The education of John York
In an about-face from the supercilious, I-always-know-what-I'm-doing attitude York often exuded in previous years after becoming the 49ers' owner, he readily admitted this week that he went about things wrong in his direction of the franchise in recent seasons. And he wasn't too proud to say that he still has plenty more to learn. "I think I understand things better now," York said with an eloquence not usually seen before from the multi-millionaire who had no background in football before his wife Denise gained control of the team in 1999. "Do I understand it perfectly? If I do, then I wouldn't have anything else to learn. I would say I've got a lot more to learn." York learned the hard way over the past two years, when he relied on the decisions of Terry Donahue, who was hand-picked by Bill Walsh to succeed the 49ers legend as the team's general manager in 2001. The 49ers had quickly climbed out of the abyss they'd fallen into during the 4-12 season of 1999, and after back-to-back seasons of 12-4 and 10-6 (including an NFC West championship) in 2002-2003, York might have been feeling just a little bit smug that the business sense that has made him a big success in other ventures would easily translate into the NFL. He was wrong, of course. He just didn't know it at the time. But York found out in a hurry as the team became mismanaged and floundered under his watch the past two years. It took him a while to realize it, and for those who know York, that's understandable. After all, he founded a clinical laboratory company that had three employees in 1982 and built it into a 500-person organization with facilities in three states that produced revenues of up to $30 million annually before he sold the business to Corning, Inc. in 1993. York's success as an entrepreneur continued the next year when he went to work for the corporation founded by his father-in-law Edward DeBartolo Sr. – one of the wealthiest and most influential businessmen in America before he died in 1994. Overseeing the corporation's horse racing operations, York's programs greatly enhanced the value of the family's racing portfolio before it was sold in 2002. But laboratories and horse tracks proved to be worlds away from the business of the NFL. "This is a different game than I've ever been involved with," York admitted. "There is a difference in being the owner of an NFL team versus being the owner of a group of highly-successful laboratories or an owner of a group of thoroughbred race tracks." Some might scoff that it took York so long to see the light. But the point is, he has seen it, and is learning and adjusting because of it, and has made quick and drastic measures to improve the product and give the 49ers a chance to be successful again in the future. "I think there's different roles that you play for each of those," York said of his three big business ventures of the past two decades. "I don't think I clearly understood that in the past." So how does he see his role now with the Niners? York provided what borders on an enlightened response. "I think today I understand that my role is one of providing for the head coach and for the head of personnel," York said. "I need to provide the right facilities so that they are able to do their job. I need to provide the right support – not only the support that is directly around them with the right training group, the right strength and conditioning, equipment, video travel all those things – but also the right people that have the same ideas as that group of people in football with sales and marketing, with budgets – with everything. And then finally, I need to be very supportive of those people in personnel and the head coach in acquiring players." "I didn't realize those roles before." Criticism and embarrassment can be great motivators. They also can slap you into shape. To an extent, those may have been contributing factors to York getting a better grasp on what it takes to succeed in the NFL. But York is no dummy. Everybody needs to realize that he's a very intelligent man who strives to be successful in anything and everything. While his reputation was being trashed in the media, he had the good sense to look around at why that was happening. "Those things, you never want to read about yourself," York said. "You're always going to want to be a winner. Being a winner is a heck of a lot better than being a loser. But you know what? When you're educating yourself, you learn a hell of a lot more when you're losing than when you're winning. So, I've taken this opportunity, and hopefully I've learned from the experience." York took control of the team's process to quickly hire a new coach, and the results are looking very strong with the hiring of Mike Nolan. York also learned from his mistakes when he ate approximately $10 million dollars earlier this month by firing Donahue and coach Dennis Erickson, who had four and three years remaining, respectively, on the deals they'd signed with the team. For an owner who seemed to do most everything wrong the past two years while running the franchise into the ground, York seems to have learned from his mistakes and is taking every measure to get it right. Paraag Marathe, the 49ers' assistant to the general manager, took part with York in the interview process over the past two weeks that brought Nolan to the organization. Marathe said he saw a reborn York as the Niners conducted marathon interview sessions daily with five candidates. "What I saw in John, as much as has been said to the opposite, he is so committed to turning this thing around and doing everything it takes in terms of what's best for the 49ers," Marathe said. Realizing his decisions and methods of operation might be part of the problem – maybe even the root of the problem – was the first step. And York fully expects his football education - and what he continues to learn and apply to moving the franchise forward - will lead the 49ers back to the top. "I've learned in the past," York said. "I've been successful wherever I've been. And I intend to be successful here."
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