The Next Big Thing: San Francisco 49ers President Jed York

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Interview by Seth Semilof  Story by Stephanie Wilson
Photography by Keeney + Law

At only 28 years old, San Francisco 49ers President Jed York is working to restore greatness to the storied franchise.

Jed York was born for this role. At only 28 years old, he is the owner and president of one of the most storied and celebrated football franchises in all of the NFL. While that story may have been a little bruised and beaten throughout the course of the last decade, it once was a tale of greatness, one of honor and class, valor and victory. And it is this young man’s destiny to get the story-and the team-back on track.

There are two main characters in this narrative: The players and the fans. Without both, the 49ers could not exist, so in Jed York’s mind, both have to be treated with equal importance. His job is a delicate balancing act.

First, the fans: “The 49ers mean a lot to people,” he states, “especially during a tough economic time, when you don’t have stability in your job, you don’t know what’s going on, and you might have overreached on a house. At the end of the day, you are looking for something you can hold onto as your own, and that is going to Candlestick Park on Sunday or watching the team on TV.”

Once a proud and boastful bunch, these loyal fans have watched the 49ers, a team with five Super Bowl trophies on display in their home stadium and the only team to remain undefeated in the Super Bowl, tumble to the bottom of the league. In such trying times, Jed knows that the fans-the people of the San Francisco Bay area-deserve better.

The Team of the 80s

Since 2000, the team has been run by Jed’s parents, John and Denise DeBartolo York, who took over after the retirement of Denise’s brother-Jed’s uncle and godfather-Edward J. DeBartolo Jr. The 49ers first entered the family by way of Jed’s grandfather Edward J. DeBartolo Sr., who purchased the franchise in 1977. Under the eldest DeBartolo’s watch, the team flourished into an NFL dynasty, and his son, Eddie, as he was fondly known by all, continued the trend during his tenure as president and owner. “The Team of the ’80s” won five Super Bowl championships during the decade and the early part of the following. This golden era just so happened to coincide with Jed’s formative years.

So winning is something that he is-or was-used to. He knows he has his work cut out for him. “It’s up to me to continue that legacy.” After the team fell into a state of disarray throughout the last 10 years under the watch of former Head Coach Dennis Erickson, York sat down with his parents and began serious discussions about becoming the youngest team owner in the NFL, a title that was held by Kansas City Chiefs owner Clark Hunt, who is 16 years York’s elder.

While it is easy to focus on the baby-faced York’s relative youth, take into consideration that he also has 28 years of experience with the 49ers. Jed grew up in football stadiums, both in the owner’s box and in the front office. While traveling around the country with his grandfather to cheer on the team, he had full knowledge that one day he would be the one calling the shots. “As a little kid, I always wanted to carry on my grandfather’s legacy. This is obviously a piece of that legacy: making sure that we return the 49ers to the prominent level that my uncle brought them to in the ’80s and ’90s.”

While Jed grew up an avid 49ers fan, he did so from a remote locale. He was born and raised in Youngstown, Ohio, where his mother was also the owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins. He attended his first 49ers game when he was three years old where he watched the game from the yet unmatched perch of Jennifer Montana’s lap, while her husband Joe moved the team up and down the gridiron.

He spent the subsequent years of his life crisscrossing the country with his grandfather to watch the games-driving to the Penguins, flying to the 49ers. His grandfather treated the youngster in the same manner as his own adult friends, inviting Jed to partake in games of gin rummy with his cohorts. The experience taught Jed about the confidence it takes to deal with anyone. “When you’re playing gin with my grandfather and all of his friends and associates, and they treat you like you are an adult when you are only six years old, you learn to carry yourself in a different way,” he states. “There is not much that intimidates me.”

That is a handy trait to have when stepping into the media spotlight. Upon the public announcement of his new role as president of the 49ers, emphasis was immediately placed on his relative inexperience. He since has proven that what he lacks in practice, he makes up for in passion and dedication.

 Walking through the halls of the team’s practice facility with Jed is like touring a college campus with a cool kid; he high-fives with trainers, chats with the janitorial staff, and talks smack with the players-many of whom are older than he is.

“I am here by six every morning and stay until late at night,” he states, “because it’s not my team. It’s not my family’s team. It’s our fans’ team. Because if they are not supporting us, if they don’t believe in what we are doing, then our team doesn’t exist.” He learned that work ethic from watching his grandfather, who lived only a quarter-mile from his office (in addition to owning the 49ers, DeBartolo Sr. was a mega developer referred to as “the father of the American shopping mall”) so as to be as close to the action as possible. When they did travel to the games, the family rule was that Jed had to be in school the next day, or there would be no more out-of-town trips. The lesson was imparted on him from a young age: dedication and hard work are the most important things in life. This motto once reverberated throughout the 49ers lineup, which was filled with some of the sport’s greatest names, the likes of Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, and Steve Young dominating the playing field year after year. Jed now hopes to guide the team’s current stars-Frank Gore, Patrick Willis, Joe Staley, Nate Clements, and Justin Smith-to a playoff run.

He is comfortable in this new leadership role. Jed first attended an NFL owners meeting with his father when he was just a sophomore at Notre Dame, and he was struck by the number of legacies in the room. The place was teeming with football dynasties. Pittsburgh Steelers’ owner Dan Rooney was joined by his son Art; the young Stephen Jones sat beside Dallas Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones; and the Patriots’ Bob Kraft conferred with his son, Jonathan. Jed felt right at home as he took his seat by his father. This was his destiny.

