Clark's football legacy taking a beating

It was less than four years ago that Dwight Clark appeared destined to be the man who would guide the 49ers' football operation into the 21st century. Now he's out as director of football operations in Cleveland, even though his mentor runs that team. Clark's star in the NFL definitely has fallen, and the question now is if this development means it actually has crashed and burned.

When Carmen Policy abruptly resigned as 49ers president during the first week of training camp in 1998, the then-41-year-old Clark - the Niners' executive vice president and director of football operations - suddenly found himself running the team. Just as suddenly, he found himself auditioning for a permanent role in that capacity with a San Francisco team that still had designs on winning a Super Bowl.

During that tumultuous 1998 season, which would prove to be the year the dynasty ended, Clark ultimately decided to get out while the getting was good. Even though the Niners were making one final serious bid for the NFL's Big Game, Clark - who had spent the previous 19 years with the organization - bolted from the franchise in November when he failed to receive a vote of confidence from then-owner Eddie DeBartolo, who still was calling the shots from afar even though the NFL had banned him from his team.

Clark left to join Policy in Cleveland - by then, Browns owner Al Lerner had made Policy the expansion Browns' president and CEO - and get a fresh start with a fresh team as executive VP and director of football operations, the same roles he had held with the Niners.

When the Niners imploded in 1999, it looked like a good move for Clark. But San Francisco's total collapse didn't do much for his reputation, and some of the poor moves the team made while Clark was big in the decision process - let's just use drafting Jim Druckenmiller in the first round in 1997 as one of several examples - were blamed for the team's quick fall from grace.

But Clark being pushed aside in Cleveland casts even more shadows on his managerial prowess. With coach Butch Davis quickly asserting himself as The Man in Cleveland, Clark started becoming an afterthought. In the NFL, that doesn't happen much to men who hold a position that's comparable to general manager.

"I didn't feel good about my role with the team," Clark said Tuesday during the news conference to announce his resignation. "I'm not mad at anybody ... The way our system was set up, you want your football operations department and director to (advise) the head coach, get him anything he needs, advise, give educated information and guesses as to what we think will happen (with player procurement)."

But when he needed to call on an adviser or when he had an important task to assign, Davis rarely called on Clark. And senior management obviously went along with it, since Policy allowed it to happen and - ultimately - didn't stand in the way of Clark's departure.

Now Clark's agent, Marvin Demoff, is making calls around the league, trying to find Clark a new job in the NFL for 2002. Clark obviously has options - he's a bright, handsome, articulate individual - and he could land in the television booth as well as in the front office of another team.

But his football legacy has taken a beating. It wasn't all that long ago Clark - his No. 87 forever emblazoned in the minds of 49ers fans for making "The Catch" - appeared on his way to becoming a real NFL shaker. Now he's looking like a former star player who is all too expendable because he can't cut it in the front office.

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