After walking the unemployment line for three months, Joe Thomas returned to pro football last week, taking over as the general manager of the San Francisco 49ers. Predictably, the controversial Thomas arrived in his new hometown with all the subtlety of the 1906 earthquake. At the press conference called to welcome Thomas and the club's new owners to San Francisco, the gathering at the Fairmont Hotel was stunned by the announcement that Monte Clark had been fired. Then it was explained that Clark, the 49ers' popular and successful young head coach, had been let go because he refused to hand over control of player personnel to Thomas. Said a club employee, "This is the sorriest day in 49er history."
Maybe so, but it was just another day in the life of Joe Thomas. The world of pro football has never been quite large enough for Thomas and a head coach, as Norm Van Brocklin, George Wilson, Don Shula, the late Don McCafferty, Howard Schnellenberger and, most recently, Ted Marchibroda all discovered.
While personnel director of Minnesota and then Miami in the '60s, Thomas chafed under the belief that too much credit for the success of those expansion teams was going to the coaches—and not enough to Joe Thomas for procuring the talent. Disgruntled, he left the Dolphins in 1972 after having built the teams that went on to win the 1973-74 Super Bowls. But a few months later Thomas assumed full control of the Baltimore Colts by selling the idea of "owning your own team" to Robert Irsay, a Chicago-based air-conditioning-systems millionaire. In a complicated deal engineered by Thomas, Irsay bought the Los Angeles Rams and then traded them to Carroll Rosenbloom for the Colts.
Thomas tore apart an aging Colt team, discarding such legends as Johnny Unitas and John Mackey, and stood resolutely on the bridge as the Colts sank to last place. Then once again he confounded his critics as the Colts emerged with a young divisional champion led by the new Unitas, Quarterback Bert Jones, who brought Baltimore to the top of the AFC East in 1975 and 1976. But in the process, Thomas went through five head coaches, including himself, and three months ago lost his long power struggle with Marchibroda, the coach he had hired only two years earlier. This time it was Thomas who was fired, by Irsay.
It therefore seemed inevitable that Thomas would get off to a rocky start in San Francisco. Indeed, one veteran Thomas watcher viewed the Clark firing as nothing more than another outbreak of "Robespierre's Syndrome." "Robespierre was the fellow in the French Revolution who was responsible for chopping everyone's head off," he said. "He had a little black book, and if you were in it you were done for. The only way they could stop him was to cut his head off. So that's what they did. That's Robespierre's Syndrome. Joe chopped all the heads in Baltimore until finally he got his own head chopped. And it'll happen again here."
Still, Thomas' dismissal of Clark came as a shock to 49er fans who felt they had found a savior in the 40-year-old coach. Clark, who was a Dolphin offensive coach under Don Shula for six seasons, was the most highly sought assistant in the NFL when San Francisco hired him last year. To get him, the 49ers had to agree to his terms, which in the words of his four-year contract, included "any and all changes or alterations" in the squad.
Clark won over San Francisco's critical fans early in the season when the 49ers shut out the hated Rams 16-0 in Los Angeles in a nationally televised Monday night game. Clark received a hero's welcome when the 49ers landed in San Francisco. Fans crowded around Clark at the airport, chanting "Clark's No. 1, Clark's No. 1," and it was a long time before he could make his way to the safety of his car.
When the 49ers won their final game to finish at 8-6, their first winning record in four seasons, the players gave Clark the game ball. As Defensive End Cedrick Hardman said last week, "The game ball wasn't so much for anything that had happened in the season we had just completed but for what we all felt lay ahead in the future." As it turned out, what lay ahead was the end of Clark's coaching career in San Francisco. The 49ers had been for sale for more than a year, and in Ohio there was a family that had been thinking of buying an NFL franchise for almost 20 years.
The Edward J. DeBartolo Corporation of Youngstown is America's leading developer, builder, owner and operator of shopping centers and enclosed malls. Ten years ago Edward J. DeBartolo Sr.—called The Boss or Mr. D, never Ed or Eddie—met Thomas at the College All-Star Game in Chicago. They talked about the business of pro football for three hours, and over the years they stayed in touch. When Thomas, then unemployed, called two months ago to see if DeBartolo might be interested in buying the 49ers, Mr. D said yes, with one condition: that Thomas agree to run the team. DeBartolo signed Thomas to a contract, assigning him, as it turned out, most of the same responsibilities Clark had, then negotiated to buy the team. When the $17 million purchase was completed, he named 30-year-old Ed Jr.—called Eddie—president. For two weeks, Thomas, Clark and their lawyers tried to reach a compromise on their overlapping job descriptions. Negotiations continued until late on the eve of the press conference at the Fairmont.
