University of the Pacific, 1998-2002
After posting a 13-3 record in 1997 and advancing to the NFC Championship Game, the 49ers moved to a new training camp facility at University of the Pacific with high hopes for the season.
In mid-July, all rookies reported to camp along with a few vets eager to get an early jump on the training sessions. Among them were wide receiver Jerry Rice and offensive tackle Harris Barton. Both men were trying to rebound from injuries that sidelined them for most of the 1997 campaign.
On the evening of July 20, 1998, a mandatory meeting for all rookies and veterans was scheduled for 5 pm. At 4:59 quarterback Steve Young, the last person to arrive, strolled through the meeting room door announcing the season had begun. With the exception of top draft pick R.W. McQuarters, who was working out contract details with the club, all players were present for the team’s initial get together.
Little did they know a startling revelation would soon unfold.
Meanwhile, the team meeting proceeded and 49ers vice president Dwight Clark and second-year head coach Steve Mariucci welcomed players to the Stockton facility.
Mariucci responded to the inevitable changes veterans would experience with a new training camp credo, “No Whining,” after a few issues were vocalized during the opening days. Among the complaints he heard were: “there’s too many people and not enough space in the locker room,” “the showers don’t have soap” and “there’s only two toilets for 90 people.”
Mariucci claimed that at the end of camp the player uttering the most complaints would receive a commemorative T-Shirt reading “I’m a Whiner.”
Since the 49ers were new to the area, local law enforcement personnel joined the team meeting to provide safety tips. Most importantly, the Stockton Police Department and California Highway Patrol warned players of troublesome bars and areas to avoid at night.
By 11 pm that evening, the players were settling into their dormitory rooms when they heard knocks at their doors. Some were already asleep while others ignored the commotion.
Then in a hurriedly organized meeting, Clark dropped the bombshell. Carmen Policy, the 49ers president and CEO since 1991, was resigning.
The following day was mildly chaotic. Media descended on the UOP campus searching for answers. Clark and Mariucci held press conferences then realized they had as many questions about the sudden change as the reporters.
For the most part the players were unfazed. The next day they dressed out in full pads for the first time and went to work.
“Nobody really got much done that day,” Clark said. “There were a lot of distractions.”
Within a week, the 49ers returned to semi-normal business. “We’ve got a football season to get ready for,” Mariucci said.
By late July, the 49ers front office commotion had settled and the club held its first Fan Fest in Stockton. Attendees were clearly delighted to be treated to autographs from active players and 49ers alumni, along with a team scrimmage. Two weeks later, the city of Stockton returned the hospitality.
The 49ers were finishing their third week and 36th practice in Stockton when the club held a scrimmage under the lights at UOP’s Amos Alonzo Stagg Memorial Stadium against the San Diego Chargers. It turned out to be a premier standing-room only community event. Nearly 30,000 joyous fans paid $10 to see the football show.
49ers equipment manager Kevin Lartigue kicked off the festivities by singing a rousing rendition of the National Anthem. Then a pair of Cessna planes (not to be confused with Blue Angels) flew in unison over the stadium prompting one veteran staff member to wonder if former 49ers tight end Russ Francis would be parachuting onto the field.
Two surprise guests were on hand to see the scrimmage, former 49ers head coach George Seifert, and Policy, who resigned just two weeks earlier and would eventually return to the NFL as CEO and president of the Cleveland Browns.
Policy was instrumental in moving training camp to UOP and was pleasantly surprised by the fan turnout.
“Everywhere I went people talked about how they loved the 49ers here and how much it meant to the community,” he said.
Several members of the 49ers staff agreed with Policy’s assessment.
“One thing we developed was a rapport and a relationship with the city of Stockton and the University of the Pacific,” Mariucci said. “Everybody here is bending over backward to make it work. The hospitality here has been second to none.”
Since food is on the mind of nearly every player, several linemen were thrilled by the quality and variety of Stockton’s restaurants.
