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Jim Plunkett excerpt from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly San Francisco 49ers
JIM PLUNKETT DID NOT SUCCEED IN SAN FRANCISCO

THE MELANCHOLY STORY OF JIM PLUNKETT

 

Jim Plunkett is not a 49er hero. He is, in fact, a 49er bust. There are no great stories of Jim Plunkett leading the 49ers to glory, or even much beyond marginal half-season success. But in a book called The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly, Plunkett cannot be fit into the bad or ugly categories.

            Plunkett’s story is a wonderful one, and while his 49er history is not much to write home about, it is a part of the bigger, wonderful picture.

            First, let it be stated that Jim Plunkett was born to be the 49er quarterback. He grew up in San Jose. While the 49ers are of course named after San Francisco, it can be argued that they belong more to the peninsula and the south bay than to The City proper. Candlestick Park is not officially in San Francisco. It is located on a patch of land that nobody ever really claimed; a previously uninhabitable piece of the bay actually. That’s right, Candlestick is on a piece of “land” that did not always exist. It is landfill. The story about how this section of the bay became land is the story of political corruption and stupidity.

            Developer Charlie Harney had a lot of dirt, but no place to put it. He was in cahoots with Mayor George Christopher. They decided they would dump Harney’s dirt at Candlestick Point and build a stadium for the Giants on it. Owner Horace Stoneham was driven out there at 10 in the morning on a cloudless, calm day. Stoneham was sold on the idea. According to legend, Stoneham was “in his cups” by 4 P.M., at which time Candlestick Point was fog-enshrouded in a driving windstorm, but the deal was done.

            So where is Candlestick Park? Well, it is either unincorporated or part of a “town” called Brisbane, which does not seem to have much of anything other than a zip code. Of course, San Francisco International Airport is not in San Francisco, either. Like Candlestick, its location is confusing. Some say Burlingame, some say unincorporated San Mateo County land. Of course, South San Francisco is not in San Francisco (The City would never claim this blue-collar cultural non-entity, anyway). None of this is quite as confusing as Kansas City, which is located in Missouri . . . and Kansas.

            Anyway, the point is that the 49ers are kings in San Mateo County, Santa Clara, San Jose, Marin County . . . but not so much in San Francisco. Its fan base, its season ticket holders, come more from the suburbs. San Franciscans from San Francisco are as likely to head north to the wine country on beautiful Indian summer game days as they are to make their way to Candlestick Park, which is easily accessible from the peninsula.

            San Jose is 49er county, an area known as the South Bay, which is roughly from Stanford University and southwards. Plunkett starred at James Lick High School, but he was not the marquee quarterback in the Bay Area. That was Mike Holmgren, out of Lincoln High in San Francisco. Lincoln High, located near Golden Gate Gate Park and Kezar Stadium, where the 49ers played until 1971, also produced coach George Seifert. Holmgren went for USC, but never won the starting job. He was a Trojan for four years, while fellow San Franciscan O.J. Simpson won the Heisman and his team the national championship. Holmgren later became a coach under Seifert, then led Green Bay to the 1995 world championship.

            When USC went for Holmgren, Plunkett decided to stay in Northern California. Notre Dame showed interest, but there was little enthusiasm. They had all their cards on Joe Theisman.

            “I rejected California because the Free Speech Movement was underway in Berkeley and I didn’t want to be bothered by student protests . . . I knew all along it would be Stanford,” said Plunkett.

Stanford and the 49ers are almost joined at the hip. Frankie Albert, who led Stanford to football glory, was a star 49er quarterback and later their coach. John Brodie was a hero at Stanford before leading San Francisco to three straight division titles (1970-72).

Bill Walsh returned Stanford to success before leading the 49ers to ultimate glory, then returned to lead Stanford back to success. The 49ers won their second of five Super Bowls at Stanford Stadium. They train at Santa Clara, just a short drive from Stanford. It is a comfortable, affluent community and members of the team have long been integral members of it.

Plunkett had to fight for everything he had at Stanford. A Mexican-American from a poor neighborhood, the product of an unglamorous high school program, with parents suffering from physical maladies, Plunkett felt out of place with the rich kids and scholars who populate The Farm.

But he out-worked his competition, becoming the starting quarterback as a 1968 sophomore. He returned the Indians (they became the Cardinal in 1972) to national prominence. In 1970, he entered the season considered a Heisman hopeful. Plunkett was asked what was more important to him, the Heisman or the Rose Bowl. The Rose Bowl seemed a longshot, real estate seemingly endowed to the mighty University of Southern California, who had gone there so consistently under coach John McKay that the place was their second “home field.”

“The question had hardly left the writer’s mouth when Jim replied, ‘The Rose Bowl, because I can do that with my team,’ ” recalled Indians coach John Ralston. “That tells you something about Jim Plunkett. Tears came to my eyes.”

1970 came to be known as the “Year of the Quarterback.” Aside from Plunkett, the collegiate landscape was dotted with star signal-callers Archie Manning of Mississippi, Rex Kern of Ohio State, Lynn Dickey of Kansas State, Bill Montgomery of Arkansas, Dan Pastorini of Santa Clara, Ken Anderson of Augustana, and of course Joe Theisman of Notre Dame.

Growing up in New Jersey, Theisman’s name was pronounced Thees-man, but the Notre Dame sports information office had no problem convincing him to change it to Thys-man, as in Heisman, in order to promote his candidacy. Good ol’ Notre Dame!

