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Leaving Stockton behind forever
(06/18/03) 11:00 AM
By Sydney

Nothing could have caught so many 49er fans off guard as the announcement that the San Francisco 49ers would move their training camp back home in Santa Clara, and that practices would be closed indefinitely to the public. For five years the fans of the 49ers had been spoiled by being granted limited and specialized access to the practice field at the University of the Pacific Campus in Stockton, California. It was a place of dreams in my opinion as I went there last August and was a part of the enigma that is 49er patriotism.

I was blessed in finding a friend that helped both my family and I experience the ultimate experience and that was to behold the actual franchise I so adore and love. Her name is Julie Bedford and if not for her I would not have had the specialized access or experience I had that hot summer span back in August in Stockton, California.

The University of the Pacific is the culprit in this measure simply because with some tender loving care and specialized attention the 49ers would‘ve been more than happy to stay and would have continued the special bond that is being a part of the 49er enigma. Fans that flocked to the University were very large in numbers in the beginning of the relationship between the Pacific and the 49ers back in 1998. The 49ers had reached an accord with the University after having their practices for 17 long years at Sierra College in Rocklin, California.

Both business and community leaders in Stockton played a large part in bringing the 49ers to Stockton by pledging a total of $3 million dollars to bringing them to the campus at the University of the Pacific. Stockton businessman and Pacific alumnus Alex Spanos owner of the San Diego Chargers pledged $1 million to the project itself. Spanos was at that time a close personal friend to ex-team President of the 49ers Carmen Policy.

By landing the deal with the University of the Pacific they in turn got a new athletic facility and were able to upgrade Stagg Memorial Stadium. Now with all that having taken place the warm welcome the Pacific gave the 49ers started to diminish as time went by. The University did have to incur some costs to having the 49ers stay on campus for a month as the athletic department not the business department at the University was responsible for negotiating the deal.

But the good far outweighed the bad when you really analyze the impact the team had on the economy of the Stockton area. By having the 49ers pack up and move everything to the university for the summer it provided a $5 million dollar cash flow for the first two summers and $2 million the last three summers of their 10-year contract. With the contract severed over a variety of reasons the university stands to lose $80,000 to $100,000 dollars a year.

In regards to what the university had to put up it was feeding the team and maintaining Zuckerman Field to a status that didn’t put our players in jeopardy when they took to the field. But the facilities that they provided as far as training rooms and equipment rooms were woefully inadequate. As was their half-hearted attempts at keeping the field in excellent shape because local teams and business functions were allowed to use the field when the 49ers weren’t using it.

It is believed and I concur that the field was in such very poor condition more times than not that it contributed to the injury list the 49ers sustained over those past five-years. Especially this past 2002 season where the field had direct implications on the team as injuries bit the 49ers multiple times right through training camp that effected the rest of their season. Sure the university was stuck with some costs such as feeding the team and maintaining the field bit look at what the received in return.

The University of the Pacific even asked the city to help with housing costs related to the 49ers aggravating a relationship that was set in stone from the beginning. And then turned around and asked the city to apply pressure on the 49ers to help pay for their costs. The nerve of this just confuses me? What the University of the Pacific got in this deal without having to do anything itself was a 33,000-square foot all-inclusive athletic facility to show it’s recruits, and a revamped stadium, which better allows it to lease it, for profit, to various organizations.

The city and it’s business leaders were the responsible parties for bringing the San Francisco 49ers to Stockton and the school was the very irresponsible third party that did not live up to it’s obligations as a renowned facility that housed a premier football team.

The University of the Pacific even gained more financially by selling special VIP packages to training camp to fans and businesses that wanted to get even closer to the players by getting right on the field and having access to special autograph sessions. Tours and having a shaded bleacher stand with cold water was made available. Fans not having a VIP package had to sit behind a security fence exposed to the un-forgiving sun and intense heat that Stockton is known for.

These same fans had to watch players stop and sign VIP fans memorabilia on their way out on the playing field and waited for players to make their way to the security fence before and after practices to sign autographs. The university also gained financially with charging for parking access to see the 49ers on Zuckerman Field and from 49er memorabilia sales that were conducted throughout the stay of 49er training camp.

