SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Edward DeBartolo Jr. played no favorites. When it came to the way he treated his employees, from the stars on the field to the office workers behind the scenes, nobody argued how much he cared.
It hasn't changed since he left the NFL behind more than 15 years ago.
"I still have this relationship and not just with the Joe Montanas, Dwight Clarks, Roger Craigs and Jerry Rices, which I do have, but I have the same relationship with all the players," DeBartolo said. "They stop in Tampa to see me, we'll have lunch, we'll have dinner. I know when there's problems in players' families, I know when people are sick. I guess this is just the way that I operated and I guess this is the way I'm going to operate until the day I die."
"Mr. D" always did business his way, and that meant never separating himself from anyone tasked with keeping his successful franchise running — and winning — each day.
DeBartolo learned from his own father the importance of treating everybody like a part of the family, of being a loyal friend as well as a demanding boss. DeBartolo was there for former media relations director Dave Rahn and his family as Rahn battled melanoma and died in September 2014.
He might be leaning on a few of those former employees this week as he deals with the stress of the Hall of Fame decision drawing near. DeBartolo has been losing some sleep over it.
He says he has been listening to the Eagles song, "Lyin' Eyes," on his Montana ranch, where he rises at 2:45 a.m. most mornings to walk his dogs.
The 69-year-old DeBartolo acknowledges his early wakeups might be fueled by some anxiety as he tries again for that elusive spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He finds out Saturday night whether he's headed to Canton, Ohio, in the 2016 class as the lone finalist in the contributor category. He needs to be named on 80 percent of the ballots.
"Do I belong? That's not a decision of mine," DeBartolo said. "If my credentials say that I belong and if people believe like I believe that I did the best that I could ever do to run a franchise, to win five Super Bowls and earn the love of my players and of the fans and do what I thought was best for the city of San Francisco with that franchise and for the NFL, then I guess that decision will have to be made by those gentlemen in that room."
DeBartolo owned the team from 1977-98 and was affectionately known as "Mr. D." During his tenure, the franchise became the first to win five championships. The Niners captured 13 divisional titles, reached the playoffs 16 times and made 10 conference championship games.
DeBartolo, who owned shopping malls, became embroiled in the corruption case against former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards. He was suspended for a year — the 1999 season — by the NFL after being found guilty of failing to report a bribe, a felony.
After the suspension, DeBartolo gave control to of the team to his sister.
"He will go down in history in my book as one of the best owners to ever own," said Deion Sanders, who won a Super Bowl during his lone season with San Francisco in 1994. "... He's very good at what he does. He wins, treats everyone with respect and admiration and whatever he touches he betters it."
DeBartolo's best move was hiring the late Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh, who built the championship teams.
"In my humble opinion, he has been deserving for a long time," said former 49ers coach Steve Mariucci, hired by DeBartolo. "He's waited long enough and he's one of a kind. He's helped make this game as great as it is right now."
The 49ers this week announced plans for The Edward J. DeBartolo Jr. Super Bowl Gallery at the 49ers Museum honoring his achievements.
DeBartolo says he hasn't had a perfect path.
"It's something that you just have to go with the flow. It's such a great honor," DeBartolo said of being a Hall of Fame finalist. "There's nothing I can do. I guess whatever happens and whatever good I did in the past, whatever bad I did in the past, it all goes together. It's like baking a loaf of bread and when it comes out of the oven, people say he deserves it or he doesn't deserve it."
AP Sports Writer Josh Dubow contributed to this report.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL