NEW ORLEANS (CBS / AP) — When Jed York attended his first football game at age 3, he had already developed an eye for watching the way his uncle ran the San Francisco 49ers during their glory days.
Nearly three decades later, the Niners are York’s team – and he is trying to build something just as special as the dynasty Eddie DeBartolo Jr. had when the franchise won five Super Bowls in as many tries.
That first game was in Cleveland, “sitting on Jennifer Montana’s lap,” York recalled Thursday. “I traveled with my family a lot to go see games. When you’re a little kid and you watch how Eddie was with the players, it’s just, `that’s how you do it.'”
York has some catching up to do.
He can count the good seasons by his San Francisco franchise on one hand. That’s why he keeps the comparisons between him and his uncle – “he was the best ever” – to a minimum.
“We’re short, we’re unathletic … grew up in Youngstown, Ohio,” York said of him and DeBartolo, who is up for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “I think we both dress very well.”
A casually dressed York hardly looked the part of an NFL executive and owner, wearing slightly baggy jeans, a polo shirt and sneakers for Super Bowl.
The shoes were designer, but still.
In a matter of months, the San Francisco 49ers CEO has become a first-time father, watched a new billion-dollar stadium take shape outside his office at team headquarters in Silicon Valley and seen his San Francisco franchise return to the Super Bowl – 18 years after the last championship. Not bad for a guy going on 32 (his birthday is in March).
The hands-on DeBartolo was a locker room fixture when he owned the team from 1977-98 and won five Super Bowls. He took care of his players – still does – even the injured ones, and was affectionately known as “Mr. D.”
York does it his way, staying behind the scenes and trusting general manager Trent Baalke and coach Jim Harbaugh to make the right decisions.
After much change from top to bottom, York takes pride in the progress but won’t be happy until his Niners are Super Bowl regulars again.
“I think we’re proud. We’ve put in the work to get here but there’s a long way for us still to go,” York said. “I don’t know that there’s a lot of reflection right now.”
Next up: bringing home another Lombardi Trophy to the sports-crazed Bay Area, where the San Francisco Giants captured their second World Series title in three years last fall. The 49ers are a remarkable 5-0 in Super Bowls heading into Sunday’s NFL championship game against Baltimore.
They are on their “Quest for Six” – the slogan for this special run – thanks to York’s aggressive leadership. He promoted Trent Baalke to general manager, and together they aggressively pursued Harbaugh before ultimately hiring him away from Stanford in January 2011.
“You can’t worry about the negative things and even now, being in the final four the last two years, being in the Super Bowl now, I don’t think I’m as good as people are saying, either,” York said. “Don’t listen to the sweet words of praise because that’s not what this is about, it’s about working to get better each day and making sure you sustain success.”
As is his style, York blended in well Thursday during Super Bowl media festivities in his laid-back attire, saying, “I’m just chillin’ right now.”
And he was happy his phone stopped working to give him a short break from the daily chores of running a professional sports team, including managing a $1.1 billion stadium project in time for its 2014 opening and making a Super Bowl bid.
“When you think about it, what Jed York has done here the last two years, completely revamping his senior leadership team, bringing on coach Harbaugh, promoting Trent Baalke to general manager – those guys both won awards for the best in their field last year – we got financing for the new stadium this year, everything’s going pretty well,” second-year team president Gideon Yu said.
DeBartolo is still a regular sounding board and mentor for his godson.
They speak on the phone, they email. York invited him to Atlanta as the 49ers’ honorary captain, then DeBartolo presented the George Halas NFC championship trophy to his sister, Denise DeBartolo York, after San Francisco’s 28-24 victory at Atlanta two weeks ago.
Jed York was put in charge of the team by his parents three years ago in his late 20s – a daunting task to say the least. They had assumed ownership of the Niners after DeBartolo Jr. received a one-year suspension from the NFL after being found guilty of failing to report a bribe by a government official, a felony.
“I’m thrilled to death. He’s done a fantastic job,” DeBartolo Jr. said. “I actually just told somebody that I think what his greatest achievement is, besides the hires that he’s made, he has taken his time and done it right with the organization. Jed has been standing in the background and he’s given his football people – his really, really great football people – the autonomy to do what they do best, and that’s to build a team and to win.”
York and wife, Danielle, welcomed son, Jaxon, on Oct. 27. Now, York wakes up at 5 a.m. many days and heads to the office, where he gets in four hours of work before most of his employees even arrive.
That way, he gets home to see his baby boy before bedtime.
“It is good crazy, definitely a lot less free time, and that’s probably a good thing for everybody,” York said. “He’s been great. It’s one of those things where you really look forward going home. It’s OK waking up at 5 o’clock in the morning to come in to work because you can go home and get to see him at night. That’s the best part of my day.”
If the 49ers can beat Baltimore on Sunday at the Superdome, there will be much more for the young family to celebrate.
York isn’t getting ahead of himself, or ponder how San Francisco could soon be the new Titletown USA.
“I haven’t thought about Super Bowl rings,” he said. “I haven’t thought about parades.”
(Copyright 2013 CBS San Francisco. All rights reserved.)