Here is how the San Francisco 49ers, once one of the proudest and most successful franchises in NFL history, have become another "Animal House" of their sport: by putting a boy prince like Jed York in charge of things.
Once they had Bill Walsh as the coach in San Francisco, when the 49ers were still actually in San Francisco, and had Joe Montana as the quarterback before Steve Young was, with Jerry Rice catching the passes. Eddie DeBartolo was the owner in those days, and before he got into trouble with the law -- he was implicated in a complicated extortion case involving a former governor of Louisiana -- and the family business ended up in the wrong hands, DeBartolo was one of the great owners, one now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It all started when he was the one who hired Walsh.
Now DeBartolo's nephew, his sister's son, 36, is in charge. And when York stood up on Tuesday and explained how the 49ers are starting all over again, as they have continued to start all over again once Jim Harbaugh left for Michigan and took the real brains of the operation with him, he put words to every fan's nightmare:
"I own this football team," York said. "You don't dismiss owners. I'm sorry that that's the fact and that's the case, but that's the fact."
Actually, that's not the fact. York -- who once compared the guy who succeeded Harbaugh, Jim Tomsula, to Steve Kerr -- hardly gets anything right when it comes to pro football and can't even get his own status right. He doesn't own the team. His mom, Marie Denise DeBartolo York, owns the team. She is the one, to use an old line from another sport, who has clearly convinced a kid born on third base that he'd hit a triple.
His mom is the one who saw a young guy who had spent a year working as a financial analyst in New York City as a budding pro football genius, and brought him out to San Francisco and made him director of strategic planning, whatever that means. But in one of those inspiring business stories that must give hope to all young guys everywhere, York continued his meteoric rise up the corporate ladder, and before long he was vice president of strategic planning. And by 2008, at the age of 28, with the complete blessing of both his parents, he became the guy operating the franchise.
The 49ers are where they are, and the last time this was a legit team was when Harbaugh was coaching it, whether he could be a real long day for his bosses or not. If the DeBartolos in charge of the place had left when he left and Harbaugh stayed, 49ers fans would be a lot better off.
So they start all over again. The general manager is gone and the last coach, Chip Kelly, who was apparently hired for 14 minutes or 14 losses, whichever came first, is gone. There is no quarterback under contract, unless you think Colin Kaepernick -- who actually had a ball in the air under Harbaugh to win a Super Bowl -- can be famous again in pro football for something other than taking a knee during the national anthem.
They aren't the San Francisco 49ers anymore. They are the Santa Clara 49ers. They are just another bad team with the wrong people in charge, starting with the guy who stood up on Tuesday and looked like a kid who had taken over the principal's office, the one who has watched his team win seven football games out of 32 since Harbaugh got kicked to the curb.
"We need to get the right people," York said. "The head coach and general manager need to be accountable to one another and be on the same page."
Of course, he wouldn't admit that losing Harbaugh, a coach who did take the 49ers to the Super Bowl and also took them to overtime against the Giants in an NFC championship game at old Candlestick Park, was some kind of mistake.
"I can't look backwards. We need to make sure we're looking forward and doing everything we can to get this team back," he said. "It's very easy to play revisionist history. I'm just not going to play that game."
It is always thrilling to watch this kind of freefall in professional sports. Hal Steinbrenner, a very nice guy who doesn't seem to love New York or baseball the way George Steinbrenner did, isn't his father. And the Yankees aren't what they were when Larry Lucchino, the old boss of the Red Sox, called them the "Evil Empire." But they never have a losing season, either. The bottom never falls out with Hal Steinbrenner's Yankees the way it has fallen out with Jed York and the 49ers.
Oh, York said all the right things about what kind of organization he wants, where the 49ers are and where they're going. He tried to sound like a football man. But he sounded like somebody reading a paper in front of a class.
"We need to be open to the right structure with the right people," York said. "We need to get the right people. It can't be that I have the 53-man roster and you need to go back to your office. We can't have that. It has to be these two guys on the same page, and when we disagree on a player, we need to know what to do when we disagree on a player and how to move forward and move beyond it. That's very important to me. Whether the head coach is in control, the general manager is in control, they need to be accountable to each other. That's the most important relationship in the building."
Everybody knows the problems Harbaugh had with the front office during his time with the 49ers, and especially at the end of his time with the 49ers. Everybody knows that eventually Harbaugh doesn't always play well with others, and wears out his welcome. It may happen at Michigan eventually. But look at where Michigan was before Harbaugh and look at where it is now. He is a great coach. And he came as close as anybody had to restoring past glory in San Francisco. Now he comes within one fourth-down play against Ohio State from making it to the playoff in college football and the 49ers are 2-14 this year and 7-25 since he left. Even a crackerjack former financial analyst like Jed York ought to be able to do math like that.
York says he's the owner. He's not. But he was right about one thing: He's not going anywhere. That's the fact, like he said. That's the case with the Santa Clara 49ers.