On a day Jed York was so sick with the flu he could hardly speak, he took his first major step toward curing the 49ers. Coach Mike Singletary had just blundered through another atrocious loss and York, whose family had raised him on a diet of 49ers excellence, had reached his breaking point.
"Our objective is to win he Super Bowl, year in and year out," York fumed that day, Dec. 26, 2010, his voice rasping in a somber St. Louis locker room. "We're going to make sure we get this right."
Singletary was fired by nightfall. And suffice to say, the kid got things right. Next Sunday, the 49ers will face the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII.
The game represents the culmination of a York-led revolution, an overhaul of the franchise that managed to both turn back the clock to the 49ers' glory days while ushering in a bold new era with a personality all its own.
York did it by bringing aboard a mastermind head coach, spending lavishly, demanding excellence and changing the culture of the entire organization.
In short, he followed in the footsteps of his uncle. Eddie DeBartolo Jr. established that blueprint in engineering five Super Bowl victories during an ownership tenure that spanned from 1977 to 2000.
Even players from that era, who still speak of DeBartolo in tones of awe and reverence, embrace the comparison.
"I see a lot of Eddie D in him," former running back Roger Craig said.
"I think that he's trying to emulate his uncle," Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott said.
"He's been the owner that everybody wants an owner to be," former tight end Brent Jones said. "Reach into your pocket and pay the money."
So how did York do it? How did he reinvigorate the franchise during just three years as the team's chief executive officer?
That was no silver spoon in his mouth. It was a shovel.
Lott recalls the days when the 49ers were like the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Lakers, elite franchises whose brands were synonymous with first-class treatment.
"In the same way that the Lakers were 'Showtime,' we were looked at as 'Showtime,' " said Lott, who played for the 49ers from 1981 to 1990. "The reason we looked that way is because it all started up top with Mr. DeBartolo."
But as recently as a few years ago, the 49ers were no longer a symbol of luxury. Even their 11-acre training facility in Santa Clara, once considered state of the art, was fraying around the edges.
So in 2009, York launched an ambitious renovation project, adding 9,000 square feet of space for players and office employees. The 49ers also expanded the players' lounge, built an expansive outdoor weightlifting facility and knocked down walls to give meeting rooms more square footage.
The team's cafeteria was upgraded, complete with first-rate chefs.
"What Jed shows -- and what his uncle showed -- is a passion for excellence," said former Pro Bowl offensive lineman Harris Barton, who played for the 49ers from 1987 to 1996. "Players come out here and realize, 'You know what? I'm going to play hurt and I'm going to play hard because I know I'm going to be taken care of here much better than any other place. The owner cares."
Finding the right coach
Like his uncle, who struck gold in hiring Bill Walsh, York found the key to the 49ers' turnaround a few miles a way at Stanford University.
Identifying Jim Harbaugh's potential was the easy part -- he had clearly established himself as a rising star in the coaching ranks -- but landing him took a savvy beyond York's years. He outmaneuvered Stanford (which wanted to keep him), the University of Michigan (Harbaugh's alma mater), the Denver Broncos and Miami Dolphins to reel in coaching's biggest prize.
"That was absolutely the move that put the 49ers in a different category," said Jones, who made four Pro Bowls for the 49ers from 1987 to 1997.
York made Harbaugh a competitive offer -- about $5 million per year for five years. But other teams offered more. The key for the 49ers was a six-hour meeting in which York and new general manager Trent Baalke laid out their plan for reinvigorating the franchise.
"Jed talked about his vision," Harbaugh said on the day he was hired, "and that sealed the deal."
Harbaugh has gone 27-8-1 (.764) and captured back-to-back NFC West titles over his first two seasons -- and conjured comparisons to that other coach from Stanford.
"The one thing that Jim Harbaugh has that Bill Walsh has is the ability to motivate," Jones said. "There are a lot of coaches who can do X's and O's. There are a lot of coaches who can call plays. But there are fewer guys that are compelling enough to motivate guys to bring them to their peak potential."
Craig put it more succinctly.
"Jim Harbaugh," he said, "has the secret sauce."
Silicon Valley ties
York embraces the past. He once ordered a redesign of the 49ers uniforms to incorporate echoes of the dynasty years. He created a team Hall of Fame. He treats former players like royalty.
"Every time I've gone down there to watch practice, Jed's stopped everything to come out and say hello," Barton said.
But despite his eye for nostalgia, York has also pushed the 49ers toward a cutting-edge approach. The team promises that its new stadium in Santa Clara will be high-tech and ecologically friendly, and the key to that endeavor has been a major Silicon Valley power player.
York hired Gideon Yu, the former CFO of both Facebook and YouTube, in February 2012 and turned him loose on the 49ers' long-stalled stadium project. Yu promptly led an effort to secure an $850 million stadium construction loan, the largest ever in professional sports, and a $200 million financing package from the NFL.
The stadium, once set to open in 2015, was so successfully fast-tracked that it will be ready for 2014.
"I've worked for a lot of guys in the past that have audacious, big visions," Yu, now the team's president and co-owner, told this newspaper last year. "Jed ranks up there with those guys that were set to change the world."
Plenty of owners spend lavishly, but many do so impatiently. York and Baalke, in contrast, have methodically invested their resources in players already on the premises.
Turning up their nose at top-tier free agents, much to the early impatience of fans, York and Baalke identified the players worth keeping for the long haul and locked them up with multi-year extensions.
Among the players sticking around to form the nucleus are linebacker NaVorro Bowman (signed through 2018), left tackle Joe Staley (2017), linebacker Patrick Willis (2016), tight end Vernon Davis (2015), and running back Frank Gore (2014).
All were signed to deals that still manage to leave the 49ers salary cap flexibility for the foreseeable future.
"I've been saying for a while now that this team was going to be the winningest team of this decade," said Craig, a four-time Pro Bowl selection who played for the 49ers from 1983 to 1990. "I could see this team winning two or three more Super Bowls over the next few years because they're so young. They've got a great offensive line, a young quarterback. They're going to win a lot of games."
In all, the 49ers already have 45 players from this NFC championship roster under contract for next season.
To Barton, it has echoes of the DeBartolo days.
"Players stay with the 49ers because they know they're in a first-class organization. That all starts at the top," he said. "If the top is not leading the charge, then you're going to get mediocrity.
"The quality of ownership means a ton in pro football. It means a ton."