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1976-1978: The 49ers Darkest Days

Updated: Oct 4, 2023

When the 1970s began, the 49ers were a Super Bowl contender; going to the playoffs three straight years and losing to the Dallas Cowboys in each of those years. But by the middle of the decade, the team was on the decline. Eventually, it was sold to the DeBartolo family who inherited a talented roster and a well-respected coach. It looked like they could make it back to the playoffs in the near future. Instead, the new owners brought in their own people to run the franchise and the 49ers went into a state of turmoil unlike anything they had ever faced before. It was the dark days of the franchise that ultimately brought together a dynasty. What follows is the story of the darkest period in 49ers history.

The Decline

After a memorable three-year run to begin the decade, the 49ers succumbed to age and coaching changes. As a result, they failed to make the playoffs from 1973 to 1975. The 1976 season brought promise but it also brought a lot of risk. They traded two 1st round picks in 1976 and a 1st and 2nd round pick in 1977 for quarterback Jim Plunkett, who had failed to live up to the hype in New England.

The 49ers also hired Monte Clark to be their next head coach. Clark had extensive experience with Don Shula, having won two Super Bowls with him earlier in the decade. While these moves came with risk, they seemed to pay off in the early part of the season while starting the season with a 6-1 record.

However, not all was right with the team. The downfall of the organization began with their kicker Steve Mike-Mayer, who would end the season missing 10 of his last 18 field goal attempts and 3 of his last 30 point-after-touchdowns. His struggles began in St. Louis where he missed two field goals which could have won the game for the 49ers. The Cardinals capitalized on a weak San Francisco defensive effort as quarterback Jim Hart threw a 77-yard touchdown pass to Mel Gray to tie the game. In overtime, the Cardinals drove the length of the field to give their kicker Jim Bakken an opportunity to kick a game-winning 21-yard field goal, giving the 49ers a 20-23 loss.

The next week the 49ers played against Washington which turned into an offensive struggle between 49ers running back Delvin Williams and Washington quarterback Joe Theismann. Williams ran for two touchdowns of 80 and 22 yards and received an 85-yard touchdown pass from Jim Plunkett; Theismann threw three touchdowns to Jean Fugett. Once again, Mike-Mayer missed two field goals and Washington kicker Mark Moseley kicked the game-winner.

The losing streak continued for two more weeks with a close loss to Atlanta and a blowout loss to the Rams. The loss to the Rams was especially crushing as the 49ers gained only 88 yards on seven first downs. The season was coming undone for Monty Clark in his rookie season as a head coach.

They stopped the bleeding for a moment with a win against a Vikings team which would reach the Super Bowl at the end of the year. While the win was exciting, it was deceptive as for the second week in a row the 49ers failed to pass for even 50 yards. After a close loss to the Chargers, Clark ended his rookie season with a win over the lowly Saints 27-7. It was a complete team win with the 49ers defense collecting five sacks and their offense was well balanced. At this point, the future looked bright for the 49ers, who finished, with an 8-6 record.

Cleaning House

The 1976 season was the 49ers' final season under the ownership of the Morabito family, their founders. The Morabito widows sold the team to the DeBartolo family for $17.5 million in the winter of 1977. DeBartolo was new to the NFL and decided to hire Joe Thomas as his general manager. Thomas was a veteran in NFL front offices and at the surface seemed like a decent fellow with a good track record. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Clark refused to work for Joe Thomas and DeBartolo began his tenure as the 49ers owner by firing the coach and letting Joe Thomas hire Ken Meyer as Clark’s replacement. Thomas was impressed with Meyer’s background which included a stint in Bear Bryant’s coaching staff at Alabama as well as some time with the Los Angeles Rams in the middle of the decade when they were Super Bowl contenders. He had never been a head coach in the NFL and was determined to prove himself with the 49ers.

From the beginning, Thomas began to display odd behavior. He decided that the 49ers needed a fresh start and to do so meant that they needed to abandon their cherished history. He ordered the removal of many of the team's old photographs, many of their old game films and other much-valued memorabilia. A few staff members scrambled to salvage what they could but the damage had already been done.

He also dismantled their alumni association, further distancing the 49ers from their past. Almost as if he was trying to prove his paranoia, Joe Thomas also ordered that metal bars be placed on every window and that security doors be installed throughout the 49ers headquarters. When the toe hit the leather, Thomas was never above meddling in games as well by personally deciding who would start from week to week. The 49ers were starting to crumble.

