Tuesday afternoon, John York answered the phone at his office in Ohio and accepted congratulations. But when I complimented him on the way things have gone for the 49ers lately and any role he might have played in that success, he stopped the conversation.
"You don't have to write anything nice about me," York said.
There was a time when I might have said: Well, that should be easy enough. But not this week. Not with the 49ers en route to the Super Bowl for the first time in 18 years. In retrospect, every move made by the franchise to accomplish that result can be applauded.
And in retrospect, do you know what was the most important move? It was the one John York and his wife, Denise, made in 2008 as the team's primary owners. That year, they turned over control of the team to their son, Jed, then 28 years old.
Until that moment, John York had been the face of team ownership since 1999. He had been accountable for most of the big decisions because Denise chose to stay out of the spotlight -- and many of those decisions had flopped miserably, leading to six straight losing seasons.
In the years since, York has earned my admiration for remaining persistently in the background as the 49ers have risen to the NFL's elite level under the leadership of Jed, general manager Trent Baalke and coach Jim Harbaugh. There has been no interference, no meddling. York has allowed the coalition between the three men to develop and thrive. He advises and offers his opinions when asked but otherwise keeps a low profile.
"There can only be one voice for team ownership and Jed's that one voice," York said.
He's especially proud of his son, naturally, but praises Baalke and Harbaugh and the entire 49ers coaching staff in equal measure. And following the company line, York pointedly noted that the job isn't over.
"The object, if you own an NFL team, is to get to the Super Bowl and win the Super Bowl," York said. "We've accomplished the first. We've got to accomplish the second."
Still, in the weeklong pause as everybody catches their breath before heading to New Orleans next week, there is time to reflect on one of the more remarkable scenes from Sunday. After the 49ers' victory, it was the York family's idea to have Eddie DeBartolo perform the presentation of the George Halas Trophy given to the NFC champion. The league asks each competing team in the game to preselect one of its honorary game captains to do those honors.
The choice of DeBartolo made sense, given the five NFL titles won by the 49ers under his purview. But the choice was also emotional and poignant -- and could have been awkward. DeBartolo, Denise York's brother, has never been complimentary of John York. As recently as a year ago, DeBartolo praised Jed York for keeping his father "the hell out of the picture" in team matters.
It was fascinating, therefore, to see a smiling York standing at the rear of the trophy presentation platform, watching DeBartolo hand over the trophy to Denise and Jed, all of them getting teary-eyed. How does that all jibe with DeBartolo's personal jabs at John York? How does he feel about them?
"I've tried not to say anything publicly about anyone in our family," York said of DeBartolo. "And that is part of our family. I want to stay as positive as I possibly can."
As such, York said he endorses DeBartolo as a Pro Football Hall of Fame candidate because anyone who wins five Vince Lombardi trophies belongs there -- and because once more, it would be an honor for the entire family.
That scene on the trophy platform was also a stark contrast to the depressing stretches a decade ago when York's name was as vilified as any in Bay Area sports. But you know what? He understood. He even gazes back on his time as the primary ownership face with some fondness.
"Most of the time, I really enjoyed it," York said. "I was disappointed we couldn't get a winning team on the field. But there are a lot of really nice perks that come with being an NFL owner. It puts you in touch with a lot of interesting people and in a lot of interesting situations. The No. 1 priority for an NFL owner, though, is winning. And we weren't able to do that. So I was fair game for that, whether I like it or not."
But when was the exact time, I asked, that York and his wife knew that Jed would be the one to take over the franchise's leadership?
"I think that we probably knew it the same day we knew that we were going to be in charge of the 49ers," York answered, citing his son's love of the team.
That's kind of a stunning admission, though. The Yorks assumed control of the franchise in 1999, when Eddie DeBartolo was forced out as the 49ers owner following his legal troubles in Louisiana. That year, Jed York had barely begun his college studies at Notre Dame. This means that between 1999 and 2008, John and Denise York were basically operating the team as placeholders for their son.
This explains a few things. It explains why John York was a semi-absentee owner, spending more time in Youngstown, Ohio, at the family business office than in Santa Clara. That, in turn, led to the development of various factions inside 49ers headquarters that was reflected on the field.
Another family decision loomed large in what came next. The plan had been for Jed York to take a Wall Street job after his graduation from Notre Dame to learn the business world for several years. He did move there, but in discussions with his parents, the decision was made to have him move west earlier than expected and rotate through various team departments before giving him full control.
"Jed has, first of all, been extremely interested in making sure that our family business is carried forward," York said. "Since he was five years old, he has been interested in our family business."
Five years old? Yes, five years old.
"But that was the family business, all our interests," York said. "I think he started paying attention to football very seriously when he was at Notre Dame. He always found a way to get to 49er games."
These days, John York's most important NFL role is as a member of the Owners Committee on Health and Safety. A doctor and pathologist with a medical background, he gave an update at league meetings last month, speaking of potential equipment and rules changes that could lead to fewer concussions and injuries.
Eventually, history might see it this way: John York had the humility and smarts to step down from a job he liked and hand it off to someone who cared about the 49ers immensely and was in position to do the job better. York then applied his talents to something that ultimately might help the NFL more.
I didn't have to write anything nice about John York, according to John York. But I think I just did.