The Game Plan

But destiny called early as Jed wasn’t scheduled to step into the spotlight quite yet. The plan had always been to spend at least five years working outside of the family business before coming on board with the 49ers in the role as vice president. After obtaining his degree in finance and history from the home of the Fighting Irish, Jed headed to the Big Apple to garner business experience at Guggenheim Partners, a leading financial services firm.

He ended up spending just two years in New York, a time that he describes as the two worst years to be a 49ers fan. The pitiful 2004 season was a call to return to the stadium; it was clear his help was needed. “The last year, 2004, we ended at two and 14. Dennis Erickson was the coach, and [my parents and I] decided to make a change. The conversation about me returning to the team began then.”

With a regime reformation underway, the Yorks introduced Jed to the organization in a more formal fashion. “We said, listen, if we really are going to make a change and bring in a new coaching staff and new people, it doesn’t make sense to drop the owner’s kid on the situation two or three years after the rebuilding thing happens,” he explains. “Instead of coming in at a vice president level, it made more sense to come in at a lower level and work my way up, so I wasn’t putting more pressure on the team.”

He came onboard as special projects manager, where his duties gave him a new perspective about what it takes to make a stadium work. “I literally started down in the equipment room, learning how to sew jerseys, washing and folding clothes, putting them back in the lockers-things like that,” he recalls. “I was working in the training room, figuring out how to tie ice bags. I got a chance to work with really everybody.”

The experience allowed him to build a base of contemporaries throughout the stadium. Walking through the halls of the team’s practice facility with Jed is like touring a college campus with a cool kid; he high-fives with trainers, chats with the janitorial staff, and talks smack with the players-many of whom are older than he is.

During the past three years, he advanced first into the role as director of strategic planning and then vice president of strategic planning. On December 28, 2008, immediately following a losing season (the team went seven and nine, but ended on a positive note winning five of their last seven games), the decision to make Jed president was publically announced. The players, however, learned of the regime change in the locker room following the season’s final game, a win versus the Washington Redskins. “If the guys in the locker room don’t buy into it, then the other stuff doesn’t matter,” Jed says. The precedent was set at the very beginning: the players come first.

With Jed’s business background, he knows that calling plays is not his forte. To help the players reach their full potential, an all-star coaching staff was assembled and announced at the same time as Jed’s presidency. “Everybody talks about Coach Singletary’s leadership ability,” he says. “You can see it and feel it. Guys really follow him,” York explains. Singletary, who had been working as the interim head coach since Mike Nolan was removed from the position, signed on as the permanent head coach, and Scott McCloughan remains as general manager. Jed’s parents assumed roles as co-chairmen of the 49ers, and Jed consults with them on the major issues. When he encounters a problem off of the field, he also turns to his uncle for advice. Eddie Jr. guides him through the decision-making process rather than just telling him what to do. “He acts more like a conscience,” helping him work towards the best outcome in the business side of football operations. First on his agenda: a new stadium.

The Playing Field

“As president of the 49ers, I think the most important thing is to build a culture,” he says. “If you have the right culture, then your corporation-whether it’s a football team or anything else-can grow and go to the place you want.

“What we are trying to do is win with class,” he continues. “That is what the 49ers have always stood for, and that’s what we’re trying to get back to. We want to get back to competing for a Super Bowl every year, to get the chance to be in the playoffs every season, and to have a first-class stadium that keeps us in the Bay area for the next 40 or 50 years.”

Candlestick Park first opened in 1960 as a baseball stadium, but the San Francisco Giants found a new diamond more than a decade ago. Sunday afternoons in the fall, fans still flock to the half-century-old park to get their fill of pigskin.

The old saying goes that you should dress for the job you want, not the one you have. Jed thinks that the team should be dressed a bit nicer during their quest for success. He has been rallying for a new stadium for years, stepping into a fight that has been brewing for decades. “We have been working with San Francisco publically since 1977 to get something done,” he says. “It still hasn’t happened.”

Jed was steadfast in his quest to create a new stadium that would serve to keep the team in the region. “Candlestick has a lot of history, but it’s important that we have a home in a first-class building.” A term sheet was recently finalized with the City of Santa Clara for a new $937 million state-of-the-art stadium. (It still has to be approved by a public vote next year before the project can move forward, with construction expected to start in 2012. If all goes as planned, the 2014 season will be played at the new locale.)

The 49ers’ new home could be about 50 minutes outside of the City by the Bay, but rest assured the team will still bear the “San Francisco” name. “[The new location] may not be the best situation for all of our fans, but we don’t just represent the city, we represent northern California. We have fans that come all the way from Monterey and Sacramento….It makes sense for the stadium to be in a central location, and I think this is the best place for us in the Bay area.”

The stadium’s fresh design will reflect the style and class for which the team is known, with one of the largest lower bowls in any stadium of the NFL, seating two-thirds of the fans. It also has a unique stacked suite structure on one side of the field, rather than multiple suite levels ringing the entire field like most stadiums, bringing the upper deck lower and closer to the field.

The Winning Season

With the quest for a new stadium heading in the right direction, Jed can allow himself to feel confident about his first major victory as team president. As for what the 2009 season will bring to the 49ers, Jed grew up expecting to win, surrounded by family with an incredible work ethic who stopped at nothing to make victory possible. In the front office of the San Francisco 49ers, Jed York will combine his expectations of victory with his inherited standards of excellence, and work tirelessly to bring the tradition of greatness back to San Francisco.

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