Faithful in red and gold: 75 years of 49ers history


Graphic illustration by Crystal Qian

The 49ers are a historically decorated sports franchise, boasting many Hall of Fame players and five Lombardi Trophies.

Crystal Qian, Copy Editor

The San Francisco 49ers have weathered a tumultuous season following a string of injuries and a progression of ever-inactive rookies. In spite of the team’s recent hitches, their 2021 season commemorates their decorated 75-year history — one that boasts five Lombardi Trophies.

Founded in 1946 by Tony Morabito, the 49ers were the first NFL team based on the West Coast. As charter members of the All-America Football Conference, the 49ers consistently finished second in the AAFC next to the Cleveland Browns and were granted admission into the NFL in 1950. In the next decade, they boasted a plethora of individual stars including quarterbacks Frankie Albert, Y. A. Tittle and John Brodie; running backs Hugh McElhenny and Joe Perry; tackle Bob St. Clair; and defensive tackle Leo Nomellini.

In 1957, Morabito collapsed from a fatal heart attack during a home game against the Chicago Bears. In memory of their departed owner, the 49ers rallied back from a 10-point halftime deficit to “win for Tony.” The season was also home to Tittle’s famous “Alley-Oop” touchdown pass to wide receiver R.C. Owens, and the 49ers gained enough momentum to eventually tie the Detroit Lions for the Western Division crown. Although the season marked the closest the 49ers had come to a league championship, their success was short-lived: The 49ers immediately experienced a 12-year playoff drought.

The 49ers flirted with success in the early 1970s by capturing three consecutive NFC West Division titles. However, in all three seasons, they suffered crushing playoff defeats — including two in the NFC Championship Game — to the Dallas Cowboys.

A new era dawned for the 49ers in the late 1970s, when Edward DeBartolo Jr. gained ownership of the team and hired head coach Bill Walsh, now a legendary figure in 49ers history. Initially, many traditionalists rebuffed his radical offensive schemes that emphasized passing routes in lieu of running plays, but Walsh revolutionized the game of football by demonstrating the reliability of a short, well-timed passing game. By coupling his “West Coast Offense” with excellent draft selections in perennial Pro Bowl players Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott and Jerry Rice, Walsh reinvented a fallen franchise into a dominant dynasty.

“The Joe Montana days in the 1980s are my favorite era,” math teacher and long-time 49ers fan Chris Baugh said. “Montana was just so dominant and cool under pressure. The team was really exciting to watch.”

In the 1981 NFC Championship Game against the Cowboys, wide receiver Dwight Clark snared a leaping catch in the back corner of the end zone en route to the 49ers’ first Super Bowl — a legendary play that entered NFL lore as “The Catch.” Against the Cincinnati Bengals, the 49ers won their first Super Bowl 26-21 behind kicker Ray Wersching’s four field goals and Montana’s Super Bowl MVP performance. From there, the 49ers posted a franchise-high 15-1 regular season record and won two more Super Bowls to cement their domination of the 1980s.

Walsh’s handpicked successor George Seifert continued to take advantage of the team’s existing talent. The 1989 49ers were regarded as one of the most dominant teams ever as they won all three playoff games by a combined 100 points. Steamrolling the Denver Broncos 55-10 in Super Bowl XXIV, the 49ers became the only team to win back-to-back Super Bowls under different head coaches.

During their 1980s golden age, the 49ers were dotted with superstars: Montana was in a class of his own, winning four Super Bowls and three Super Bowl MVP awards. As the other half of the legendary quarterback-wide receiver duo, Rice shattered countless receiving records that still stand unparalleled today.

Lefty quarterback Steve Young, known for his uncanny scrambling ability, headed the team following Montana’s departure. With Young at the helm in 1994, the 49ers dusted the San Diego Chargers 49-26 in Super Bowl XXIX, becoming the first team to win five Super Bowls — the ultimate measuring stick of success in the NFL.

The 2000s were a patchy period for the 49ers due to front office struggles, evinced by the firing of numerous administrators and head coaches. Following any last gasps of glory under quarterback Jeff Garcia and head coach Steve Mariucci, the 49ers experienced some of the roughest years in team history in the Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary eras.

“The 2000s were awful,” Baugh said. “You always wanted to blame somebody, and there was a lot of wasted time just as a fan. But it’s really exciting to follow them through the highs and lows.”

2011 saw a compelling, albeit brief resurgence in the Jim Harbaugh era, remembered for a stalwart defense, a heated rivalry with the Seattle Seahawks and the emergence of Nevada standout Colin Kaepernick. In his first season, Harbaugh led the 49ers to a stunning 13-3 record and their first playoff berth since 2002, generating widespread surprise throughout the league. Noted for his vocal coaching style, Harbaugh strung together a talent-laden team to record three consecutive NFC Championship appearances and one Super Bowl appearance.

After Harbaugh’s departure, the 49ers tumbled back into mediocrity, and new head coaches Jim Tomsula and Chip Kelly were fired after just one season when the 49ers finished 5-11 and 2-14, respectively.

In 2019, the young hot-shot Kyle Shanahan fleetingly breathed life into the 49ers with a Super Bowl run, but since then, the injury-riddled team has seemingly spiraled down from their Super Bowl hangover. On the periphery of this year’s playoff chase, the 49ers’ recent uncertainties have silver linings: A lineup of young talent — including Trey Lance, acquired for two future first-round draft picks — are hungry to elevate the 49ers into league contenders and hoist the elusive sixth Lombardi Trophy in Santa Clara.

“The 49ers being in the playoff picture even with many injuries shows that they can win with a strong run game and a dominant front seven,” senior Alex Jeong said. “I believe that the future is bright with Trey Lance, and once he starts playing, he will prove that he is worth more than just two first-round picks.”