Hall of Fame

Eddie DeBartolo, Art Modell Hall of Fame worthy despite critics


Eddie DeBartolo Jr. is a Hall of Famer. There, I said it.

You can take the riverboat gambling casino fiasco legal blahbitty blah from the 1990s and shove it up someone's tailpipe. The former San Francisco 49ers owner, one of 17 men awaiting a Saturday phone call saying "You're in," certainly deserves to be a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Strike that; he doesn't just deserve to be in, he is a Hall of Fame owner.

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Art Modell might be a longer shot than DeBartolo, as very few have completely forgotten what happened in 1995, when he moved the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore. But after much deliberation, I think he similarly deserves a bust in the museum in that town in northeast Ohio.

With the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens teeing it up in Super Bowl XLVII, it's both ironic and appropriate that the central figure in each organization's development is up for entry to the Hall of Fame. While each have their detractors, DeBartolo and Modell are key figures in league history -- period.

(It should be noted that I chose Bill Parcells as this year's "contributor" on my simulated Hall of Fame ballot for NFL.com. However, the Big Tuna's legacy or candidacy in no way adversely impacts Modell's or DeBartolo's case for being Hall worthy.)

When DeBartolo and his father, Edward Sr., acquired the San Francisco 49ers in 1977, the team hadn't made the playoffs in five years. The Niners went down before they went up, but then came a few master strokes: hiring head coach Bill Walsh and general manager John McVay, as well as team president Carmen Policy, who would one day be named the NFL's Executive of the Year. The 49ers won five Super Bowls in DeBartolo's 23 years running the team.

The decision to hire Walsh in 1979 -- three years after the Cincinnati Bengals had passed on a chance to do the same -- altered not only the course of the San Francisco franchise but the course of NFL history. Walsh's stamp is still all over offenses around the league. If DeBartolo hadn't hired Walsh, who knows if that stamp ever would have stuck?

Putting the Super Bowls and Walsh's impact aside for a moment, let's remember that the Niners assembled a string of 16 straight winning seasons from 1983 to 1998. There was an expectation in the air at the 49ers' complex that emanated from the top down, an expectation that was fully realized with five Lombardi Trophies. The 49ers owner created a winning atmosphere, his team traveling in -- and becoming the symbol of -- class. DeBartolo crafted and nurtured a culture around one of the league's most successful franchises. That's enough for inclusion in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in my book.

Meanwhile, DeBartolo's elder contemporary helped transform the culture of the NFL overall. As chairman of the labor committee in 1968, Modell helped negotiate the NFL's first labor agreement. He also had a hand in developing NFL Films, as its first chairman in the 1960s. Most significantly, he chaired the NFL's broadcast committee, helping to negotiate the league's television contracts for 31 years.

I get it: Television money doesn't excite you. Well, guess what? Without shared television revenue in the NFL (a concept that Modell championed), we wouldn't have a competitive Green Bay Packers team in the playoff mix every year, because they wouldn't be able to afford being there. Those large dollars -- evenly distributed among all the teams -- comprise a large part of Modell's legacy.

Football-wise, Modell made a gutsy move early in his stewardship of the Cleveland Browns by firing a legendary coach (Paul Brown) in 1963 because he felt his club needed the shakeup. Enter Blanton Collier -- and an NFL title for the Browns in 1964. Cleveland made the NFL Championship Game the next year, and was in the playoffs for five of the next seven seasons.

Let us not forget, too, that Modell was the first guy to give Bill Belichick a head-coaching opportunity. And he was also the first guy to hire an African-American general manager (Ozzie Newsome).

Like DeBartolo -- like many in big business -- Modell has his scandal: moving the Browns. Perhaps the case for departing Cleveland still isn't strong enough, but like most choices in business, the decision to bolt town ultimately boiled down to money. Nonetheless, at least in this writer's view, that fact doesn't diminish all that Modell did for the league ... like shifting the Browns from the NFL to the AFC during the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. Flawed character? Probably. Aren't we all? There are less deserving people in the Pro Football Hall of Fame right now.

Before he died, I asked Modell if -- despite all the backlash sparked by moving his team to Baltimore, and despite his own regrets -- he was proud of his accomplishments.

"I've made mistakes in my life, but who doesn't?" he said.

Hopefully, the Hall of Fame voters won't make the mistake of never putting DeBartolo and Modell where they belong: in that classic room in Canton with all the busts in it.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @Harrison_NFL.

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