© Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
He was in the locker room after the 49ers won the NFC Championship and has poked in and out during the season, but on Friday, Jed York made a surprise extended appearance, holding court with reporters for nearly a half hour. For the first time in some time, York was coming from a place of almost total comfortability in a process that has taken three years to pay dividends.
And that’s if you’re starting with the Kyle Shanahan-John Lynch era. York overtook the 49ers presidency in 2008, before handing off that title to Gideon Yu in 2012 and retaining his title as CEO. He had the brief peak of the John Harbaugh era, and the period of uncertainty and constant change that preceded the two years before Shanahan and Lynch’s hirings.
A rightfully chipper York was full of sarcasm, channeling Andy Dufresne as he cited “The Shawshank Redemption” and credited “The Godfather,” “Bull Durham” and “Major League” as some of the defining influences of his personality. He joked about submitting plays to Shanahan and laughed about those “deep valley” years after Harbaugh when a banner reading “Jed & 49ers should mutually part ways,” flew over his success-devoid Levi’s Stadium. He sarcastically admitted he’d fired too many coaches and GMs to be able to fire the most recent pair.
As it turns out, he didn’t need to fire the Shanahan-Lynch duo, despite the criticism directed their and York’s ways after a 4-12 second season.
“I try to think every day about banners flying over the stadium for me to step down from the team. That’s always my favorite experience about the 49ers,” York joked. “No, I’m just focused on what we have to do. I’m appreciative of our fans, especially the 40- to 50,000 that were here in not the best times.”
The first impression
York said he’ll have to change his phone number and email given the requests he’s had for Super Bowl tickets this week. It’s a welcome return to a stage that feels more distant than it actually was.
“I know being in the Super Bowl seven years ago doesn’t seem that long ago,” York said. “Except for the kind of deep valley that we went into between.”
This point is the culmination of the gut feel that York had when he and Shanahan first talked.
With a grin, York said that Shanahan praised the state of the 49ers’ roster in their first conversation, a sarcastic mischaracterization of how brutally honest Shanahan was from the jump.
“It was very clear in the first 10 minutes or so. And I mean, we had a great conversation,” Shanahan said. “He talked about how much he loved our roster at that time and how talented he thought our roster was. But the knocks that you heard on Kyle, when you did your reference checks and things like that was, ‘He thinks he knows everything,’ and you had those negative things, he’s just honest and direct. And it’s hard when you’re in my position to know when somebody is really being truly honest and direct and when someone’s kissing your ass, and Kyle’s very, very direct.”
Why those six-year deals were really four-year deals
York said those six-year contracts for Lynch and Shanahan were his decision, though, as with everything in York’s upbeat discussion on Friday, it was camped with a joke, founded in the reality of the 49ers’ struggles prior to this season.
“I mean, I think I’m still paying like three coaches,” York said. “It’s like, ‘Shit, if we’re gonna pay a coach, we might as well pay the same one for six years.’ Seems like a good idea to me.”
In York’s mind, he said those deals weren’t really the half-dozen years that the ink on the contracts proved they were. He admitted the expectations of winning a Super Bowl in those first two years were … unlikely.
“To me, it was really two years of fixing what we needed to fix. And knowing that this [year] is year one of a four-year deal. And knowing that this is somebody that I can work with, and John is somebody that I can work with, to get through the tough stuff.”
So came “The Shawshank Redemption” reference to Tim Robbins’ character, Andy Dufresne, crawling through the, err — “mud” — to escape prison and reach freedom:
“I made an Andy Dufresne reference earlier. Everybody wants to get to that beach at the end,” York said. “No one wants to go through what he went through to get to the beach. And we had to get through that. And Kyle and John are guys that I know that we can get through it with and we needed to send a message to first, our team, and second, our fans that these guys are here.