The 1977 season began with five straight losses, three of which were against the Steelers (27-0), Dolphins (19-15) and the Rams (34-14), members of the upper echelon of the NFL. From there, the 49ers won four straight against weaker opponents. Unfortunately, this winning streak was just an illusion as three out of their final five opponents were playoff teams. The bottom fell out of the 49er’s season as they lost four out of their final five games, beating just the lowly New Orleans Saints. As a result of their 5-9 record, Ken Meyer was fired. Darker days were ahead for the 49ers.

The Darkest Year

The darkest year in the 49ers' illustrious history began with the hiring of head coach Pete McCulley. He had a similar background as Meyer, though he had never coached a Hall of Fame quarterback as Meyer had done with Joe Namath. The 49ers then traded their 2nd and 3rd round picks in 1978, their 1st and 4th round picks in 1979 and their 2nd round pick in 1980 for an aging OJ Simpson. Though he had been a great running back just a few years earlier, creaky knees severely limited his ability.

The 49ers then cut Jim Plunkett in the 49ers' preseason, leaving them with newly acquired Steve DeBerg. Though DeBerg had all of the measurables, it quickly became apparent that he was not the quarterback for the future as he had a propensity of throwing interceptions in critical situations.

They began the 1978 season in Cleveland where they would be blown out 24-7 against the Browns. Close losses to the Bears (16-13) and the Oilers (20-19) gave the 49ers hope but that hope would quickly evaporate. They lost to a very poor Giants team 27-10 in New York. The team was humiliated and returned home determined to claim their first win of the season.

They beat the Bengals 28-12 in San Francisco and again had a sense of hope soon to evaporate. San Francisco would lose the next nine games, each more frustrating than the last. There were close games against the Saints (14-7), Falcons (20-17), Cardinals (16-10) and the Rams (31-28). There were also blowouts against the Rams (27-10) and Washington (38-20).

During this time, Steve DeBerg had been struggling mightily; throwing three interceptions against Washington and after a 6-20 performance against the Falcons, Joe Thomas decided to make a quarterback change. Scott Bull took DeBerg’s place under center and would remain the starter for the rest of the season.

After a 1-9 start, Joe Thomas decided to make a change and fired McCulley, replacing him with Fred O’Conner. The new coach had had very little experience in the NFL, had never held a head coaching position at any level and would be out of the NFL by 1981. O’Conner’s first game as a head coach was against the Cardinals and though the game was close, a loss was still a loss and the team went back to its old ways of not caring about the next game.

Nothing could prepare O’Conner, the 49ers or even the city of San Francisco for the events which would rock it to its core during the week leading up to its Monday Night game against the Steelers.

Within the span of 10 days, two events happened which would throw the city of San Francisco into utter chaos. On November 18, 1978, evangelist Jim Jones of the Peoples Temple had his followers drink cyanide in Jonestown, his village in Guyana. More than 900 people died in Jonestown that day. It was the largest single loss of American civilian life in a deliberate act until 9/11.

While this atrocity did not happen anywhere near San Francisco, Jones had spent a lot of time in the city, gaining the trust of its politicians and citizens. Since the event didn’t actually happen in San Francisco, it didn’t have as much of an impact on the city as what happened just 10 days later.

The second event had an everlasting impact on San Francisco. On November 27, 1978, Mayor George Moscone and the state’s first openly gay elected official Harvey Milk were assassinated at City Hall. In times like these, sports can serve as a beacon of hope for those in pain.

In times like this, true leaders stand up and find a way to get their people through this. Joe Thomas was not the leader San Francisco needed and took the cowardly approach instead. Shortly after the assassination, Thomas contacted the NFL and begged that they reschedule the Monday Night game at Candlestick Park later that night. Instead of being concerned for the welfare of his city or his own team, Thomas was afraid that someone might try to kill him.

The NFL refused to reschedule the game and the 49ers lost to the eventual Super Bowl champions 24-7. 49ers quarterback Scott Bull threw five interceptions that night and the team only rushed for 67 yards. Shortly after the game, with fan approval at an all-time low, Eddie DeBartolo had had enough of Thomas’ antics and fired him

From there, they beat the Buccaneers in a 6-3 showing which was viewed as one of the worst games the 49ers ever played. That day the 49ers only gained 239 yards while Tampa Bay gained a measly 196. They lost to Detroit 33-14 to close out the miserable season with a 2-14 record and McCulley was fired soon after. At this point, many viewed the 49ers as worse than an expansion team, the worst of the worst.

This three-year period was the darkest in 49ers history but all was not lost. A light was at the end of the dark, dark tunnel. In the 1977 Draft, they drafted linemen Randy Cross and John Ayers and running back Paul Hofer. In the 1978 Draft, they took center Fred Quillan, linebacker Dan Bunz and defensive tackle Archie Reese. Lastly, Bill Walsh was hired after the season. And thus, a dynasty was born.

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