Six decades ago, Tony Morabito ’31 brought pro football to the Bay Area. Now the San Francisco 49ers have come to play where that dream began—and where they’ve been training for the past 15 years.
In some ways, the arrival of the San Francisco 49ers in Santa Clara is a story about coming full circle: The team that was started by Tony Morabito ’31, a Santa Clara graduate with big dreams, has moved within a stone’s throw from where Morabito first launched those ideas more than six decades ago. And there’s more than a touch of irony to the story: The team’s long quest for a new state-of-the-art stadium has ended in the parking lot next door to the training facility the 49ers have called home since 1988.
For the first time in more than 21 years, football is being played at a level higher than high school in the city of Santa Clara. Six miles east of Buck Shaw Stadium, where the Santa Clara Broncos played their final football game in November 1992, the 49ers have begun playing in their new home, Levi’s Stadium. But the 49ers’ team history is intricately intertwined with Santa Clara—the city, the University, and the people—dating back to the team’s original founder, Morabito, and his younger brother, Victor Morabito ’37.
Tony Morabito learned to play football on the streets of San Francisco’s North Beach, where his Italian immigrant parents had settled. He was a halfback at St. Ignatius College Prep and briefly played football at Santa Clara before a shoulder injury derailed his playing career. But his time on the Mission Campus laid the groundwork for what would be his biggest impact on the Bay Area: the founding of the 49ers.
At Santa Clara, Tony Morabito was teammates with another son of Italian immigrants, Al Ruffo ’31, J.D. ’36. While Morabito went on to build a successful lumber business, Ruffo stayed at Santa Clara, attending law school and helping to coach football under legendary Lawrence “Buck” Shaw. An undersized but scrappy former lineman, originally from Tacoma, Washington, Ruffo was an enthusiastic presence and a tireless booster of both Morabito as well as his adopted city of San Jose.
Local lore has it that the idea for the 49ers was born at Ruffo’s kitchen table in his house on Second Street in San Jose, where he and both Morabito brothers gathered. Always a football fan, Tony Morabito knew that the growth of air travel after World War II would ultimately mean expansion for professional sports. He was also convinced that the Bay Area, a hotbed for college football, was ready for a pro team. Fans packed games—especially on Sundays—for Stanford, Cal, St. Mary’s, University of San Francisco, and, of course, the very successful Santa Clara. San Francisco was the region’s center, so the Broncos played their home games at Kezar Stadium.
While football was booming in popularity in the years before World War II, pro ball was still played only east of the Mississippi. Tony Morabito saw an opportunity to expand the popular sport in his hometown, which was also finding a new postwar identity as the economic and cultural hub of the West Coast. Twice Morabito tried to gain entry to the National Football League but was dismissed by the commissioner of the league, which was based in Chicago. Commissioner Elmer Layden asked Tony Morabito condescending questions about where San Francisco was located and turned down Morabito by saying, “Well, sonny, you better go out and get a football first before you come back.”
But Tony Morabito was stubborn. When the rival All-America Football Conference was formed with eight teams, Morabito jumped at the chance to be involved. Ruffo set up the legal framework for the team, and the 49ers played their first season in 1946. Ironically, Morabito’s successful launch of pro football in San Francisco would eventually damage his beloved Santa Clara’s ability to compete in the Bay Area’s new football landscape.
Red jerseys and the Silver Fox
Santa Clara’s influence on the 49ers was visible right from the start—including the red in their jerseys. The 49ers paired red with gold—for the gold rush, naturally. Morabito hired Santa Clara’s former coach, Buck Shaw, to lead the team. Shaw, who played under Knute Rockne at Notre Dame and was a member of Rockne’s first unbeaten team, had coached the Broncos to back-to-back victories in the Sugar Bowl in 1936 and 1937. Under Shaw, the Broncos had a 47–12–2 record in the seven years before the team was disbanded during World War II while many players went off to serve their country.
The tall and slender Shaw earned the nickname the “Silver Fox” for his mane of silver hair and “quietly aggressive style,” as one writer put it. While the football program at Santa Clara went on hiatus and its future was uncertain, Shaw stayed on for two years to help with the Army physical training program on campus. Morabito asked him to coach the 49ers, and before the team was launched, Shaw coached one season at Cal. When he moved to the professional game, Shaw brought along his Santa Clara staff, including Al Ruffo—a 49ers assistant coach for two years, a job he held while also serving on the San Jose City Council and as San Jose’s mayor. Ruffo eventually became a part owner of the team.
