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Jed York of the San Francisco 49ers has demonstrated how impactful an owner can be—in both good and bad ways. His parents stepped down from day-to-day operations in December 2008, leaving York—then just 27—to run things as President. The once-glorious franchise hadn’t won, or even played in, a Super Bowl since 1995, and the two most recent coaching hires hadn’t finished above .500 or made the playoffs. Head coach Mike Nolan had just been fired earlier in the season after going 18-37 in three-and-a-half years.

Things didn’t get much better for the Niners in the early part of York’s tenure. After Nolan’s firing, interim coach Mike Singletary led the squad to a 5-4 record to close out the season. That led to Singletary earning the full-time position, but after an 8-8 season in 2009, the team limped to 5-10 and Singletary was fired with a week to go in the 2010 campaign. During Singletary’s tenure, York fired general manager Scot McCloughan, largely because McCloughan’s alcoholism had become untenable. With McCloughan out, York promoted Director of Player Personnel Trent Baalke to Vice President of Player Personnel, effectively running the show on the personnel side.

Things began to turn for the better in 2011, with York luring Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh a little ways up the peninsula. With Harbaugh’s signoff, Baalke was promoted to general manager—a decision Harbaugh would come to regret. But the team got off to a roaring start under Harbaugh and Baalke, winning 13 games in 2011 and 11 in 2012, riding second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick all the way to Super Bowl XLVII, where their comeback vs the Baltimore Ravens fell just short. Year three didn’t quite go as swimmingly; they won 12 games but rival Seattle Seahawks won the division—and the Super Bowl, defeating the 49ers in the NFC Championship game on the way.

The 2014 season was supposed to be a triumph, with the team moving from Candlestick Park, then a half-century old, to Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. The stadium has since become a cash cow, but the first year proved rocky. The field had issues and had to be resurfaced multiple times. The team wound up using two different locker rooms, dividing the squad. And the crowd noise took some time to build. Harbaugh and Baalke clashed, and the team finished just 8-8. Harbaugh’s five-year contract was up after the 2015 season, and rather than extend him or have him play out the year as a lame duck, York fired him. Harbaugh would later take a pointed shot at York and Baalke: “[W]hat they know could not blow up a small balloon.”

None of this was York’s finest hour. Still relatively inexperienced, he was unable to smooth over the issues between Harbaugh and Baalke, two talented but difficult professionals. Even if the two could not reconcile, York might have been able to obtain significant draft capital for Harbaugh—the Browns were rumored to have interest in trading for him after the 2013 season. York’s failures here were just a prelude to what would come next, as San Francisco’s woes would turn from mild tragedy to outright comedy.

First came the hire of longtime 49ers assistant coach Jim Tomsula as head coach.The mustachioed Tomsula had never served as a coordinator, as the team promoted him directly from offensive line coach. In a press conference, York compared the hiring to the Golden State Warriors hiring Steve Kerr, a move that produced four championships for the across-the-bay NBA squad. Tomsula, however, did not replicate Kerr’s success. He was in over his head, and York fired him after a 5-11 season.

Then came Chip Kelly, celebrated for his warp speed spread offense as a college coach but who had shown uneven results in three years helming the Philadelphia Eagles. His tenure featured a 13-game losing streak after an opening day win and was best summed up by left tackle Joe Staley:

That year of my life was the worst time I've ever had playing football. I kind of forgot about it. I don't have any good anecdotes with Chip Kelly. It was just kind of one and done.

Kelly was fired at the end of that 2-14 season, embarrassingly learning of his ouster via the media rather than York himself. This time Baalke was fired, too. He had clashed with the head coach, not for the first time. York, however, persevered. “I own this football team. You don’t dismiss owners,” he said in a tone-deaf press conference. At this point, York was poised to hire another head coach, giving the team four in four years. 

In fairness, there was a lot going on with the 49ers that was not York’s fault. The league suspended star pass rusher Aldon Smith for driving drunk, and the team finally jettisoned him in 2015 after yet another DUI. Defensive studs Patrick Willis and Justin Smith both retired after the 2014 season; worse, up-and-coming linebacker Chris Borland (23 years old) and tackle Anthony Davis (25) did too, citing concussion concerns. It’s probably too simplistic to blame the whole decline on the coaching turnover and front office drama.

With both positions open entering the 2017 offseason, York vowed to find a general manager and head coach who could work in concert, avoiding the infighting that had characterized even the more successful years with York running the show. “First and foremost it’s going to be a relationship between head coach and general manager,” he said. It was easy to be skeptical that York could truly change his spots.

But York has backed up his words. He inked Kyle Shanahan, a hotshot offensive coordinator (and son of former 49ers OC Mike) to a six-year deal, and notably one with no offsets, meaning that the team could not recoup any of the the value of Shanahan’s contract if they fired him, even if he got hired elsewhere. He hired John Lynch as general manager despite Lynch having no scouting or front office experience. What Lynch did have was a good familiarity and rapport with Shanahan. Lynch also received a six-year deal, joining the two at the hip.

Things have not always gone smoothly in the Lynch / Shanahan tenure. Their first two draft picks were Solomon Thomas and Reuben Foster. Thomas was just a rotational defensive lineman, a disappointment for a player drafted #3 overall. The 49ers released Foster in his second year after multiple arrests. The team began 2017 with an 0-9 record before going on a hot streak with newly-acquired quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to finish 6-10.

Garoppolo suffered a season-ending injury just three games into the 2018 season and San Francisco limped to a 4-12 record. So far the early years of the Shanahan / Lynch braintrust weren’t delivering any more results than those of Tomsula or Kelly. But York stayed the course, explaining in the 2019 offseason:

We’re probably not going to get it all right in the first year, first two years, but this is something we’re going to try to build and I believe we have a very good foundation. I think the future is bright for us.

York’s patience began to pay off in 2019. Garoppolo stayed healthy, and the team improved from 21st in scoring offense to 2nd. The defense, 25th in scoring in 2017 and 28th in 2018, finished eighth in 2019. All that added up to a 13-3 record and a Super Bowl berth. The 49ers fell short in the big game, losing 31-20, but the path was set.

There continue to be ups and downs. Garoppolo got hurt again in 2020, and the 49ers limped to a 6-10 record. Lynch and Shanahan dealt three first round picks for the right to move up to number three overall and select Trey Lance out of North Dakota State, a move that has paid few dividends through two years. But the squad made the playoffs in both 2021 and 2022, each year making the NFC Championship Game. They’re not far away from adding a sixth Super Bowl to the franchise trophy case.

And York has been able to stop himself from killing the golden goose. “I’ve been in a situation where you look at every single draft pick and you evaluate each one individually. And I think I have taken a step back from trying to evaluate every single piece.” After many tries, York finally was able to put together a head coach and general manager duo that work together, and he’s stayed out of their way and let them work. I don’t know if York’s restraint will prove lasting, but for now he’s saying and doing the right things—and more critically, not doing the wrong things.