Cliché time: it is darkest just before the dawn. Richard Nixon: “To appreciate what it is like to be on the highest mountain top, one must tread through the lowliest valley.”
For the San Francisco 49ers, the period from 1973 to 1980 represented the longest, darkest night of their history—a period in which the team tread in the “lowliest valley.” The 49ers were born into the old All-American Football Conference as part of the post-World War II expansion. They were adopted into the National Football League beginning in the 1950 season. AAFC teams Los Angeles (Cleveland, now the St. Louis Rams) and the Cleveland Browns (now the Baltimore Ravens, not to be confused with the new Cleveland Browns) were immediately successful. The 49ers were not, but they were competitive.
They had a good season in 1957. In the 1960s the Rams dominated, but San Francisco fielded entertaining teams with star quality players like John Brodie, Jimmy Johnson, and Dave Wilcox.
From 1970 to 1972, San Francisco had playoff teams, but after the disastrous fourth-quarter blowout loss against Dallas in the first round in ‘72, they got old, discouraged, and bad…fast.
From 1973 to 1979, San Francisco was terrible. Only the birth of the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers prevented them from being the worst team in the league, but even Tampa under coach John McKay rose to the NFC title game by 1979. The 49ers stayed mired in mediocrity.
San Francisco was a failed team. Their young players did not develop. Veterans came in by trade, only to show their age. What made the period even more galling was that it represented a golden era in the league and in the state. San Francisco’s failure was accentuated by the fact that their rivals attained the heights of glory.
New Yorkers speak wistfully of the 1950s, when three superstar center fielders—Willie Mays of the Giants, Mickey Mantle of the Yankees, and Duke Snider of the Dodgers—roamed outfield pastures. Rivalries were intense in baseball. Frank Gifford’s New York Giants enjoyed a strong football run. But New York cannot compare to what happened in the Golden State from the 1960s until the 1990s.
Obviously this period encompasses 49ers greatness. There were the three division titles of the early 1970s and the five Super Bowl titles of the 1980s and ‘90s. The Giants were strong in the 1960s. The Angels contended in the 1980s. The Rams were excellent, for the most part, in the 1960s and ‘70s. Stanford went to two Rose Bowls (1970 and 1971). The Chargers of Dan Fouts were a high-powered early ‘80s offense.
But the proverbial “glory days” are centered in the 1970s. The cross-bay Raiders were dominant in the 1960s, more dominant in the1970s and 1980s. USC football was probably as strong from 1962 to 1981 as any collegiate power in history. Their best teams were in the 1970s. UCLA basketball under John Wooden (1964–1975) put together a string like none other, highlighted by an 88-game winning streak in the ‘70s. The Lakers were contenders in the 1960s, champions in the 1970s, a dynasty in the 1980s. The Golden State Warriors won the 1975 NBA title. The Dodgers were terrific in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Then there were the Oakland Athletics. While the 49ers stumbled and bumbled, the A’s put together one of the great sports dynasties in history. All these champions relegated the Niners to the back of the newspapers.
In addition to all these great teams, the 1970s saw a rise in California prep, junior college, and “other” sports. Redwood High of Marin County and Lakewood High of L.A. County had dynasties in baseball. Verbum Dei of Los Angeles rose to unprecedented prep basketball heights. High school football in the Southland took on a new status above and beyond Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Cerritos Junior College enjoyed a baseball run like none ever seen, and Fullerton College was a junior college football powerhouse. Stanford tennis became a juggernaut. USC and UCLA track dominated (Cal won the 1971 NCAA track title before losing it to academic ineligibility). Had USC or UCLA been countries, they would have been among the top medal winners at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. USC baseball captured five straight College World Series titles. After Title IX, women’s sports took a giant leap forward, with California becoming the trendsetter.
The mid- to late 1970s were tough times in San Francisco, however. Greatness abounded all around them—across the bay and in hated Los Angeles. But the Giants and 49ers represented mediocrity. Candlestick Park, not yet 20 years old, was immediately declared ancient, dirty, a symbol of all things second-rate, low-rent, unimpressive.