Clark remained outwardly calm in public, but a close friend described him as "uptight. I mean he's walking around really uptight." In return for handing over his control of the team, Clark was offered a two-year extension to the three years remaining on his contract, a raise—retroactive to Jan. 1, 1977—from $57,500 to $72,500 for this season and an annual increase of $5,000 instead of $2,500.
"If I'd been in this for a fat wallet, I'd have been delighted," said Clark.
When Clark turned down Eddie DeBartolo's offer, Eddie upped the ante: he said he'd shelter the money that had already been offered. "That's $72,500 net," said DeBartolo Sr., incredulous that Clark showed little interest in the cash being waved in front of him. "It's been my dream to be a successful head coach," Clark countered. "I've taken this stance to maintain that dream."
And so there stood Eddie DeBartolo and Joe Thomas Wednesday night making their first appearance as 49ers as the bearers of bad news. Eddie tried to ameliorate the situation by announcing that Clark was still welcome to coach the team if he was willing to redefine his authorities, but that was a public relations gesture. In the back of the room, The Boss could afford to be a little less diplomatic. "You can only kiss a guy's fanny so far," he said. "Then you've got to get rid of him."
Pressed about the decision to fire Clark, Eddie DeBartolo got a little exasperated. "Does everyone fail to realize that with an investment of $17 million this is a business?" he asked. "This is not a play toy. We did not buy this team for a head coach. We're going to run this team the way we run any business."
"If it's not a play toy," muttered one spectator, "why did the old man buy it and give it to his son?"
The news of Clark's dismissal was made even less palatable to 49er fans by the knowledge that Al Davis, the managing general partner of the neighboring Oakland Raiders, had received more than $100,000 for helping bring the DeBartolos from Youngstown to San Francisco. Some NFL owners questioned the ethics of Davis' finder's fee, because an NFL rule forbids an owner to have a financial interest in another team. But Davis pooh-poohed that notion. "I'm no different than Hugh Culverhouse," he said, referring to the Tampa Bay owner. "He's a lawyer and he's doing the tax work on this deal. I'm sure he ain't doing it for nothing."
It is clear that Davis helped jack the price up considerably. Less than a year ago the 49ers were almost sold to Wayne Valley, a former part owner of the Raiders who had sued Davis for control of the club and lost. Davis got wind that Valley was going to buy the 49ers for $11.3 million in cash. "It was bigger than a Brinks deal," Davis said. "The heist was on." Davis convinced a friend, Franklin Mieuli, the owner of the Golden State Warriors and a 5% owner of the 49ers, to exercise his first refusal right over any purchase. Even though Mieuli eventually failed to come up with the needed money, this tactic stalled the sale until the 49er owners realized their asking price was too low. Eight months later they received almost $6 million more than Valley's proposed $11.3 million from the DeBartolos.
Why were the DeBartolos willing to spend so much for a football team? The morning after the press conference, shortly before boarding his Lear jet for the trip home, The Boss talked about the family's move. "Football opens doors," he said. "In three weeks our company has gotten more publicity than it has in the last 30 years. If we'd come here to announce a $1 billion construction deal, we wouldn't have had a camera. That's what Al Davis pointed out. Because of our company's nature, we'll get more benefit out of this than any other owner in the NFL would. I went down to San Mateo yesterday to look at two mall sites that were brought to our attention just because of this."
There is irony in Thomas' being located across the bay from Al Davis. "Joe's frustration," says a longtime acquaintance, "is that he has never been able to duplicate Al, to be a total czar and have coaches stay in the background. Al has exactly what Joe wants and Joe will probably never get there. Al is devious, Joe Thomas is all up front. He'd much rather punch you in the mouth than stab you in the back."
San Franciscans learned that first hand last week
Thomas wants a coach who is content to coach.