It is a darn shame that the University of the Pacific is more concerned with its internal profitability than looking out for the community that sustains it. The Stockton area reaped enormous benefits from keeping the 49ers here as its summer home. Fans from near and far came to the inhospitable heat zone to witness their 49ers in action on and off the field.

Former head coach Steve Mariucci happily participated in the many sincere autograph sessions that were held on the sidelines of Zuckerman Field, with players and assistant coaches alongside him. The site of the big sweaty and heaving linemen coming over and smiling to sign something for you was truly unimaginable by all normal NFL standards. I mean it is just not thought of in any normal circumstances because most NFL teams deny their fans these benefits.

I’ll never forget that nor will I never appreciate it because it was that special. And speaking as a fan and a football analyst it promoted cohesiveness and loyalty as fans to the players. It made dreams come true as well for many fans including myself that you can never replace as you are standing there looking up at the very players you jump off your sofa to cheer for back at home.

To cast a dark shadow on this and say it is no big deal for the 49ers to be rid of Stockton is a mistake. It is and still is a big deal as far as I am concerned because it cost so many fans their long anticipated dreams and aspirations to be close to the aura that is being a fan of the beloved 49ers. Moving back to Santa Clara is a good thing logistically and climatically for the 49ers as they escape travel and heat all in one.

But it was something that each part compromised for the sake of being more united and closer to each other in my personal opinion. But team officials became more concerned as time went on with the extreme heat and the poor field conditions as being issues that just were not going away.

Poor office facilities and security measures for 49er players also became issues as summer training camp continued at the University of the Pacific. Grievances from the team were issued to the university but nothing really materialized from that process prompting the team to become even more agitated.

Stockton Mayor Gary Podesto admitted that the thorniest issue that materialized in the breach of the contract was the condition of Zuckerman Field. Team officials continue to insist that many of the player injuries were a direct result from the conditions that were present on the field during practices. Some would wonder when mentioning this as to why local sports and other functions would be allowed on the field during calendar dates when the 49ers had the field as their own.

The San Francisco 49ers in an attempt to keep the field in relatively decent shape ordered their own groundskeeper from their Santa Clara facility to assist in getting the field in shape on many occasions. Mayor Podesto along with other officials went to the Santa Clara practice facility to see the conditions of that field and was amazed at whet he saw.

“They took us down to see their field (in Santa Clara). And it was like a pool table,” Podesto said. University of the Pacific athletic director Lynn King said the university was “extremely disappointed” in the departure and noted that it was the university’s facilities that were one of the factors that enticed the team from it’s previous summer home in Rocklin, where they had been training from 1981-1997.

King continues to maintain that the university had made a number of improvements to the filed while the 49ers were in attendance but his insistence on this is of no matter anymore. Now when training camp commences on July 25th of this year fans will not be permitted entrance at the Marie P. DeBartolo Sports Center in Santa Clara. Players will practice behind headquarters in a fenced in area bristling with security that will make certain no would be fans will gain admittance unless granted permission beforehand through the main office.

Space restrictions and short notices have forced the 49ers to close the doors on its jubilant fans that have been permitted for so long to watch the team from a far. The 49ers though in it’s infinite wisdom realizes that the special relationship with it’s fans is sacred and has made token measures in promising public appearances at several disclosed locations. Nothing will come close though to the relaxed and tranquility that was once was summer camp in Stockton, California I can almost guarantee that. Simply because the infrequency and the diversion from everyday life will be lost as will be the atmosphere that is Stockton.

The San Francisco 49ers have made a very difficult and unpopular decision with moving training camp back to Santa Clara. But it has made it based on The University’s failure to show unconditional care and maintenance to their team as a whole, forcing their hand to prevent further damage to it’s own personnel.

