By JANIE McCAULEY
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Eddie DeBartolo Jr. rises at 4 a.m. on his 3,000-acre ranch in Montana and takes his three dogs for a walk in the frigid winter air.
No matter it was minus-3 the other morning. Off he went.
The former football owner who guided the San Francisco 49ers to greatness — and five Super Bowl titles — in the 1980s and 90s now raises Clydesdale horses while operating his Florida commercial development and management business from thousands of miles away near the mountain resort town of Whitefish, Mont. It’s a long way from the football world that long ruled his life.
Now, DeBartolo offers guidance from a distance, mentoring nephew and 49ers CEO Jed York whenever asked or needed.
“More than anything, I watched how my uncle built a team that consistently won with class,” York said. “I try to be my own man, but it’s hard not to take pointers from one of the best owners in the history of pro sports.”
It was DeBartolo who presented the George Halas NFC championship trophy to his sister, Denise DeBartolo York, last weekend at Atlanta. He was asked to be an honorary captain by Jed York before the NFC title game, DeBartolo’s first live appearance all year.
These days, the 66-year-old DeBartolo takes great pride in seeing the 49ers back among the NFL’s elite, with Jed successfully running the operation that DeBartolo once did with every bit of his heart and soul. He is content cheering for San Francisco from afar, still getting a thrill when York names him an honorary captain, or regularly seeks his input and advice.
“He was the most dominant NFL owner ever only 1 w/5 rings,” former 49ers offensive lineman Randy Cross said earlier this month on Twitter.
DeBartolo is among 15 finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, with between four and seven new members to be announced Feb. 2, the day before the 49ers and play the Baltimore Ravens in the Super Bowl in New Orleans.
“I’m so honored just to be where I am and among the final 15,” he said. “That in itself is a tremendous honor, just to be with the people and the men that are there right now. Most of them are really dear friends of mine, like Bill Parcells, Charles and a lot of the players. I know it’s a long shot, but anything can happen.”
DeBartolo spends about five months of the year in Montana, but typically during the summer season.
The airport, where he has a private plane, is close by and Glacier National Park is 10 minutes away. He is 40 miles from the Canadian border. Many of his former stars, like Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Ronnie Lott and Roger Craig, have all been to visit. He hosts a party on July 4.
“A lot of them have spent time here with me,” he said.
And DeBartolo sure sounds content at this stage of his life, not yearning for a high-profile return to the pressure-packed world of pro sports ownership. He has been approached and has had some chances, he said, “but as the old saying goes, ‘been there and done that.’”
“I’m just enjoying being with my family,” DeBartolo said. “I traveled, commuted from Ohio to San Francisco for decades. It’s just nice being able to be with my three girls and my grandchildren and my wife. It’s just nice, it’s just enjoyable.”
DeBartolo has owned the ranch going on 30 years. They used to have cattle.
“It turned out to be a getaway,” he said. “I remember going out to a 49ers game and stopping here, because I wanted a place in Colorado to take my kids a few weeks a year. Somebody mentioned Kalispell, Mont., and I didn’t even know where Montana was. I just absolutely fell in love with it. It’s just magnificent. It’s a place we come to and it’s just a great, great place.”
This time of year reminds him of the cold Ohio winters of his youth, and the Montana summers are spectacular. DeBartolo cherishes the quiet days, away from the rat race. He has all the telecommunications he needs to do his work, and plenty of time to spend with his wife, three daughters and three grandchildren.
“I have a lot to keep me busy,” he said.
Yet there is plenty of time to reflect on the 49ers’ glory days — and the hope that the franchise is back to its regular winning ways and playing for championships.
During DeBartolo’s tenure, the team became the first franchise to win five championships. The Niners captured 13 divisional titles, reached the playoffs 16 times and made 10 conference championship games.
He’s the one Rice asked to present him at the Hall of Fame in August 2010.
In his best move, DeBartolo hired the late Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh, then went about building a team for him. DeBartolo finds plenty of parallels between his teams and the one his nephew now operates.
In September 2009, DeBartolo was the inaugural inductee into the 49ers’ Eddie DeBartolo Sr. Hall of Fame.
“My uncle has been someone that helped me weather the storm,” Jed York said. “He taught me to stick with my intuition and ignore the critics. It sounds like simple advice, but he is always there to support me when there are tough decisions.”
DeBartolo owned the team from 1977-98, when the 49ers won five Super Bowls, and was affectionately known as “Mr. D” to his players and coaches.
DeBartolo loves the intensity of 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh.
“I see a lot of Bill Walsh in coach Harbaugh,” DeBartolo said. “Obviously, they’re different. Bill was a lot more low key than coach Harbaugh. I think coach Harbaugh wears his heart on his sleeve. But he, too, is a great coach and I think he’s going to go down as one of the great coaches. His career has really just started and he’s already been to his second NFC championship game. I see the teams that he has created that remind me so much of a couple of our teams — the ‘89 team and the ‘94 team.”
Whether DeBartolo finds a place in Canton, Ohio, and the Hall, for all of those winning years, he has no idea. He was suspended for a year — the 1999 season — by the NFL after being found guilty of failing to report a bribe by a government official, a felony.
DeBartolo has much loftier team goals at the moment — for his former franchise, and his nephew, to bring another Lombardi Trophy home to the Bay Area.
“I don’t think there’s any question they’re going to go and win the Super Bowl,” he said. “I think they’re too good in every phase of the game.”