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Feathering a nest of Seahawks

Seattle's fledgling NFL team sold 59,000 season tickets before it had a coach, players or seats

Quickly now. Name the head coaches of the two expansion franchises in the NFL. That's right, USC's John McKay is in Tampa. And in Seattle? It's, uh, you know, what's his name, the other guy, the man who did not get a million dollars to become a head coach in the pros (McKay got at least that much) and who did not win four national collegiate championships. Meet Jack Patera. He is not even as well known as his brother Ken, a weightlifter who has been ranked second in the world in the super heavyweight division. Jack is in the super heavyweight class, too; he is approaching 280 pounds and has a paunch. "I'm so out of shape I get tired driving up the driveway," he says.

While Patera's bulk is rather noteworthy, he also bears a striking resemblance to Clark Kent—mild-mannered disposition, glasses, short dark hair. For the last 13 years his obscurity was guaranteed by his occupation: assistant coach in the NFL. Now, at 42, Patera faces a task fit for Superman—creating a winner with expansion discards, college draftees and free agents.

McKay, who recruited Patera and coached him at the University of Oregon, is confronted by the same insuperable task. However, he also has a five-year contract worth about $1 million more than Patera's three-year deal. Nonetheless, Patera may have a better opportunity to succeed than McKay because the Seattle ownership, headed by the Nordstrom department stores family, has remained in the background and allowed its experienced front office to run things. In Tampa, Owner Hugh Culver-house demands final approval on everything but often is unavailable to make immediate decisions. "Tampa looks like it could become another mixed-up new operation like Atlanta and New Orleans used to be," says one NFL man.

Seattle considered more than a dozen head-coaching candidates, including McKay, before settling on Patera. In fact, Patera was a late addition to the Sea-hawk organization. Nine months before he hired Patera, General Manager John Thompson, who used to do PR for the Vikings, hired two former directors of player personnel—Mark Duncan of the Rams and Dick Mansperger of the Cowboys. Along with Seattle's head NFL scout, Chuck Allen, they spent a full year preparing the Seahawks for the college and expansion drafts. If nothing else, they were thorough; in the expansion draft, Seattle claimed two players who as rookies last season never played a minute.

Vince Lombardi also works for the Seahawks. Son of the late coach, an attorney and a former member of the Minnesota state legislature, Lombardi is administrative assistant to Thompson. "I've always wanted to get into football," he says. "Once I even offered to work for my father."

Patera arrived with excellent credentials. A former linebacker, he, too, was once acquired in an expansion draft—by the Cowboys in 1960—and as a defensive assistant he coached two of pro football's most famous lines: the Fearsome Foursome of the Rams and, for the last seven years, the Purple People Eaters of the Vikings. Patera first discussed the Seattle job with Thompson last December, the nights before and after Minnesota lost a playoff game to Dallas on Roger Staubach's bomb to Drew Pearson in the final seconds. "As impressed as I was with Jack the night before the game," Thompson remembers, "I was more impressed by the way he took that defeat. Jack probably wanted to tear his hair out, but I admired his cool. I felt we had to have a man who was patient and could accept defeat. Of course, I don't want him to accept defeat so graciously that he'll never be a winner."

Not surprisingly, Patera is going to stress defense with the Seahawks. In the expansion draft Seattle quickly tapped the Colts' former All-Pro middle linebacker, Mike Curtis. Curtis, who had a personality conflict with Colt General Manager Joe Thomas, may prove to be a steal, Curtis missed most of last season after surgery to repair a bad knee, but he ran and moved easily when the Seattle veterans recently had an orientation workout in the Kingdome. To strengthen the knee, Curtis has been riding a bicycle 60 miles a week.

"I heard indirectly that I was in the expansion draft because Joe Thomas hated my guts," says Curtis, an iconoclast who enjoys tossing off opinions as much as he does blockers. "Thomas could have had a first-round draft choice or better for me if he had wanted it. I hope he's standing on the sidelines when we play Baltimore in 1977. I'd like to give him an elbow. I like physical solutions, not mental ones."

A healthy Curtis is one reason why Patera is approaching his new duties with "controlled optimism." "If we had to play tomorrow," he says, "we would be a representative team—if we got the uniforms on right." Seattle would be more than representative if Thompson could sign a few of the free-agent veterans in the NFL marketplace, like John Riggins and Fred Dryer. "Trouble is," he says, "we're at a disadvantage with free agents because we can't say, 'Come with us and you'll get $25,000 extra in playoff money.' "

While Patera is keeping his optimism under wraps, the city of Seattle seems to have gone wild over its new football team. When the Seahawks put season tickets on sale last July they hoped for a sale of between 35,000 and 45,000. Even that seemed to be a case of uncontrolled optimism because the team had no coach and no players and there were no seats in the Kingdome. Moreover, 20,000 tickets were to be priced at $14, and the average price is likely to be the highest in the NFL.

Despite these drawbacks and the fact that the team never conducted an ad campaign to sell tickets, the Seahawks had to cut the sale off at 59,000 after less than a month. (The Kingdome seats 65,000 for football.) Astonishingly, 50,527 of the requests were for top-price tickets and only 143 for the lowest-priced seats. As a result, the Seahawks will have banked more than $6 million before they hold their first formal practice in July. There also are 5,285 names on the waiting list for season tickets.

The ticket response directly affected the process of hiring a coach. "We didn't need to hire a big name to help sell tickets," says Thompson, "because we had already sold them." In Tampa, on the other hand, the Buccaneers have sold just 36,400 season tickets in a stadium that seats 71,400—and McKay has been under contract for seven months.

Seattle's support of its new team has not stopped at the ticket window. A local NBC affiliate, KIRO, bought the Seahawks' radio package for a reported $150,000 a year for five years (the NFL average last season was $113,365), then sold more than $1 million in advertising rights in 36 hours.

A name-the-team contest drew 20,365 entries, with 1,741 suggestions. If Seahawks doesn't grab you, here are some of the other candidates: Anchovies, Bumbershoots, Clam Guns, Cumulo Nimbos, Diarrheas, Identified Flying Objects, Hookers, Panzies, Red Tide, Ticks, Toads, Wine-O's, Widowmakers, Worms, Zeros and, more to the point, No-Names.

The list was reduced to seven names—Cascades, Evergreens, Mariners, Olympics, Pioneers, Sockeyes and Seahawks—and Seahawks was judged to be most suitable and to have the most graphic potential. The team colors also had to be approved by NFL Creative Services (Tampa's first choice, orange and pale green, was discarded for being too similar to the Dolphins' colors). Seattle settled on silver, blue and green, the last two representing the waters and the forests that surround Seattle. And Creative Services came up with a wonderfully fierce Seahawk logo. It is creative, indeed, because The National Audubon Society insists that the sea hawk is a thief, a skua or a jaeger that specializes in robbing other sea birds of their food. Thompson, however, claims his Seahawk is a dashing, handsome, graceful osprey that swoops from the sky to snatch fish from the sea.

The people of Seattle have been so stimulated by the Seahawks that neckties bearing the club's logo are selling like, well, season tickets. The company that distributes the ties has had to reorder six times just to keep up with the demand.

It's almost enough to make the club owners feel that the franchise's $16 million purchase price was a bargain.