The news Friday that former Seattle Seahawks owner Ken Behring died at 91 called to mind a January 2006 phone conversation I had with John Nordstrom. He was the leader of the family ownership group that brought the Seahawks into existence in 1977, then in 1988 sold to Behring, perhaps the worst choice in Nordstrom’s otherwise illustrious business career.
I called from Detroit, where the Seattle Post-Intelligencer sent me to cover the Seahawks in the Super Bowl, the first in the franchise’s 30-year existence. I figured Nordstrom, an intense, knowledgeable fan, then and now, would be in magnum giddy among his fellow owners, nearly all of whom developed great respect for him during his time as managing general partner of the franchise.
He was giddy, all right. But he was in Johannesburg, South Africa, and wasn’t returning for the game.
A licensed private pilot, Nordstrom and his wife, Sally, had long plotted an around-the-world plane trip with him as captain, never dreaming the dates would coincide with the Seahawks in the Super Bowl. Irony can be supremely annoying.
The conversation covered multiple topics, the most intriguing of which was the ownership of Paul Allen, who in 1997 bought the Seahawks from Behring for $200 million and became its transformative figure, despite having little passion for the game. Since 1988, he had owned the Portland Trail Blazers of the NBA, his first sports love, and didn’t want another pro sports team, doing so only as a civic favor to bail out his hometown of the odious Seahawks owner.
Behring in early 1996 moved the club to Orange County for two dramatic, semi-hysterical weeks before a mortified NFL and the courts yanked the team back to its headquarters in Kirkland.
When the Microsoft co-founder agreed to buy the club — pending a positive outcome of a statewide vote in June 1997 to subsidize a replacement stadium for the decaying Kingdome with public money (it passed with a 51 percent plurality) — Nordstrom said he had to jump in to preserve the deal.
It turns out that the NFL owners were afraid of Allen and his wealth, which was far more substantial than any owner in league history — then and now, with his estate, in the charge of his sister, Jody Allen, valued somewhere around $20 billion.
Nordstrom flew to the Super Bowl in New Orleans with Allen to assure an informal meeting among his one-time football partners that Allen was not a titan prepared to devour the football landscape.
“It was said to me more than once that, ‘We’re not sure we can have him in the club,’” Nordstrom recalled of the wide-spread fear. “They were really worried about a guy they thought could buy the whole league.
“But after the meeting, they found out he wasn’t that kind of guy.”
The scaredy-cat owners eventually might have figured that out on their own. Nordstrom wasn’t trying to white-horse himself in the recollection. He knew better. Because he was playing catch-up from a similar situation nine years earlier, when he helped sell the NFL on the worthiness of Behring, a California real estate developer and classic-car enthusiast, as an owner.
The Nordstroms, scarred by NFL labor strife in 1982 and 1987, wanted out before pro sports became toxic to their retail-clothing empire that was a Fortune 500 company. In his 2015 autobiography “Mr. John” co-written by longtime News Tribune sports columnist Dave Boling, Nordstrom revealed that the for-sale sign drew numerous inquiries, including from, ahem, Bill Cosby. But the prospective bidders did not promise to keep the club in Seattle. Except for Behring.
He promised $80 million and no relocation. The sale produced a rolling nightmare of mismanagement and embarrassment for the Seahawks. This was the first sentence of a column I wrote in 1989: “In his first six months on the Seattle sports scene, Seahawks owner Ken Behring has supplied the most bewildering smorgasbord of misinformation since the Nixon White House.”
To highlight a signature low-light, in 1991 Behring had the Seahawks’ first-round draft choice spent on quarterback Dan McGwire, brother of baseball slugger Mark, instead of a kid from Mississippi named Brett Favre.
For those who believe it gauche to speak ill of the dead, Behring in later years made numerous philanthropic donations to a variety of causes, including universities, the arts and the Smithsonian museums, and founded the Wheelchair Foundation, which by 2015 had distributed more than one million wheelchairs worldwide.
Say what you will about rich people buying grace late in life. As far as football … well, here’s how Nordstrom in his book told the story of Feb. 1, 1996, the worst day in club history, when Behring betrayed his promise:
“The biggest Behring lie came at the end. I heard a lot of rumors that Behring wanted to move the team. So I called him, told him about the rumors and said I needed to talk to him. He happened to be in town, so he said he’d come over to my house. He sat in my living room and said, ‘I’m not going to move the team; I wouldn’t do it.’ Okay, I told him, I’d take his word for it. As it turned out, at that very moment, the moving vans were at the team headquarters in Kirkland. I found out about it three hours later.
“I was absolutely furious. How could he say that to me? How could a human being do that?”
A man of contradictions, Behring’s time in Seattle was largely a mess. Nordstrom helped the club get into the mess, and helped them out of it with the purchase by Allen.
For the 12s who are new to the Seahawks since the 2010 arrival of coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider, it is probably good to be alert to the notion that the debates about who should start at free safety are, relatively speaking, sunshine, lollipops and rainbows.
Art Thiel is co-founder of sportspressnw.com.