Tony Morabito handpicked much of the team and brought in some former Santa Clara players, such as lanky receiver Alyn Beals ’43, who scored 46 touchdowns in four years with the team and was the first in a line of 49ers legendary receivers that stretches through Jerry Rice. Another was two-way lineman Visco Grgich ’46, who became famous for his rousing pregame speeches and forearm shivers to the locker room door at Kezar. Ken Casanega ’42 was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1942, but instead he served as a Navy pilot during the war.
“I had no intention of playing pro football, but then Tony called me and said he was starting a team,” Casanega told a San Francisco Chronicle reporter a few years ago. “He asked me to play for him.” Casanega played two seasons, worked a career as a school administrator, and at 93 is one of the oldest pro football players alive.
Shaw served as the Niners’ coach through the team’s transition into the NFL in 1949. The team struggled through the first season with a 3–9–0 record, losing every game on the road. The next few years they fared better, but they failed to make the championship game. In 1954, Shaw was fired. He did ultimately coach a team to the NFL crown, however: the Philadelphia Eagles in 1960.
Without question, Tony Morabito was the force behind the 49ers until his death. He ultimately saw his goal of being part of the NFL realized in December 1949, when the AAFC disbanded and the NFL absorbed three teams, including the 49ers. When Morabito survived a heart attack in 1952, his doctor warned him that he should sell the team because of the stress involved in ownership. Morabito considered his doctor’s advice but ultimately decided he couldn’t live without the game. On Oct. 27, 1957, during the second quarter of a game against the Chicago Bears at Kezar, Morabito suffered another major heart attack while sitting in the owner’s box. A priest came to give him his last rites. When news of his death reached the 49ers at halftime—when the Bears were leading the 49ers by 17–7—many team members were in tears, including coach Frankie Albert, who said the team “could never find a better owner, even if they got President Eisenhower.” The Niners rallied in the second half and won 21–17.
Victor Morabito remained the primary owner until his death in 1964, but Tony Morabito’s presence lived on for decades. When Edward DeBartolo bought the team in 1977, to be overseen by his son Eddie DeBartolo Jr., the 49ers were still owned by Jane Morabito, Tony’s widow, and Josephine Morabito, Victor’s widow. The sale of the team to the DeBartolos, for an estimated $17.5 million, marked a new era for the 49ers: when the team would become the dominant sports franchise in the Bay Area, winning five Super Bowls and moving professional football firmly ahead of the collegiate game in popularity.
Broncos come home
Though SCU was intimately involved in the birth of the 49ers, the University’s relationship with the team was complicated. Before pro football came to the Bay Area, the Broncos played their home games at Kezar Stadium, and many collegiate games were played on Sundays. After the 49ers became the primary tenant at Kezar, the Broncos were forced to play on Saturdays. Crowd sizes dwindled. The 49ers went to court to secure the Kezar dates of their choice, and Santa Clara became further marginalized, finally having just one game at Kezar in 1952. The football team became something of a gypsy program with no home stadium. By the end of the 1952 season, the announcement came that Santa Clara would be dropping football. The emergence of the 49ers was a large part of the reason.
It turned out that football’s hiatus from SCU was relatively brief. Santa Clara resumed football in 1959, though the University only committed to a scaled-down lower-division program that wouldn’t aspire to its past heights. The Broncos fielded a team for the next 33 years, playing most of those years at Buck Shaw Stadium. The stadium, financed by supporters who wanted to honor Shaw, their beloved former coach, opened in 1962 as a multiuse facility, also home over the years to the school’s baseball and soccer teams. (For baseball, the stadium was completed just as the team arrived on the national stage: They’d just won the 1962 College World Series.) For most of its final chapter, Broncos football was led by coach Pat Malley ’53—a guard on the 1950 Bronco team that won the Orange Bowl—and later his son Terry Malley ’76, a former SCU quarterback. And the program developed some top professional prospects.
One of those was a tight end who went on to become a legend with the 49ers. Brent Jones ’85, who was born in Santa Clara and raised in San Jose, helped the Broncos to two Western Football Conference championships. He was chosen in the fifth round of the NFL draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers but was injured in a car accident soon after. Unable to properly compete for a position, he was cut by Pittsburgh, signed in training camp with the 49ers, and barely made the team. He went on to play 11 years, win three Super Bowls, and be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, the Division II Football Hall of Fame, and the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame.
Most of Jones’ teammates were groomed at football powerhouses like Notre Dame and USC. By the late 1980s it had become increasingly rare to find a player from a tiny Division II program at the pro level. So when the 49ers relocated their training facility to Santa Clara, Jones finally had a retort ready for fellow Niners who teased him about going to such a small football school: “I just told my teammates, ‘Hey, you’re playing in Santa Clara now, too.’”
