Odd Man Out

"'Trader Bob' didn't get his nickname from being shy...what the Seahawks need now is a steadier hand to bring success that will endure. Hopefully, the next team President will be one that respects the franchise's heritage and recognizes the value of good team chemistry… both on the field and off."

It was an odd match from the beginning, the basketball guy as President of the football team. But two years ago when it was announced that Bob Whitsitt was stepping down from the Portland Trailblazers to “focus on the day-to-day football operations of the Seahawks,” Seattle fans held their collective breath.

No, not all of those blue faces at Qwest Field were face-painted fanatics.

Seahawk fans generally viewed Bob Whitsitt with suspicion and distrust and all indications were that many inside Seahawk headquarters did so as well. Whitsitt brought to Kirkland a reputation as an executive who was recklessly aggressive in player-personnel decisions and personally abrasive within the organization. And he accentuated those traits by possessing absolutely no experience in running an NFL franchise.

On Friday, in a surprise move, Paul Allen dismissed his long-time friend effective immediately - citing the desire for a “more cohesive” operation as well as the need to “bring in someone with a deep background in football to run the football side of our organization.”

The news came as a refreshing shock, like stepping outside into the frigid January air. It has reinvigorated the fan base, and it’s got to be a breath of fresh air in Kirkland too.

Last year in free agency, Whitsitt and the Seahawks were criticized for over-paying for Grant Wistrom, Darrell Jackson and Bobby Taylor. The Seahawks desperately needed every one of those players, so I was willing to let the ‘recklessly aggressive’ style go so long as Whitsitt was doing his best for the good of the team and the fans.

Then he did something that raised hackles in the Northwest and eyebrows everywhere else… he gave away Steve Largent’s retired #80.

There were conflicting stories at the time. Some said Steve Largent called Jerry Rice and graciously offered his #80 to the greatest receiver of all time. Some said Rice respectfully called Largent and asked if he could wear the number. The truth came out later through Rice’s wife, Jackie, in the San Jose Mercury News…

Bob Whitsitt, fresh from having signed the future Hall of Famer, sold out the fans and the heritage of Seahawks football. In a cheap and opportunistic move, Whitsitt reportedly picked up the phone and called Largent while Rice was still sitting in his office – the ink still drying on the contract. Whitsitt told Largent that the Seahawks had just acquired Rice and asked if he could wear the retired #80 and then handed the phone to Rice.

Instantly, two of the classiest players in NFL history were put on the spot. Their mutual respect prevented either of them from insulting the other.

The organization then compounded the public relations nightmare by attempting to capitalize on the #80, by selling special throwback Largent #80 jerseys at a premium price, as well as new Rice jerseys.

Whitsitt was a zenith in the Northwest pro sports universe. He became the youngest President/GM in the NBA when he took over the Seattle SuperSonics at the age of 30. Despite only winning 31 games in each of the two seasons prior, Whitsitt guided the franchise to seven playoff appearances in eight years, including two Western Conference finals, and accumulated a 377-279 record during that time. In 1994, the Sonics won 63 games and Whitsitt was named NBA Executive of the Year. Then Allen came calling.

Ten years ago Allen and Whitsitt teamed up with the Portland Trailblazers. Over time, Allen entrusted Whitsitt with greater and greater responsibility over a variety of his enterprises. The Trailblazers maintained their league-leading streak of playoff appearances, but the franchise eventually crumbled under the weight of an array of drug, gun and traffic charges. The P.R. disaster that was the “Jailblazers” was complete when Whitsitt made the infamous comment that he “didn’t major in (team) chemistry.”

It was with that dysfunctional Portland team as a backdrop that Seahawk fans were wary of Whitsitt’s impact on their team, but initially, he was part of the solution to a bigger problem. Ken Behring had first driven the Seahawks into the ground and then to California. Allen, and by extension Whitsitt, were Seattle’s only hope and they came through big-time.

What Whitsitt had, was power; the power that comes from being Paul Allen’s right-hand man. Whitsitt was at the peak of that power in the spring of 1997 when he negotiated the deal that would save the Seahawks and anoint Allen as the savior of pro football in Seattle. Whitsitt was also instrumental in bringing Super Bowl winning head coach, Mike Holmgren, to the Pacific Northwest and in getting Qwest Field built.

Those were heady days and not so long ago. But after a series of sideways (some would say downward) moves, Whitsitt’s star is quickly fading. Only two years ago he resigned from the Blazers to focus on the Seahawks and now he’s out here too. In the interim, the Seahawk organization has lost a lot of top-notch front office talent including Senior V.P. and capologist, Mike Reinfeldt, and most recently, Ted Thompson, V.P. of Football Operations.

"It's my responsibility as owner to try to do the best by the franchise, the fans, and the community here in Seattle, and I just felt like this was a change I needed to make,” Paul Allen said.

"We are dedicated to winning and that means continuing to build a premier NFL organization with the highest standards of leadership and execution. I look forward to bringing in a new executive who will play a central role in making our football operation more cohesive, and making our overall organization more successful.”

“Trader Bob” didn’t get his nickname from being shy. Being recklessly aggressive might get results in the short-term, but what the Seahawks need now is a steadier hand to bring success that will endure. Hopefully, the next team President will be one that respects the franchise’s heritage and recognizes the value of good team chemistry… both on the field and off.

Kristopher Jones writes regularly for Seahawks.NET. Feel free to reach him at kougars@comcast.net.

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