Thoughts on Leadership: Eddie DeBartolo Jr. Built an Empire in San Francisco by Placing People First

Pictured above: Eddie DeBartolo Jr. (center) shares a laugh with Joe Montana (left) and Carmen Policy.

By Gino Blefari

My travels last weekend brought me to San Diego for Buffini & Company’s MasterMind Summit, a powerful event focusing on personal growth and inspiration. I have to admit I was already inspired for this event after watching Eddie DeBartolo Jr.’s induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday.

While most Hall of Fame members are players and coaches, DeBartolo was inducted as a franchise owner, which says a lot. His leadership and management beliefs helped shape the way I operate in business and serve as an ideal game plan for motivation, human decency and organizational success.

DeBartolo purchased my beloved – though hapless – San Francisco 49ers in 1977, a team widely regarded as one of the worst franchises in all of professional sports. Like many of us, he wasn’t an instant success: San Francisco went 2-14 the next two years.

Yet piece by piece, DeBartolo built a franchise for the ages. In 1979, a turbulent year in San Francisco, he hired Bill Walsh as head coach and the team drafted future Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana. General Manager John McVey joined the organization in 1980 and Tony Razzano – who pushed to draft Montana – was promoted to director of scouting in 1981. Carmen Policy became vice president and counsel for the team two years later, completing a leadership team that forged a dynasty. Policy was named president and CEO of the 49ers in 1991.

San Francisco improved to 6-10 in 1980 then embarked on a run as impressive as any in NFL history. The 49ers averaged nearly 13 wins per season from 1981 to ’98 (including playoff games), won 13 division championships and five Lombardi trophies. They revolutionized the game with Walsh’s West Coast Offense of short, rhythm passing and became a magnet for top players looking for a better fit. It seemed everyone wanted to play for Eddie DeBartolo.

DeBartolo was equally impactful off the field, revolutionizing the owner-player relationship from a rigid, top-down mindset to more of a partnership. At the core of San Francisco’s turnaround was DeBartolo’s deep-rooted focus on family. The team members truly cared for one another, and looked out for one another.

“We did not see players as simply players,” DeBartolo said in his acceptance speech in Canton, Ohio. “We saw them as men. We saw them as sons, husbands, fathers, brothers, with families and responsibilities … We weren’t just a family on Sundays. We were a family every single day.”

That sense of family extended beyond the players. In his speech, DeBartolo fondly mentioned 24 players and coaches by name and heralded many others who never stepped foot on the field. Listening to him state how everyone in the organization from hot dog vendors, to bus drivers, to the laundry crew, schedules and community reps all contributed greatly to the 49ers five Super Bowl championships, it became unmistakably apparent where DeBartolo’s heart is and always has been: caring about others.

We did not see players as simply players,” DeBartolo said in his acceptance speech in Canton, Ohio. “We saw them as men. We saw them as sons, husbands, fathers, brothers, with families and responsibilities … We weren’t just a family on Sundays. We were a family every single day.”

When it came to praise for his former team members, his generosity was boundless. He praised both Montana and Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young, who were once locked in heated competition for the 49er quarterback position, in such a way that each had to feel distinctly honored. Of course, he praised my good friend Dwight Clark, whose famous touchdown catch launched the 49ers to their first Super Bowl, which warmed my heart.

While “The Catch” remains one of the NFL’s greatest plays, DeBartolo said it was the second-greatest play of Clark’s career. On October 17, 1989, DeBartolo’s daughters Lisa and Tiffanie were driving to meet Montana and Clark at Candlestick Park for the San Francisco-Oakland World Series baseball game. Their route included the Bay Bridge, which on that day, partially collapsed in one of the largest earthquakes to hit the Bay Area. Phones were dead; DeBartolo couldn’t reach his daughters. It was Clark who got a call through. “We have the girls with us. They are safe,” Clark told DeBartolo at the time.

“To me, that was the greatest catch of Dwight Clark’s career,” DeBartolo continued in his speech.

DeBartolo’s account of how he hired Coach Walsh, also a Hall of Fame member, provided another glimpse into what makes Eddie DeBartolo Jr. the man he is. DeBartolo explained that when he interviewed Walsh for the coaching job they talked about family and ideas and how important the team was to the city of San Francisco. He said he knew in 15 minutes Walsh would be the coach, and that set in motion the dynasty.

Once again, DeBartolo is all about people and family.

This speech had a profound impact on me. Obviously unknown to DeBartolo, the 49ers winning methods – beyond providing me with tremendous joy – became the basis for how I run real estate companies and for what we should stand.

Eddie DeBartolo Jr. reinforced my belief that if you cannot run a business as a family, where every person matters, then you shouldn’t start a business. He mentioned how he would make sure that those in his organization would be remembered on their birthdays and graduations, and provided special attention when someone was in need. This philosophy showed me how to create corporate culture.

Inspired by Coach Walsh and the innovation and energy he brought to the business, we created our own West Coast Offense for real estate – the Four Disciplines of Execution – which gives our organization focus, accountability, cadence and specific measurements for success.

So what’s the message? It’s DeBartolo’s message and leadership blueprint. Treat people – clients, team members, colleagues – with respect and learn about them. Care about them. Inspire them. The greatest success in sports, real estate or anything else springs from the collaboration of a strong, confident and empowered team that isn’t really a team at all, but a family.

GINO BLEFARI is CEO of HSF Affiliates LLC. You can follow Gino on FacebookInstagram and Twitter.

2 responses to Thoughts on Leadership: Eddie DeBartolo Jr. Built an Empire in San Francisco by Placing People First

  1. Well put , as a former Franchisee Of Intero, I know many have looked to you as you looked to DeBartolo , thanks for the passing on Inspiration. In the Four Disciplines of Execution , what is the role or meaning of Cadence ?


    • rethinkcouncil – Author

      Hi Barry – According to McChesney, Covey and Huling, the fourth discipline (creating a cadence of accountability) refers to the creation of a frequently recurring cycle of accounting for past performance and planning to move the score forward. This is where execution actually happens. Disciplines 1-3 set up the game but until you apply Discipline 4, your team isn’t in the game.


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