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Eddie DeBartolo Jr. still fancies NFL return in 'the right situation'

In conjunction with NFL Network's "49ers Dynasty Week," Michael Silver spoke with former team owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. The conversation, in which DeBartolo ponders a potential return to NFL ownership, took place prior to news breaking about the death of Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson Jr.

Eddie DeBartolo Jr. was not in Florida this week, having ventured from sunny Tampa to his picturesque Montana vacation home, and thus the man who fueled and funded the San Francisco 49ers' unparalleled run of excellence in the 1980s and '90s was nowhere near the epicenter of the NFL universe in late March.

The league just held its annual meeting in Orlando, but DeBartolo is last century's news: More than 15 years removed from his highly successful reign as an NFL owner, he now cheers his beloved Niners -- owned by his sister, Denise DeBartolo York, and run by his nephew, Jed York -- from afar.

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As NFL Network celebrates the 49ers this week as one of the five greatest dynasties in league history, DeBartolo, who served as the honorary captain in the team's Candlestick Park finale last December, can revisit the glory that included five Super Bowl championships during a 14-season stretch from 1981 to '94.

However, DeBartolo has never completely abandoned his dream of running another NFL franchise, and he insists that, should an enticing opportunity present itself, he and some of his similarly wealthy and motivated friends might call an all-out blitz.

"If it was the right team and the right situation -- sure, I'd try to get back in," DeBartolo said Tuesday. "There's a group of guys that I've talked about teaming up with, and we could put something together. I'm enjoying the (post-football) life that I have, but you never know."

DeBartolo, 67, has made overtures in the past, having formed a group intent on purchasing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when there was talk they might be for sale in the early part of last decade.

In 2006, he mused publicly about joining forces with old friend and former 49ers president Carmen Policy to buy the Oakland Raiders, with the intention of moving them back to Los Angeles.

Two years later, DeBartolo spoke of possibly buying the St. Louis Rams, who ultimately were sold to then-minority owner Stan Kroenke in 2010.

On Tuesday morning, DeBartolo said there were at least four teams he believes might currently be in play. (The passing of Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson Jr. -- news of which broke on Tuesday afternoon, after our conversation -- almost certainly will put that franchise in play, as it has long been assumed in ownership circles the team would be sold upon his death.)

"I hear stuff all the time," DeBartolo said. "I hear there are a bunch of teams for sale, or that could be for sale. So, you never know."

A 2014 Hall of Fame finalist, DeBartolo would appear to be a viable candidate to return. Now a highly successful real-estate developer in Tampa, DeBartolo, according to Forbes magazine, has a net worth of $2.9 billion. Owning a team would be well within his budget, especially given the league's recently relaxed rules on the share required for controlling ownership.

"Why would anybody go and spend ($1.2 billion) when you can be a managing general partner for 30 percent of that?" DeBartolo asked rhetorically.

There is also the matter of whether a DeBartolo ownership bid would gain league approval, given the legal troubles that precipitated his departure from the 49ers. He became embroiled in a Louisiana gaming scandal in 1997, ultimately pleading guilty to a felony charge of failing to report an extortion attempt by former Gov. Edwin Edwards. DeBartolo paid a $1 million fine and was suspended by then-NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, and he later cut a deal with his sister that ceded his share of the team.

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In recent years, several current owners, including the Dallas Cowboys' Jerry Jones, have told me that they would support a potential DeBartolo return.

"I've talked to a lot of owners who've told me that," DeBartolo said. "I still have a lot of friends that would love to have me back in the league. I know that for a fact.

"These rumors that I'm 'banned' -- not true. I was never banned. I was on probation for a year. Anybody that wants to get (Commissioner) Roger Goodell or (executive vice president/general counsel) Jeff Pash on the phone, they can tell you that."

DeBartolo said he looks forward to spending time with Goodell in a couple of weeks, when the commissioner comes to Tampa to speak at an event for the Brooks DeBartolo Collegiate High School, a joint venture that the ex-Niners owner launched with former Bucs linebacker (and Class of 2014 Hall of Fame inductee) Derrick Brooks.