Jones was well aware that, as a Bronco, he was part of the 49ers legacy. “I certainly always heard about the Morabitos and the Santa Clara connections,” he says. “I heard so many stories from older alumni.”
That group includes Bill McPherson ’54, who was with the team for 24 seasons. He joined the 49ers in 1979 and served as a linebackers coach, defensive line coach, defensive coordinator, defensive assistant, and personnel consultant.
In 1971, the 49ers finally also moved from Kezar, to the newly built Candlestick Park. A decade later, after they had become one of the elite teams in the NFL, they started looking for a new training facility. Their outdated Redwood City facility was no longer adequate.
“It was anything but 20th century,” says Carmen Policy, the former president of the team who helped spearhead the move. Coach Bill Walsh “had an idea of what was needed for a new facility and we set about making a plan,” Policy says. “We wanted good weather and a location where coaches could afford housing and not have to commute so far.”
Back in those days, Santa Clara met both those conditions. In addition, the city of Santa Clara had available land and was looking to raise its visibility. The 49ers were able to obtain very favorable conditions on their long-term lease for 12 acres: $1,000 an acre, with a 4 percent annual increase, for 55 years.
Over the years, though the 49ers played at Candlestick on Sundays, Santa Clara became their home, with most of the coaches and players living near the facility. Despite that, there was never any consideration of moving the team south while DeBartolo was the owner. DeBartolo was committed to building a new stadium at Candlestick Point. But amid unrelated legal troubles in 1999, DeBartolo gave up ownership of the team, ceding its control to his sister Denise DeBartolo York.
Had DeBartolo still been at the helm, he says of Candlestick, “Of course there would be a stadium there by now. But it wouldn’t be anywhere near as high tech, and it would have a retail component … But obviously they couldn’t get it done in San Francisco, so they had to think off the grid.”
It is ironic that the 49ers, after trying to solve the stadium puzzle for so long, eventually found the answer, quite literally, next door. The team also turned to Devcon Construction, headed by former Bronco football player Gary Filizetti ’67, MBA ’69—to build Levi’s Stadium.
When the 49ers announced their plans to build the new stadium in Santa Clara, there was outcry from faithful 49ers fans in San Francisco and farther north.
“In 2006, we had to make the tough call,” says Jed York, who has served as chief executive of the team since 2008. He is also Eddie DeBartolo’s nephew. “Do you keep working on something that may never come to fruition? Or do you build something that might not be in the city of San Francisco but is in the Bay Area and is something our fans can enjoy and be a part of?”
York has noted the many natural ties among the city of Santa Clara, the University, and the 49ers. The proximity of the University seems to offer some fine opportunities for partnership, he says.
Eddie DeBartolo also acknowledges the dismay of some San Francisco fans about the move south. “I’m fine with it, as long as they have a place to play in that’s as magnificent as this stadium is.”
For some, Levi’s Stadium seems like a homecoming. Earlier this year, Brent Jones found himself walking around the stadium and seeing different vantage points that brought back fine memories.
“I would have loved to be able to leave the [training] facility and directly access the stadium next door,” he says. Jones believes the move will be a good one for the 49ers.
“I was a little bit torn, growing up with the team in San Francisco and playing there,” Jones says. “But I’m actually thrilled that the city of Santa Clara stepped up and understood what it would mean for the city and the whole South Bay.” Silicon Valley, he says, “had been battling for professional sports teams throughout my childhood. Now with the 49ers and Sharks, they have a couple of great teams.” (One could add that, in pro soccer, the Earthquakes have also made a mark; their new stadium in San Jose opens in 2015.)
And yet, Jones says, the arrival of the 49ers in Santa Clara doesn’t take away the sting of the loss of Santa Clara football, which was dropped for a final time following the 1992 season. After more than two decades, the absence still feels like a huge hole.
But the arrival of the 49ers may fill that hollow just a little.
“Santa Clara should be very proud,” Jones says. Indeed, the groundbreaking for the new stadium took place in April 2012, with Santa Clara President Michael Engh, S.J., M.Div. ’82 offering the invocation, asking God to watch over the construction workers while they embarked on the project. Looking toward the 2014 season, when the stadium would be open, he said, “Keep watch and guard over the players, the coaches, and staff. Preserve the players from injury; inspire the coaches; and bless the office staff and all employees. And yes, Lord, we would be grateful for another Super Bowl victory.”
Extra points: Watch Jed York's January talk from the 2013–14 President's Speaker Series.