Donahue said, “This organization is committed to our fans and we want to make sure they have a chance to share in the training camp experience with us. Our facility may not be equipped to hold a large number of fans at this time so we will do something unique and bring the 49ers to the fans. It will give the 49er faithful in the Bay Area opportunities to see the players up close without having to travel to do so.” “We don’t have anything set up yet, but it’s very important to us to bring the team to the public,” 49ers President Peter Harris said.

According to a good source, the San Francisco 49ers still have a buyout clause of $500,000 on their 10-yrear contract with the University of the Pacific. However, the team is contesting the payment based upon the poor field conditions, lack of office space and even lack of bathrooms in the locker room at the university.

Athletic Director for the University of the Pacific Lynn King stated that the 49ers leaving Stockton is a blow to both the community and the 49er fans of the Central Valley. He even went on to say that he felt that the university was absolved of any wrong doing and that it was the 49ers that ultimately decided to move on. “We are confident that we lived up to every obligation,” King said. “Our stated goal was to give the 49ers everything they needed. We’re proud we did that.”

How empty these words are now to the thousands that attended the training camp sessions. It is a tragedy in the worst kind for someone to shift blame and not accept the real consequences that brought about this predicament. Certainly so many have lost in this development this year with training camp moving back home to Santa Clara. The move is a positive in many ways as much as I hate to admit it, but the only one it doesn’t protect or nurture is the fan.

New marketing opportunities will present themselves by the move because of the business-concentrated Bay Area. And logistically, corporations can for the most matter schedule more visits to training camp. The team will also save on the expense and disruption of moving everything to Stockton for the month long camp that was once there. Several key front office personnel along with some of the coaches favored keeping training camp right at home.

Yet local booster clubs affiliated with the 49ers feel the move is a travesty in the worst way. Not having the value of open summer workouts is damaging to their actual cause. Some believe many fans will fall to the wayside and become fans of other clubs feeling derailed and betrayed by an organization that was believed to be fan participating and friendly.

Public access was so very important to the ordinary fan; it became a routine during the teams 17 training camps at Sierra College in Rocklin and the past five at the University of the Pacific in Stockton. Crowds of 1,500 to 3,000 packed the stands, and the camp environment promoted itself to player-fan interaction. This was what it was like to be a 49er fan; this is what separated the best from the average clubs in my opinion. The San Francisco 49ers unlike the Oakland Raiders is the fan-based champion in the area and all around the country.

It is what being a fan of the 49ers is all about. Booster clubs and many faithful individuals continue to press the 49er front office to do something, anything for the fans this season and they have limitedly. The team’s 11-acre Santa Clara complex includes three practice fields, but it’s much more compact than the previous settings and there would be no room for thousands of spectators as President Peter Harris has said. “There won’t be any public access because physically, we don’t have the space,” Harris said. “We wish we did.”

However a limited amount of visitors will gain access to the facility, which opens July 25th. But all of those accommodations will be made primarily for the 49ers corporate sponsors. Civic leaders and youth groups will also receive just consideration, Harris has said.

Of course Harris would not disclose the revenue that is generated by its corporate sponsors. But he said their spending in the form of advertising; suite rentals, broadcasting and other services represented significant revenue for the team. “We have a wide array of opportunities for our business partners. Coming to training camp is one small aspect,” he said.

Still this does little for the ordinary fan and many as I will concur feel abandoned by the organization. It is what the organization does from here that will make a difference. Working on getting the Santa Clara training complex outfitted for fan attendance and participation should be a high priority, still many contend that under Dr. John York and his budget wielding axe that it will a foregone conclusion.

“Joe Fan is sort of left out in the cold, that’s what is upsetting to me,” said Sue Hoffman, liaison for the 200-member 49ers Booster Club in San Francisco. “I think it stinks,” added Joannie Bassett, president of the 175-member Santa Clara club. “To cut off the fans like that, it hurts. None of us are happy. I haven’t talked to one person who thought that this was a good idea.”

So were the sentiments of many others that I talked to as well. There is some out there though that believe we have just been spoiled so much that are heads are swelled shut. In recognition that so few teams allow public access to their sites during training camp. But like I stated before and continue to vocalize is that we have been spoiled and to take something so positive away that is precious to so many fans would be a detriment to this organization.

