Art Thiel: Seahawks’ first coach ‘built the foundation’

Jack Patera died Tuesday at 85.

Jack Patera was a man of minimal words, backed by a maximum glare that could melt steel. After they lost to the New York Giants 32-0 in the Kingdome in 1981 to fall to 1-6, Seattle Seahawks players were prepared to be, well, vaporized in the locker room by their intimidating coach.

“Congratulations, gentlemen,” he said. “You’re now the worst team in the NFL. I’ll see you tomorrow. Full gear.”

That was it. That was enough.

Forced to abandon the mandatory post-game rest day, the shuddering players showed up at the practice field in Kirkland.

“We had a full-pads scrimmage, plus 20 minutes of up-downs,” said Steve Raible, a wide receiver on the team and now the franchise’s radio play-by-play broadcaster. “(It) just killed us.

“Next Sunday we beat the (tar) out of someone, I don’t remember who.”

The Seahawks beat the New York Jets 19-3 at Shea Stadium. The Jets had six turnovers and 219 yards of offense.

“The message,” Raible said, grinning, “was well-sent.”

Patera, the 1978 NFL Coach of the Year, died at his home in Cle Elum on Wednesday of pancreatic cancer.

A linebacker at Oregon and an NFL player in the 1950s who coached some of the best defenses in history (the Los Angeles Rams’ Fearsome Foursome and the Minnesota Vikings’ Purple People Eaters), Patera built a surprisingly entertaining offensive team from the franchise’s 1976 debut through his 1982 firing during a players’ strike.

His successor, Chuck Knox, took many of Patera’s players to the club’s first playoff appearances in 1983 and 1984, when the legend of the 12s was born with the retirement of the No. 12 jersey. Knox, 86, died in May.

“He built the foundation,” said Raible, who was among numerous original Seahawks who would make occasional treks to the country home of their old coach to have several drinks, share many stories and engage in countless laughs.

Raible, a second-round draft pick out of Georgia Tech in Seattle’s first draft of 1976, recalled one of Patera’s rules: After a game, run, don’t walk, to the locker room. Above all, do not cross over the field to shake hands with your friends on the other team.

“If we just beat them, they don’t want you to go over to them and say, ‘Great game,’” Raible said, “and if they beat us, we don’t want to shake their hands.”

After a preseason game, a former college teammate of Raible’s approached him post-game to say hello.

“I started backing away,” he said. “I told him, “I can’t talk right now.’ He said, ‘What’s wrong?’ He shakes my hand and hugs me.”

The next day at training camp in Cheney on the Eastern Washington campus, Patera at the end of practice gathered the team and called out the names Raible, Peter Cronan and Terry Beeson to come up front.

Two and a half football fields away stood trainer Jim Whitesel and an assistant holding up a big cardboard sign that read, “My friend.”

“Jack said, I want you guys to run — no, sprint — to go see your friend, since that’s what you did after the game,” Raible said. “Then I want you to sprint back, and then we’ll see if we can learn this lesson together.”

They did it three or four times.

“Jack said, ‘OK. Everybody got the message?’ And we all went in. It was a (butt)-kicking.”

Patera was, however, far from a bully. Raible recalled how much he cared for players, especially veterans. He began the tradition on plane flights of giving first class seats to veterans, in descending order. At the back sat the coaches.

“Last row, last seat,” Raible said of Patera’s spot.

Patera’s under-appreciated sense of whimsy showed up in his willingness to let it rip on offense. The Seahawks became an instant national sensation during a 1979 Monday night game in Atlanta when quarterback Jim Zorn rose from his hold for an Efren Herrera field goal and let the chubby kicker get down field, when Zorn hit him with a first-down pass.

“You work with what you have,” Raible said. “He had a quarterback (Zorn) who could scramble around, and a receiver (Steve Largent) who could catch any ball close to him. We built our offense on the sprint draw because we had a running back (Sherman Smith) who could get the ball deep in the backfield get up to the line quickly, go left or right and run away from people.

“We ran our share of trick plays because Jack enjoyed it and (assistant coach) Rusty Tillman was so good at coming up with them. Almost every time we ran one, they worked.”

Patera had a 35-59 record before he was dismissed in 1982 during a strike he resented. There was a belief that his waiving of wide receiver Sam McCullum was for his union activities, triggering his own dismissal, although the McCullum decision was made in the front office.

Despite the regard in which he was held and his relative youth at the time, 49, Patera never coached again. Raible speculated that Patera was bitter about players’ off-field independence. He didn’t re-engage with the Seahawks until 1999, when he attended the final game in the Kingdome, then in 2005 raised the 12th Man Flag at CenturyLink Field ahead of the franchise’s first Super Bowl appearance.

“I know Jack was real sick and he was battling,” the Seahawks’ current coach, Pete Carroll, said Wednesday. “First head coach of the Seahawks. That’s too bad. He was a great coach. The guys that played for him really loved playing for him. We meet them on the alumni days, and he was really important to a lot of people. We’ll miss him.”

Tough as Patera was, Raible couldn’t help but smile at every recollection.

“A hard guy but a fair guy, old-fashioned, quiet until he wasn’t. Then you knew exactly where you stood,” he said. “He told me something I’ve always carried with me. He said, ‘You catch the ball as well as Steve Largent, just not as often.’

“I thought to myself, I think that’s a compliment, but I’m not sure.”

In the hard world of Patera, even half-compliments were a treasure.

Art Thiel is co-founder of sportspressnw.com.

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