SANTA CLARA It was one year ago that 49ers owner Jed York, general manager Trent Baalke and then-Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh met at the home of a mutual friend and retired into the pool room. It was about noon. Sandwiches were waiting for them.
York introduced himself to Harbaugh, said a few words about his vision for the 49ers he wanted a coach who knew how to handle quarterbacks then sat back and let Harbaugh and Baalke talk football until the sun went down.
And that, said York's uncle, Eddie DeBartolo Jr., during a Wednesday phone call, is the most brilliant maneuver any owner can make.
"Jed has done what every owner in the league should try to do, and that is stay out of it," said DeBartolo, the 49ers' still-beloved former owner, from his office in Tampa, Fla. "To do that at his age? That says so much. I'm so impressed and so happy for him."
When Baalke and Harbaugh talked shop a year ago, the 49ers hadn't had a winning record in eight seasons. York was 10 days removed from firing coach Mike Singletary. Quarterback Alex Smith was a free agent who wanted no part of the team that drafted him. And the 49ers were playing in a dilapidated stadium that no one outside the team's front office was confident would be replaced anytime soon.
The year wasn't perfect for York, 30. There were ugly incidents before, during and after the team's annual exhibition game against the Raiders that gave the Bay Area a black eye. And when the national spotlight finally was pointed toward the 49ers' triumphs during a Monday night game against the Steelers last month, the lights went out. Twice.
But it says something when you can throw those notable black marks into the equation, and York still comes out way ahead.
Even his decision to spend a week in Youngs- town, Ohio a head scratcher at the time is an inspired move in retrospect.
DeBartolo was there and took in one of the team's practices, perhaps his first since he was forced to relinquish control of the team in 2000.
"I was in Youngstown at the same time," he said. "I just didn't tell anybody."
The five-day stay was a nice bonding experience for the players and offered the ideal backdrop a former steel town dotted with old mills and smokestacks for a team that wore blue mechanics shirts all season and identified itself by its workmanlike approach.
Two days after leaving Youngstown, the 49ers engineered a come-from behind win over the Eagles, their best of the season.
Previous 49ers seasons were marked by long losing streaks the team never could counteract. The trip to Ohio featured the second victory during an eight-game winning streak that, for all practicality, decided the NFC West by November and helped the 49ers grab the No. 2 playoff seed.
York's victories also have come off the field. The team's $1 billion stadium is now fully funded, and make-ready work begins this month. Maybe the project would be at the same stage if the 49ers had finished 8-8 this year. But 13-3 and headed to the playoffs sounds a lot better when you are selling sponsorships and luxury suites.
There are many parallels between the 1981 squad that won the franchise's first Super Bowl and the current one, which is gunning for Trophy No. 6.
Perhaps the best one is that the men running the organization seemed to have a knack for finding the right people to work under them. For DeBartolo, it was John McVay, Carmen Policy and Bill Walsh.
York, meanwhile, seems to have found the right combination with Baalke, an Executive of the Year candidate, and Harbaugh, a shoo-in for Coach of the Year.
Asked about similarities with the 1981 team, which also went 13-3, DeBartolo insisted this season's team is far more talented. Does that mean it can win the Super Bowl?
"I have a feeling about this team " DeBartolo said.
He didn't finish his thought. He didn't have to.