But it was a dream year for Plunkett. First, he defeated the mighty Trojans to get Stanford into the Rose Bowl. Then USC beat Theisman and Notre Dame, which gave Plunkett the Heisman.

In the history of the Rose Bowl up until this time, there may never have been a bigger underdog than Stanford was against Ohio State. Woody Hayes’s team was unbeaten and untied. His 1968 Buckeyes had finished number one with sophomores. Now they were seniors, led by Kern and safety Jack Tatum, but Plunkett led Stanford to the stunning upset, ending their surefire national championship aspirations, not to mention infuriating Woody. He despised most everything on the West Coast, especially Stanford. In the 1970s their band performed “a salute to . . . Red China . . . ” announced stunned announcer Chris Schenkel. Hayes found no humor in this sort of thing.

Despite all the talent at the quarterback position, it was Plunkett who was the number one pick in the 1971 NFL Draft, by the New England Patriots.

“Thus far, I believe, Jim Plunkett is the best college quarterback I have ever seen,” said TV analyst Bud Wilkinson.

“Plunkett is the best pro quarterback prospect I’ve ever seen,” said UCLA coach Tommy Prothro.

Plunkett played professionally for one decade prior to leading the 1980 Oakland Raiders to a Super Bowl title. In that decade, he had one legitimate highlight. That occurred in his very first game, the initial contest ever played in the brand new Foxboro Stadium.

The Patriots were one of the lowliest teams in pro football. Their opponent, arguably the most successful: the Raiders. Plunkett stunned the silver-and-black with a 20-6 victory in 1971. That was it, however. New England was an also-ran in the Plunkett years. He lost his job to Steve Grogan, who got them into the play-offs.

In 1976, Plunkett was traded to San Francisco. It was a widely heralded deal. He was still young. There was still enough luster, especially in the Bay Area, from his Stanford days to believe that the return home would mark his personal comeback, and a return to contention for a franchise that had not been in the hunt over a three-year stretch.

The popular mythology is that Plunkett was a big-time bust in San Francisco, but before that happened he returned hope to their fans.

Under new coach Monte Clark, Plunkett engineered a fantastic 6-1 start. The media was agog. All of his Stanford promise seemed to be coming to fruition in San Francisco. With the Raiders off to a fantastic start, talk of an all-California Super Bowl, to be played in Pasadena’s Rose Bowl – the site of Plunkett’s greatest triumph – had football fans giddy with excitement.

Then San Francisco fell flat: four straight losses. Plunkett was barely mediocre after that. The final 8-6 record was respectable, but not play-off-worthy. In 1977, Plunkett was a virtual non-factor. San Francisco lost its first five games, finished 5-9, and Plunkett was gone.

Plunkett was dealt to Oakland, but he became a Raider only after seriously thinking of retirement.

“I’d never been a Raider fan,” he explained. “Growing up, the 49ers were always my team. I didn’t like that Raider silver-and-black color scheme or the team’s attitude.”

For two years, his presence on the Raider roster was for all practical purposes non-existent. Then, in 1980, Ken Stabler was dealt to Houston, and Dan Pastorini, one of those Year of the Quarterback names from 1970, where he starred at Santa Clara, was brought in. Pastorini was at first inconsistent, then gone when he broke his leg. Oakland turned to Plunkett out of shear desperation.

In one of the greatest comeback stories ever told, Plunkett took charge and led the Raiders to the world championship. In 1983 he again took the L.A. Raiders all the way, beating another 1970 college quarterback, Joe Theisman in the Super Bowl. He engineered winning Raider clubs in 1984 and 1985, retiring an all-time Raider great; a color analyst on their radio broadcasts, and an icon of the organization on par with Ken Stabler and Fred Biletnikoff.

Plunkett has remained a faithful Stanford alum, too. His 49er past is downplayed. Neither the team nor Plunkett make much of it. He filled a dismal period between John Brodie and Joe Montana. Obviously, as his Raider record proved, he could have, under the right circumstances, led San Francisco to success. In retrospect, a lack of supporting talent or great coaching was at least as much or more to blame for the failures of 1976-77 as Plunkett.

Plunkett never did team with O.J. Simpson, who was brought on in 1978. The idea of a Plunkett-O.J. “dream ticket” might have seemed a nice idea, but the truth is the 1978 49ers could only be cured by something like, oh say, a new coach named Bill Walsh, and a new quarterback named Joe Montana . . . but what were the chances of such a thing?

 

Numbers Don’t Lie

 

17.9 – Gene Washington’s 49er record for average yards gained per catch in his career (1969-77). In 1968, Washington hooked up with Stanford sophomore Jim Plunkett to lead Stanford to a 20-0 beating of California in the Big Game.

 

If only

 

49er coach Monte Clark, who directed the team to a respectable 8-6 record in 1976, had not been let go in a dispute with the ownership group, partly out of differences regarding the future of Jim Plunkett, he may have been the 49er coach for a number of years. If so, when the window of opportunity for Bill Walsh to take over had come, they might not have gone for The Genius, with results that surely would never have approached their 1980s success.

 

Trading Places

 

Jim Plunkett was acquired from New England for quarterback Tom Owens, 1976-77 number one draft choices, and Houston’s 1976 and 1977 number one picks.