SAN FRANCISCO — The third round of the draft was coming up in 1979, and the San Francisco 49ers still didn't have a quarterback.
They did have a promising new coach, Bill Walsh. And even then, before he ever lined up a team of his own in the National Football League, Walsh's strong suit was appraising athletes.
"I think the kid at Notre Dame can help us," he confided as his associates studied the roster of remaining candidates. "This is one of the two or three best quarterbacks in college football."
Within the hour, Walsh made perhaps the finest third-round choice of all time, drafting Joe Montana--and launching a dynasty that is still alive and well, and confounding the sports fans who predicted a collapse when the 49ers changed coaches this year.
The surprise is that nothing else has really changed.
It's still business as usual for the team that won the NFL championship 10 months ago, the 49ers' third title since 1982. Consider:
--In the Walsh era, they won three Super Bowls and 101 other games in 10 years, leaving the rest of the league far behind.
--In the George Seifert era, still in a groove under a new coach, they have started 9-2.
Thus as Seifert heads the 49ers into next Monday night's game of the year against the New York Giants (9-2), they're right where they usually are on the NFL ladder: on top or up close.
Continuity of that kind is uncommon today in big-time sports.
A Super Bowl winner normally nose-dives within the year.
A coach replacing a legend normally falters spectacularly.
Indeed, when Walsh recommended Seifert for the job, NFL rivals smiled knowingly and said, "Goodby, 49ers." They remembered the hand-picked successors to Vince Lombardi at Green Bay, John Robinson at USC, John Wooden at UCLA, and others. They remembered Alabama without Bear Bryant.
Is Seifert the explanation?
He is, in part. At 49, he's a bright, stable, highly qualified veteran of 25 years in coaching. But Seifert hasn't by any means done it alone.
First, the man who hired both Walsh and Seifert, owner Edward J. DeBartolo Jr., has built the NFL's new model organization. As a success story, DeBartolo's club has replaced Tex Schramm's Dallas Cowboys and Paul Brown's Cleveland Browns of earlier eras.
Second, almost everybody on the 49er payroll is out to show Walsh that the former coach isn't needed anymore--everybody from DeBartolo and Montana on down. It's a modern NFL truism, of course, that the same team can't repeat as champion. But with a new coach, this isn't the same team.
Third, and most significant, Walsh, the super talent scout, left the 49ers with a full deck. The strength of Seifert's team is the gifted backup personnel that Walsh developed or brought in during his final years, when he put together a ballclub so sound and deep that it can go on winning without him.
This was done deliberately. After injuries ruined his first two Super Bowl champions in the follow-up seasons of 1982 and '85, Walsh changed priorities and began to:
--Force-feed 49er youngsters. That is, he kept more draft choices than he really wanted to, trained them more intensively, and used them in more games.
--Focus on depth. He upgraded his backup players at every turn, then benched his regulars at times to give the new guys game experience.
In other words, reasoning that you don't need the best players in the league at any position, he went for the best backups at every position.
Montana, for example, doesn't place among the top three salaried quarterbacks in football, but teammate Steve Young is the game's only $1 million backup.
"Some first-string quarterbacks don't make $1 million," said John McVay, the 49ers' administrative vice president.
On the entire squad, only one 49er leads the league in salary at his position--free safety Ronnie Lott.
More typical of the club is the double trouble at offensive left tackle, where the rotating residents are Bubba Paris and Steve Wallace. That's about $800,000 for a left tackle.
"Some teams would trade one of them, and bring in an $80,000 backup," McVay said.
The 49ers play with three interchangeable offensive guards, four interchangeable cornerbacks, three interchangeable wide receivers, and with similar prime moving parts elsewhere on both offense and defense.
At most positions, their second- and third-string personnel is the best and best paid in the league.
And in another season of crippling injuries here and throughout the league, the 49ers are winning with that depth.
Call it the DeBartolo way.
A MODEL OWNER
When the earth began shaking at Candlestick Park last month, Lisa DeBartolo, the proud possessor of a book of World Series tickets, had just pulled into the parking lot.
The oldest of the 49er owner's three daughters, Lisa drove across from Oakland less than 15 minutes before a segment of the Bay Bridge collapsed.