And not that we knew we weren’t going to win games, but it was it was unlikely that day one we were going to come in and win the Super Bowl when those guys came here, but I didn’t want anybody to be questioning, ‘Well, you know, it’s year three, they’re on the hot seat,’ No. Like it’s a six-year deal and we’ve locked ourselves in, all three of us, and we’re here together, and we’re going to build this thing the right way.”
The ‘defining moment’ of Reuben Foster’s release
Last season, the 49ers released their second-ever draft pick of the Shanahan and Lynch era in linebacker Reuben Foster (the first was Solomon Thomas) after he was arrested on a charge of first-degree misdemeanor domestic violence.
York pointed to that decision as a “defining moment” for the organization, and took what could be interpreted as a dig at the Washington Redskins for signing Foster:
“I think a great example is Reuben. I love Reuben. Like, I wish that Reuben was still here,” York said. “We gave Reuben opportunities, we’ve given a lot of guys opportunities, but we set our limit and said, ‘If he can’t fix this, have to move on from a talented player.’
I don’t know that that would have been the case with every other coach or every other general manager, not just here, but across the league because it’s hard to give up on talent. And I think that, to me, is one of the defining moments of John and Kyle of being able to say, ‘This was a first-round pick in our first year and we moved on from it, and it was hard.’
We could have justified not moving on from it. There are other people that have been in worse situations than what Reuben was in. But we knew where we had to be and I think that to me, you look at a defining moment for those guys, I think that’s a defining moment for the culture of this team of we are team first. And we are we got your back first.”
White House visit? York far from dismissive
Yes, the 49ers have to win the Super Bowl first to be invited to the White House. But Richard Sherman told The San Francisco Chronicle “I doubt it,” when asked if he and the team would go to the White House.
So, the question was put to York. Would the 49ers go? His answer seemed to imply he was much more open to the opportunity.
“For me personally, I respect the office of the President, and I’m not going to get into politics,” York said. “I hope that we have that decision to make and I hope we that have that opportunity. And I hope that we’re fortunate enough to get a call from the president to invite us to the White House.”
The moment it clicked
There have been various moments this season that the 49ers have pointed to as defining, or when the team believed a Super Bowl was possible. Shanahan and Dre Greenlaw signaled the Week 6, 20-7 win over the Los Angeles Rams, when the 49ers went 5-0.
Others have pointed to the midseason acquisition of Emmanuel Sanders, not just for the fundamental advantage he provided from a talent standpoint, but for the guidance he gave to the team’s young wide receiver corps.
For York, it was drafting Nick Bosa.
“When we were able to draft Nick, I thought that this was possible,” York said. “Knowing the moves that they had made to, even going back to Trent [Baalke], we invested in our defensive line. And that was something that was really, really important for Kyle was to have a Super Bowl-caliber defensive line. And when you bring Dee in and then you’re fortunate enough to have a player like Nick there when you’re drafting second, then you knew that you had a chance. And that’s kind of when when it sort of hit for me.”
York got past the calls for his head by channeling ‘Bull Durham’
I asked York, with those “deep valleys” and the banner calling for him to be fired and the culmination of criticism and the lack of success the 49ers endured after the Harbaugh era came to a screeching halt, how he remained optimistic. His answer lies in some wisdom from Bull Durham’s “Crash Dave,” played by Kevin Costner:
“I mean my life is pretty simple. My philosophies are fairly simple like, ‘The Godfather,’ ‘Bull Durham’ and ‘Major League’ pretty much make up, my philosophy on life,” York said. “Shawshank a little bit.
But it goes back to Crash Davis was talking to Nuke LaLoosh, like, ‘You’re gonna get lit up when you’re in the pros.’ And you have to you have to remain cocky, you have to remain confident. You can’t let them get you down. And I think it’s hard.
It’s hard not to let outside noise affect you, but you have to block it out. And I think our team has done a great job of trying to block out outside noise. And I hope I’ve done a small piece of that to kind of help them do that and move forward and focus on the task at hand.”