He also enjoyed a visit earlier this month from Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who came to Tampa for the DeBartolo Family Foundation gala.

"He's a great guy, and he's got a ton of talent, but I'm worried that the team might get old around him," DeBartolo said of Kaepernick. "They've had a hell of a run for three years, but there are some holes that have to be filled."

That challenge will fall to Jed York, DeBartolo's nephew, who is currently trying to manage the relationship between a talented general manager (Trent Baalke) and a head coach, Jim Harbaugh, whom DeBartolo describes as "high maintenance ... but a really good coach, with a great staff."

DeBartolo, of course, has plenty of experience in that area, having hired the Hall of Fame mentor, Bill Walsh, who built the Niners into the NFL's preeminent organization. There were tumultuous times, such as DeBartolo's decision to strip Walsh of his "team president" title (and appoint himself as Walsh's successor) in the wake of the Niners' 1987 home playoff defeat to the Minnesota Vikings, but those teams had a knack for putting aside internal turmoil and summoning command performances when it mattered most.

If Walsh was the architect of the dynasty, there's little question that its benefactor, DeBartolo, was also the tone-setter. It was he whose cold and unrelenting pursuit of excellence, juxtaposed with a huge-hearted sense of appreciation and generosity, resonated throughout the team's training facility and inspired an almost unparalleled devotion from the men who wore the red-and-gold uniform.

Certainly, DeBartolo's checkbook had something to do with this: The Niners rose to prominence in the pre-salary cap era, though it should be noted that DeBartolo and Policy (along with Jones, who ran the rival Cowboys) were the first to use pro-rated contracts as a tool for continuing to spend aggressively once the supposed "hard cap" was instituted.

Yet cynics who complained that DeBartolo "bought" those early championships missed the larger point -- his employees largely revered him because he had a way of making them feel valued, which transcended the impermanent and impersonal nature of the game.

When a life event took place, from a joyous one (childbirth) to a tragic occurrence (the loss of a loved one), DeBartolo would make his presence felt, whether through a huge bouquet of flowers in the hospital room or the use of his private jet. When a player had surgery, there'd be a get-well basket -- and, often, a visit (or series of visits) from the owner himself.

Trite as it might have seemed to outsiders, DeBartolo sometimes stood at the tunnel leading from the Candlestick field to the locker room, handing out towels to his players at halftime or at game's end, and the players appreciated that. It was his way of saying, "I recognize that your sweat is facilitating my happiness," in direct contradiction to the meat market overtones present in so many NFL stadiums.

DeBartolo's overarching attitude was this: I'll get you the best plane, the best food, the best amenities and the best parties (including legendary Super Bowl ring-unveiling celebrations in locales like Hawaii and Colorado Springs), and you'll play your asses off for me. And we will win -- almost all of the time -- or we will be miserable together.

Steve Young, who overlapped with (talk about turmoil) and followed Joe Montana in a Hall of Fame quarterbacking one-two punch for DeBartolo's Niners, has described playoff losses during that era as having been treated "like a death in the family," and he's only partially exaggerating. It was DeBartolo's relentless and almost ruthless pursuit of organizational success, augmented by his fun-loving, gregarious personality, that simultaneously put everyone on edge while inspiring the men in uniform to put everything on the line for the collective cause.

The man was not perfect -- far from it, as his legal issues in Louisiana underscored -- but he never pretended to be, and in a way, that helped make him more endearing. He was rough around the edges and had a sometimes scary temper, but he cared, and he made himself vulnerable, and he bled all over the place, and everything he did or said came directly from the heart.

If DeBartolo never gets back into the NFL, he'll still go down as one of the greatest owners in the history of professional sports, a man whose eventual Hall of Fame induction seems likely, if not inevitable.

In the meantime, if a franchise is there for the taking, DeBartolo will continue to be intrigued by the possibility of giving ownership another go.

If the right team, right situation comes along -- well, things could get very interesting.

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.

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