In the middle of May the 49er franchise answered back recognizing formally that the fan-based interaction with players is critical to their overall cause and that they must acknowledge a long standing tradition that has been mandated for 22-years. The sites for public appearances and practices are San Jose State University Saturday, August 2 at noon and under the lights at Kezar Stadium August 25th at seven in the evening.

Both of these public appearances are a return to the roots that was once the 49ers and part of their history as a franchise. The 49ers trained at San Jose State from 1976-78 and they played their home games at Kezar Stadium from 1946-70. The last game the 49ers played at Kezar Stadium was January 3, 1971 when Dallas defeated San Francisco 17-10, in the NFC Championship Game.

Each practice will have a sensational amount of events that will include contests, prizes and autograph sessions. The 49ers will also conduct a mock game with NFL officials present at San Jose State. While the return to Kezar will be the first Monday Night appearance ever by the 49ers in the venerable stadium where many of the old alumni will be asked to come and be a part of.

Both places offer a rich diversity of 49er history and will be breathtaking to say the least. It is at least something in my book that the franchise is doing. I hope in my heart that every attempt to increase these appearances or construct bleachers at the Santa Clara training complex will take place in 2004.

“We are really excited about having practices at San Jose State and Kezar Stadium and the interaction we are going to have with our fans,” 49ers General Manager Terry Donahue said. “Unfortunately our facility is not equipped to host thousands of fans at this time, so it is imperative that we find ways to have our fans watch us practice during training camp. Since they can’t come to us we decided we would bring the practices to them.”

“It will be great to return to Kezar,” former 49ers wide receiver R.C. Owens said. “When I heard about it I immediately started thinking about the thrills the 49er fans gave the team when I played there and now the current players will get a chance to share some of the Kezar experience. They will get a chance to play in 49er history.”

On the August 2nd visit by the 49ers it is expected to give a boost to San Jose State’s athletic department as well as the university’s literacy program. The roots run deep with San Jose State in relation to the 49ers having graduates in Jeff Garcia and Bill Walsh from there on the team.

“We’re very grateful the 49ers considered San Jose State University and the city of San Jose as a place to share themselves with their fans,” Spartans Head Coach Fitz Hill said. “We’re very happy to be associated with an organization like the San Francisco 49ers, the five-time Super Bowl champions. At San Jose State, we want to align our program with excellence and the 49ers have proven to be one of the best franchises in the NFL. We want our program at San Jose State to achieve as much success as they have.”

Besides all the festivities at these venues the 49ers on August 25th will spend the day in San Francisco, attending the Chamber of Commerce Kickoff Luncheon in the early afternoon and riding some trolley cars through the city prior to practice. It is still so gracious that 49ers management has found some kind of way to answer us critics as to their moving training camp.

I believe that the 49ers will try and continue this process especially should they get great results from these experiments. I can almost guarantee though that whatever they do will be looked upon with tremendous gratitude and that we all must continue to press upon them at how important all us fans really are to their existence.

“It’s easy to understand why we are so excited about these practices when you tie in the history and the impact each could have,” Donahue said. “Being able to relive some of the great moments at Kezar with some of the great players from that era will be a lot of fun. And to be able to combine with San Jose State on some very important community programs while helping their football program is a win-win. Both days should be a lot of fun and will most certainly provide some unique experiences for our fans.”

Stockton will feel the pain this year there is no question in my mind. People will drive by this year and wonder to themselves at what really was. So many fans in that area will feel the emptiness of what they had and look to blame the University of the Pacific. So much could’ve been done to keep the 49ers there but that era is now gone for good. Now we are forced to accept the limited tokens of a few appearances where the team will be so mobbed it will be difficult to enjoy the total experience.

The San Francisco 49ers need to start construction at their Santa Clara complex and make it at least probable for next season for public fan access. I hope that Dr. John York and General Manager Terry Donahue will address this as a priority, but then again look at the plans to start a new stadium. We may be looking at all we will ever get my friends unless real pressure in the form of commentary like this and your letters to headquarters can convince them otherwise.