The CEO of the 49ers was a lightning rod for criticism just a few years ago.
Jed York’s tenure as CEO of the San Francisco 49ers hasn’t always been a smooth ride.
The York family took over the team in 2000. After the previous owner — the beloved Eddie DeBartolo Jr. — gave control of the franchise to his sister, Denise DeBartolo York, once it came out that he was involved in a federal Louisiana gambling fraud investigation.
Denise and her husband, John York, didn’t seem too interested in putting a winning product on the field. The Niners only made the playoffs twice over the first eight years of their reign, and they gave control of the team to their son, Jed, who became president and CEO of the franchise in December of 2008.
York first made headlines during the 2010 season when he told ESPN’s Adam Schefter that the 49ers would make the playoffs after an 0-5 start. David Fleming also worked for ESPN at the time and had this say to about York:
“Yes, I know York predicted that his team would make the playoffs last year. And according to his bio he backs up such bold declarations with a long list of qualifications starting with (1) his lifelong love of the 49ers, (2) his prestigious high school baseball career and (3) the fact that his godfather is Eddie DeBartolo.”
In his defense, York was 30-years-old at the time and still needed to mature in his own way.
It seemed like York finally got something right when he hired the intense and fiery Jim Harbaugh as head coach going into the 2011 NFL season. The move paid immediate dividends, with the 49ers going 13-3 and coming up just short in the NFC Championship. (Thanks, Kyle Williams)
San Francisco went one step further in 2012 but came up just short in a painful 34-31 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. It was a bitter defeat that began to show the cracks in the relationship between the front office and Harbaugh.
Even though the Niners would get back to the NFC Championship game in 2013, there was talk about a potential rift between general manager Trent Baalke and Harbaugh. The two never seemed to be on the same page, especially when it came to player personnel and reportedly butted heads often.
It got so bad that there were rumors in the offseason that San Francisco was considering trading Harbaugh to the Cleveland Browns going into the 2014 season.
The drama, injuries to key players like Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman, plus the regression of QB Colin Kaepernick dropped the Niners from the league’s upper echelon. Even with all of the team’s negative happenings, Harbaugh and the 49ers were 7-4 going into a huge Week 13 Thanksgiving showdown against the hated Seattle Seahawks.
The Niners laid an egg in front of the home crowd, which booed throughout the game as they saw their team defeated 19-3. What made it worse was seeing Richard Sherman and Russell Wilson celebrating by eating turkey on the 49ers’ logo, and York Tweeted about the loss after the game:
Thank you #49ersfaithful for coming out strong tonight. This performance wasn’t acceptable. I apologize for that
— Jed York (@JedYork) November 28, 2014
You don’t undermine your team publicly like this, especially when you aren’t on the battlefield.
But, Harbaugh was no angel himself, and he reportedly disrespected York during a meeting with players earlier in the season:
Source: midway thru 2014, York walked into meeting Harbaugh was holding w/ players, & Harbaugh told Jed that the meeting was for “men only”
— Kyle McLorg (@Kyle_McLorgBASG) June 8, 2015
The Niners sputtered to an 8-8 finish, and the team decided not to bring Harbaugh back, despite a 44-19-1 record.
Most fans were not happy with the decision. At the time, it seemed that York was more concerned with his ego than the team’s performance. If the 49ers had won the Super Bowl matchup against the Ravens, I imagine York would have been seeking a ton of credit, both publicly and privately.
What was most frustrating for the fans were the leaks, rumors, and infighting that were happening at the 49ers’ headquarters. The team became a laughingstock as none of the powers that be would accept responsibility for what was happening around the franchise.
It was obvious that York had sided with Baalke in the power struggle, and they hired Jim Tomsula as Harbaugh’s replacement. The team went 5-11, and York decided he had seen enough, relieving Tomsula of his duties after just one season.
Then, York and Baalke brought in Chip Kelly for the 2016 season, which turned out to be another dumb decision. San Francisco went 2-14, prompting York to let go of Baalke and Kelly, saying this at the year-end press conference:
“I own this football team. You don’t dismiss owners,”
Oh, Jed, if you only knew how bad The Faithful wanted to fire you at this point. York seemed like a spoiled baby who was upset that no one believed in him anymore. He was a symbol of what this once-proud franchise had become, and fans did not have too much confidence in his decision-making. It looked as if York craved the limelight of being the CEO of an NFL franchise but didn’t want to accept the responsibility that came with it.
People could look past the infamous French Laundry incident with The Athletic’s Tim Kawakami or the rumored youth soccer field deal that fell through, as long as he got things with the franchise right.
The hope was that it was just a part of the growing pains for York, and the losing years once Harbaugh was let go humbled him. He seemed to want to bury the hatchet with Harbaugh based on his comments on Peter King’s podcast in May of 2017:
“I actually talked to his brother John briefly at the owners’ meeting and he said, ‘You know, you guys need to get together some time and have dinner,’ and I said, ‘I’d love to do that.’ I’d love to get together … I regret that the relationship was frayed between me and a coach that did a lot of great things for this franchise.”
But, given the history, it was easy to assume York would make another mistake when hiring the new head coach and general manager.
Anyone who assumed that was wrong.
York brought in John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan to take over the team, and although the team struggled their first two seasons, it has turned out to be the right decision.
The leaks, rumors, and stories of backstabbing have stopped coming out of Levi’s Stadium, and the 49ers are among the NFL’s elite again.
It has been nice to have an owner who is in the background once again, with the focus being the on-field product.
San Francisco was a juggernaut during the 2019 campaign. Shanahan led the team to a 13-3 record and came within seven minutes of capturing the elusive sixth Lombardi Trophy for the franchise.
It looked the 49ers were going to go on a sustained run as a championship contender, but the injury-filled 2020 season made Lynch and Shanahan go back to the drawing board.
After re-signing many of their own key free agents, Lynch and Shanahan set their sights on acquiring the quarterback of the future. The pair approached York about trading up in the NFL Draft.
We went to ownership said, ‘Hey, things are looking good,’” Lynch said during Monday’s media availability. “We’d like to make this move.”
York agreed with the vision, and the Niners made a deal to send their 2021 first-round pick (No. 12), first-and-third-round selections next year, and their 2023 first-rounder to the Miami Dolphins for the No. 3 overall pick this season.
We obviously don’t know what the future holds, but right now, confidence in the franchise seems to be high. As much as Lynch and Shanahan get credit for the turnaround, York deserves some praise for hiring the right people and mostly staying out of the way. Something he didn’t do during the first decade of his tenure.
Maybe things will change if San Francisco doesn’t win a Super Bowl in the coming years. But, unless things take a turn for the worse, York should get his due for helping to get the franchise out of the NFL’s basement.
It doesn’t matter which sport it is, the teams with the best owners tend to have sustained runs of success. Ownership might not be responsible for calling plays, but it is its job to ensure the right people are in place.
How do you feel about York now compared to just a few years ago?