When Robert Kraft took ownership of the New England Patriots in 1994, he had a distinct vision for his franchise.
“I wanted people to view us and look at us the way people looked at the 49ers,” Kraft told CSNBayArea.com during an interview this week.
More than two decades later, Kraft’s Patriots are the equivalent of the 49ers in the 1980s and ‘90s under Eddie DeBartolo.
The 49ers won each of their five Super Bowl appearances under DeBartolo’s ownership. During Kraft’s time in charge, the Patriots have won four of their seven Super Bowl showings, including four of six with coach Bill Belichick.
The 49ers will pay tribute to DeBartolo during alumni weekend, culminating at Sunday’s game against the Patriots with the presentation of the Ring of Excellence for his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, this year.
Kraft was a successful businessman who began his career at Rand-Whitney Group, a company that converted paper into packaging for various industries, before taking ownership in 1972. He also founded International Forest Products, a trader of paper commodities.
He might have known how to run a business on paper, but Kraft was the first to admit he had to acquire a better understanding of the inner workings of professional football. Almost immediately, he sought assistance from DeBartolo and his 49ers team president, Carmen Policy.
“I went to my first owners meeting and I met with them and they very gracious and kind,” Kraft said. “Probably the main lesson I learned from that – 20-odd years later – is I always try to be very welcoming and kind to new owners coming in. Because I know it’s a very exciting opportunity and adventure to come into the league. It’s a great privilege.”
Shortly thereafter, Kraft and his son, Jonathan, the team president, visited with DeBartolo and Policy at the 49ers’ team headquarters in the Bay Area.
“They spent quite a long time in San Francisco, in Santa Clara,” DeBartolo said this week on the 49ers Insider Podcast. “We hid nothing. We showed them what we did, how we did it. We did the same thing with (Dallas Cowboys owner) Jerry Jones.”
Kraft said he recalls he reached out to other NFL owners during that time, too.
“And I must tell you,” Kraft said, “not every one was welcoming to me, but Eddie was.
“I don’t think anyone could’ve been more hospitable than Eddie was with the 49ers, and it was at the height of their achievements.”
DeBartolo said he felt it was an obligation to help others in his position as a member of such a select group at the top of the nation’s most popular sport.
“It’s the right thing to do,” DeBartolo said. “They are your partners. I know it’s very competitive. But you know what? Then you have to be one step ahead of everybody and you have to continue to forge on.
“I had no qualms about having fellow owners come out and see how we operate.”
Kraft recalls he visited with the 49ers at a time when the NFL was implementing a salary cap.
“The management expertise required to be successful in the NFL changed at that time,” Kraft said.
He also took notice of the bond DeBartolo had with his employees, especially the players.
“I did see the relationship he had with his players and how they all felt a connection and a sense of warmth to him,” Kraft said. “I’ve tried to do the same thing. First of all, I love being in the locker room. And I love our players. I think seeing Eddie interact and the way his players felt about him was a wonderful example.”
DeBartolo’s ownership reign with the 49ers came to an end in 1997. He stepped away during an investigation into gambling fraud involving ex-Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards. DeBartolo eventually pleaded guilty to a felony charge of failing to report the former governor’s extortion attempt.
During his induction speech into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, DeBartolo said, “The turning point, of course, is when God blessed me with the good judgment to hire a gentleman by the name of Bill Walsh.”
Walsh’s franchise-changing decision was to pick quarterback Joe Montana in the third round of the 1979 draft.
Likewise, Kraft’s monumental hiring of Belichick in 2000 – and Belichick’s subsequent selection of quarterback Tom Brady with a compensatory pick in the sixth round of his first draft with the Patriots – helped turn New England into an annual Super Bowl contender.
Kraft said it will be a “thrill” for him to see DeBartolo honored Sunday at Levi’s Stadium as a member of the Hall of Fame.
“I think he’s most deserving,” Kraft said. “His enthusiasm and upbeat manner and wonderful way he is with all people, I’ve never seen him when he’s not upbeat and treating people very well. He’s a lot of fun to be around.
“I believe ownership has the ability to mess up some good things. Eddie did a great of enhancing what he had, and I’m trying to do the same thing here.”