The Oakland–Alameda County Coliseum was considered safe, warmer, comfortable, fan-friendly, and accessible. The adjacent Coliseum Arena was modern and filled to capacity. Down south, Trojans, Bruins, and Rams games at the Coliseum were played before enormous throngs at a stadium considered a shrine of immortality. Anaheim Stadium and San Diego Stadium were modern marvels. The Fabulous Forum was home to Hollywood’s “in” crowd. Dodger Stadium was the Taj O’Malley.
Then there was San Francisco itself. The city was dirty, corrupt, seemingly taken over by organized crime and peep show booths. Tourists found other, better destinations. Homeless were camped out on the streets, at city hall, and in front of restaurants that patrons chose not to patronize. Once a vibrant city famous for its wild celebrations at the end of World War II—a favorite of sailors and other servicemen—San Francisco by the 1970s was a moribund hangover in the aftermath of the drug-addled Summer of Love, the hippie revolution, the drop out generation, and the protest movement.
The fan base at Candlestick was not generally from San Francisco, anyway. Their people came from the suburbs of Marin, San Mateo, and Santa Clara counties. The teams they fielded gave them little incentive to drive through dangerous Bayview streets, leaving their parked cars to the tender mercies of tire thieves and vandals. There was certainly nothing worth doing after the game near Candlestick, and little incentive to venture into heart of The City itself.
Amidst this desultory atmosphere, a football team lived down to expectations. Nineteen seventy-three marked the end of John Brodie’s and defensive tackle Charlie Krueger’s careers. Injuries killed the club in a 5–9 year against the league’s toughest schedule. Center Forrest Blue and linebacker Dave Wilcox were rare bright spots, both voted All-Pro. Tight end Ted Kwalick out of Penn State was a top performer. That year the Rams made a big comeback. New coach Chuck Knox installed a conservative, ground-oriented offense around the experienced veteran John Hadl, obtained from San Diego when San Francisco native Dan Fouts took over. Los Angeles was 12–2. The Rams’ success symbolized the difference between the two cities. L.A. was the “city of the future,” hailed as innovative in the arts and technology, a place that supposedly had “gotten it right” in terms of harmonious race relations.
In 1974 heir apparent quarterback Steve Spurrier was injured, and his four replacements failed to make the grade. After opening with two hopeful wins, they dropped seven straight in a 6–8 year. One bright spot was Rookie of the Year Wilbur Jackson. Jackson is a historic figure. He was the first full scholarship black player ever recruited by Bear Bryant at the University of Alabama. In order to “grease the skids” for Jackson’s acceptance, Bryant scheduled a game against integrated powerhouse Southern California in 1970. When the Trojans won big at Legion Field, ‘Bama fans were clamoring for fast black players…like Wilbur Jackson. By the time his Crimson Tide career was over, Jackson had been voted team captain, and the South had rose again.
“Football’s religion in the South,” said Jackson. “When I got out to California I heard about the Big Game [Cal vs. Stanford]. I checked it out. It wasn’t like any game in the SEC in terms of excitement. Fans out there were laid-back, but I enjoyed my time in the Bay Area.”
Dave Wilcox finally had to retire when a knee injury ended his excellent career. The Rams again won the Western Division, but the balance of power had shifted well in favor of the American Football Conference, winners of eight of 10 Super Bowls in the decade.
In 1975 the Rams were a dominant defensive team, but Dallas ended their momentum in the NFC title game at the Coliseum. San Francisco was an after-thought at 5–9, although their 24–23 win over L.A. ended an embarrassing 10-game losing streak to the Rams.
New coach Monte Clark seemed to have turned things around in 1976 (8–6). Enormous hopes were pinned on quarterback Jim Plunkett. A local product from James Lick High School in San Jose, Plunkett captured the 1970 Heisman Trophy at Stanford. After leading the Indians to a Rose Bowl upset of Ohio State, he was selected with the first overall pick of the 1971 NFL Draft by New England.
In his first game at Foxboro Stadium, Plunkett engineered a victory over the mighty Oakland Raiders, but went downhill after that, losing his job to Steve Grogan. Still youthful, the move to San Francisco seemed a natural fit for Plunkett, and indeed in 1976 improvement was made. But after a 6–1 start that had everybody excited, the Niners tanked.