“It’s a bigger city here. Guys have been enjoying the different restaurants,” Barton said. “In Rocklin there’s not a lot.”
The scrimmage itself was anticlimactic. Rice sat it out but spoke glowingly of UOP’s well-groomed practice fields. Young played sparingly before turning the offense over to Jim Druckenmiller. The offensive line concentrated on getting its timing down while executing running plays. Still, that did not damper the enthusiasm of the Stockton crowd. They were happy to have a five-time Super Bowl champion club to call their own, if only for the summer.
On the second day of August in 1998, San Francisco played its first exhibition game against the New England Patriots at Candlestick Park. Druckenmiller looked sharp and appeared ready to make a run at the starting QB job. He connected on 10-of-14 passes for 100 yards in a 14-13 victory.
Although Rice continued to work himself into shape, he sat out the game and predicted he would be in the lineup on opening day.
“It’s a fresh start for me,” Rice said. “With everything that happened to me last year. I feel like a rookie all over again.”
He responded with 82 catches for 1,157 yards that season and was selected to his 12th Pro Bowl.
In 2002, the 49ers began the 57th training camp in club history, and their last at UOP, with their eyes on the playoffs.
In five years of summer training in Stockton, a steady stream of loyal fans, averaging over 1,300 per day, flocked to the practice field. During that time, the 49ers became part of the Stockton family. Fans were allowed to get close to the action, make eye contact with their favorite players, and hear the grunts and groans at individual drills from less than five yards away.
Mariucci, in his sixth season at the helm, and general manager Terry Donahue, starting his second season in San Francisco, expressed confidence in their roster. Quarterback Jeff Garcia and receiver Terrell Owens, fresh off Pro Bowl seasons, were ready to ignite the passing game. Running back Garrison Hearst was back on the field and regained the speed and explosiveness he exhibited prior to sustaining a near career-ending leg injury that took two years to rehab. Hearst returned to action in 2001, gained 1,206 yards rushing and earned NFL Comeback Player of the Year honors.
After just eight days of a 26-day training camp, the 49ers were scheduled to hop on a plane to Osaka, Japan for their first exhibition game, a matchup against Washington as part of the American Bowl series. Coaches saw a silver lining. Because of the early season matchup, veterans, who usually report a week after the rookies, were required to arrive at camp on the same day as the newcomers. The club would begin two-a-day sessions immediately. It marked the first time in memory the entire team practiced together from the start of training camp to the finish.
The game itself was a glorified scrimmage. Washington, coached by former 49ers quarterback Steve Spurrier, rolled over San Francisco 38-7. The 49ers only score came on a nine-yard run by running back Kevan Barlow.
The game had significant meaning from a cultural standpoint. The 49ers franchise, and the energetic crowd at Japan’s Osaka Dome, recognized a significant milestone in football history by honoring former 49ers running back and defensive back Wally Yonamine, the first player of Japanese descent to play pro football. Yonamine started in three of the 49ers 12 All-America Football Conference games in 1947, and then left football for a baseball career. In an amazing turn of events, he became a legend in the Japanese Baseball League, earning seven All-Star berths and a place in the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame.
The 77-year-old Yonamine was treated like royalty in the days before the contest attending 49ers practices as a guest of Coach Mariucci. On game day, he was presented with a 49ers jersey labeled “Yonamine” and was recognized during an on-field ceremony as the first player of Japanese descent to play pro football. After serving as the 49ers honorary team captain, he retreated to the owner’s box to view the game where he also received a highlight tape of his playing days in San Francisco.
“It was an honor to be the first player of Japanese descent in the league,” Yonamine said that day. “I hope that other players from Japan can reach the same level.”
As for the 49ers players, they were exhausted by the overseas excursion. With flight time, jet lag, sightseeing and public relations events, it turned into a five-day trip for just 60 minutes of football.
“We’ve got to make the best of it,” Mariucci said.