With the Giants set to embark today on their latest run in a remarkable season, we’re reminded of the fate of two fabled sports franchises that veered in different directions.
One is wonderful. One is woeful. The Giants have a game plan for continuing success. The 49ers have found the formula for ongoing failure.
There was a time their fortunes were reversed, when the 49ers were the model franchise for professional sports and an annual Super Bowl contender. The Giants had a few memorable seasons separated by long stretches of mediocrity.
One almost moved. The other is desperate to leave. One is a big hit. One is getting hammered. Guess which organization is in better shape?
Rarely has the all-important role of owner in professional sports been better displayed than by the fortunes of these two organizations. When the Giants decided that their future was tied to a new, privately financed ballpark, they turned to a group of professional corporate executives to raise the money while forming a new team that fans flocked to see, a group built around a pre-steroids superstar named Barry Bonds.
The 49ers, the best team in football for two decades, turned the reins over to relatives of fabled former owner (forcibly by NFL decree), a family named York that had neither the knowledge nor the passion to continue the DeBartolo dynasty. They, too, tied their future to a new stadium, one San Francisco voters supported, only to see the owners fritter away that goodwill because they were too timid and too cheap to go for the (red and) gold.
The result of the team’s transformation has been painfully clear for more than a decade — a carousel of new coaches, bad drafts, misguided management decisions. When the team unexpectedly announced that it was dropping plans to rebuild Candlestick Park and moving to Santa Clara, all ties to San Francisco were unceremoniously broken, and the 49ers owners acted as if they couldn’t care less.
And under the category of being careful what you wish for, here’s what they have wrapped their arms around (since they leave it to their players to drop the ball). They have a team that was loudly announcing itself as playoff-caliber, one being set up to help sell extremely pricey seat licenses for the new Santa Clara stadium that was expected to bring excitement and investors to the South Bay franchise.
Instead, they have a team whose season is all but over after four games, the cellar-dweller in the worst division in football. They have placed their chances in the hands of a failed first-round draft pick, quarterback Alex Smith, a costly six-year investment with no return.
And they’ve hinged their success on a coach who has no clue how to manage a team, who believes that motivation and will can still win over talent and schemes, and who has been so tuned out by his team that several have quit on his watch.
“We will get it done,” is a favorite Mike Singletary phrase. Maybe somebody should have asked what “it” is?
Young 49ers president Jed York made an emotional decision in hiring Singletary, but emotional decisions, the kind made by the owner and coach, are the very reason they have to explain their inexplicable losses each week and why the 49ers have become one of the sorriest organizations in the NFL — the Buffalo Bills with better weather.
The Yorks were counting on this season as the building block to the new stadium, since the family doesn’t have or won’t spend the $1 billion needed for the Santa Clara site. And it’s just not easy to attract new investors to a business that is so poorly managed it won’t even employ veteran football executives in key personnel areas. It is a football team, right?
The Giants built a team around Bonds using role players that experienced six years of mostly sunshine (minus a dark Justice Department investigation). After Bonds left, the team rebuilt behind young pitching, key veteran pickups and a kid named Buster.
They had a plan, and it’s working. The other fumbled away its future, and hasn’t got a clue.
The only thing they still share is one city’s name.
Ken Garcia appears Sundays and Thursdays in The Examiner. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.