look at contributions that he's made to the league, and you start to talk to people who competed against him. You talk to other owners about how he influenced them and sort of a pattern develops where you see that really Eddie was sort of the bridge, I believe, between the original owners, or what we call he old guard and the new owners, like Jerry Jones, Robert Kraft and even Pat Bowlen. When Eddie was going good, Jerry Jones, Robert Kraft and Pat Bowlen, either before they bought their teams or after they bought their teams, they would go to Eddie and they would say, "Can you spend some time with us? Can you show us how you structured your organization?" A lot of them used it as the blueprint to what they do today, so, in my mind, that's where Eddie was so critical from an ownership standpoint.
Then you start reviewing even beyond that. You see things that the league is doing today that are things that Eddie had done well before it was sort of standard practice in the NFL. We talk about the importance of diversity and minority coaches being hired, the 49ers were the first organization to have minority coaches internship programs. Bill Walsh came up with the idea but he could never do it unless he had the backing of ownership. Eddie said not only will we do it, but he said we're going to pay these interns for their time. That speaks to the kind of guy he was, he always felt he had to take care of his people. So you look at that, you go back and you see [that] he had a post career college program set up for his players so that when they were done, they had an avenue to find a way into another career. It's something that the NFL does now but back in those days, it wasn't something that was done. You just start going through his history and some of the things he's done, and that it went beyond the wins and losses, that his impact was felt a lot of other ways.
How long of a presentation was it out of the 51 minutes?
I didn't time it, the Hall of Fame asks us to keep the presentations around five minutes or so, not that they were sitting there with a stop watch, but I'm thinking it was somewhere around that range and then we we had other people who spoke up on his behalf. It's funny, I've seen people write and say that the longest debate was on Eddie DeBartolo and it went 51 minutes. What I find interesting is the word usage because truthfully there was no debate on Eddie. All of that time was people who supported him, speaking up on his behalf, knowing that if he didn't get in, that it was probably his last chance, and I'm being extremely candid here, I truly can't remember a dissenting vote. Now that's not to say everyone voted for him, but I think those who didn't, at least didn't speak up in that meeting, so there wasn't really a debate it was more of a discussion.
There was a lot of discussion on social media that it was the longest debate.
I can tell you there wasn't a debate. A debate to me is where you go back and forth, you have a point and counter point. There was no point and counter point. All I heard, and unless, you know, I'm getting older, so maybe I'm forgetting things, but all I heard were points, points, points and points about why he belonged in the Hall of Fame.
I was going to ask if there was something that tipped the scales, but it seems like there was no scale to be tipped.
You know what really helped us truthfully, this being his fourth time in the room, the previous three times he had to compete against players and coaches so that's why it was so critical for us as Hall of Fame voters to push for a contributors category so that executives and people like Eddie didn't have to compete against players because traditionally if it comes down to a player versus a coach or an executive, voters are going to be swayed towards the player. So I think that the fact that Eddie didn't have to compete against players and coaches this time really helped him. If he was matched against this year's class that includes Marvin Harrison, Kevin Greene, Orlando Pace and Brett Favre, people like that, in all likelihood he would not have gotten in because voters tend to favor or side with players before they do anyone else.
How long have you been a Hall of Fame voter?
How many are there?
How many people spoke for DeBartolo?
Oh, wow, I don't know. A lot. I couldn't give you number. The fact that we went 51 minutes tells you that a lot of people spoke.
In this day and age, what owners do you see having characteristics similar to DeBartolo?
I think you can make pretty persuasive cases for guys like Jerry Jones, whose impact on the league has been tremendous in terms of the growth, in terms of revenue, in terms of visibility, all of those sorts of things. Jerry's fingerprints are all over the league. You saw his influence back during the vote on LA. Jerry was basically the one who pushed for the Rams to go to LA, who even said to Stan Kroenke, "If I were you, if they vote no, I'd go anyway." It's a different day and age in the NFL now, and Jerry is kind of that visionary, and the entrepreneur, and the guy who has helped from a revenue standpoint, take this league to another level. I think you'll hear people say Bob Kraft but he's going to have some issues because all of the discipline issues that have confronted his team. Some make a case for Pat Bowlen. He's been among the finalists. He will get some consideration. I think if I were to pick three current owners, those would be the three that would get the most consideration.
Anything else that you'd like to add?
I'm just happy that Eddie is in, I think it's long overdue. It's going to be a lot of fun in Canton because I know a lot of people want to be there. Guys like Jim Brown, people who didn't even play for Eddie. It's funny, I was talking to Jim Brown last night and he's talking about the respect that he has for Eddie DeBartolo, and how much he meant to the league and how much he did for his players. That's the thing that was fascinating to me through this process, to hear how many non-49er players who would tell you that this was long overdue and that Eddie DeBartolo belongs in the Hall of Fame and how if they had an opportunity to, they would have loved to have played for him.