Running back Del Williams rushed for 1,203 yards, and UCLA center Randy Cross made the All-Rookie team. The great Jimmy Johnson retired after 16 years. A four-game losing streak ended playoff hopes and left Plunkett subject to much criticism. The Rams again captured the West, but even worse, the cross-bay Raiders finally broke through after years of dominant, yet ultimately disappointing seasons to capture the Super Bowl, which was played in Pasadena sunshine.
In 1977 Eddie DeBartolo Jr. bought the team and brought in Joe Thomas as general manager. There was little indication that this would improve things as the club lost their first five in a 5–9 campaign under new coach Ken Meyer. But there were indications, in faraway places, that something new was in the air.
Halfway across the country, junior quarterback Joe Montana led Notre Dame first to a green-shirt upset of Southern California, then a Cotton Bowl win over Earl Campbell’s Texas longhorns, en route to the national championship.
Closer to home, a short drive down Highway 101, the former coach at Washington High in Fremont, who had been an assistant under Marv Levy at Cal, under John Ralston at Stanford, under Al Davis in Oakland, and under Paul Brown at Cincinnati, finally got his chance as a head man. His name was Bill Walsh. When he returned Stanford to respectability after a few down years, people started to take notice of his “new ideas.”
Nineteen seventy-eight was the nadir of the decade. Plunkett was discarded like stale French bread, but hope was placed on another local legend. Orenthal James Simpson grew up in the Potrero Hill section of San Francisco. He prepped at Galileo High, then set every junior college record imaginable at City College. At USC, his legend was made: a national championship and a Heisman. National icon status came to him in Buffalo, where the first overall pick of the 1969 draft broke Jim Brown’s single-season rushing record, becoming the first ever to gain 2,000 yards in 1973. In his prime, O.J. had many pundits contemplating whether he indeed had replaced Brown as the greatest football player ever. While he probably fell just short of that, O.J. was a hero and major superstar, not just on the field but a Hollywood hero, a commercial spokesman, the most popular sports figure in the pre–Michael Jordan era.
He was brought home to San Francisco in 1978 along with his Potrero Hill, Galileo, CCSF, USC, and Buffalo Bill teammate Al Cowlings. O.J. was well past his prime, however. He was cheered, but offered no magic in a 2–14 season. Failed coach Pete McCulley was let go, and the decision was made: a youth movement; a new direction; no more failed, injured veterans. O.J. hung up his cleats, heading to Hollywood and an unfortunate destiny.
This meant two things. First, Walsh was hired after leading Stanford to a bowl win and two strong seasons. Then Walsh drafted Montana, still available, incredibly, in the third round. He considered his own Stanford signal-caller, Steve Dils, but was impressed by Montana’s winning ways at Notre Dame.
Walsh installed a high-powered passing scheme, and quarterback Steve DeBerg was effective with Montana learning the ropes behind him, but their 2–14 record had nobody thinking that greatness lay just around the corner.
In 1980 progress was sure. They started out strong and finished strong in a 6–10 year. Wide receiver Dwight Clark set the club record with 82 catches. Montana took over as the starter and completed 64 percent of his passes. Heading into 1981, the 49ers were hopeful. Nobody could predict anything like what would transpire in that and subsequent seasons, but one thing seemed apparent: after a long, black night, the first dawn of a new day was peeking over the horizon.
<sb>So Close and Yet So Far
After winning three straight division titles, there was still hope that Dick Nolan’s team could continue to hold their own, and that the transition from John Brodie to Steve Spurrier would be a winning one. It was looking good in the second half of the first game of the 1973 season, when the 49ers were threatening to end world champion Miami’s winning streak. But in searing heat and humidity before 68,276, the Dolphins recovered to win 21–13. Their streak was ended the following week at Cal’s Memorial Stadium in a 12–7 loss to Oakland, playing away from the Coliseum because the A’s had a game that Sunday.
There were good players on the bad 49ers teams of the 1970s. Wide receiver Gene Washington had been one of Jim Plunkett’s targets at Stanford. Tight end Ted Kwalick was a former All-American at Penn State. Defensive end Cedrick Hardman and center Woody Peoples were All-Pros. Defensive tackle Charlie Krueger was a picture of the tough pro football player.
<sb>Did You Know…
That Monte Clark, who coached in San Francisco for one year (1976), had been a star player at the University of Southern California?
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism