Mike McCormack: The Interim Genius

In Part Two of "Coaches Week" in our Past Masters series, .NET's "The Hawkstorian" reviews the brief, tumultous Seahawk coaching career of Mike McCormack - a man who stood in the eye of the storm and held fast...on his way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

In the decade of the 1980s, two major transitions permanently changed the complexion of the Seahawks franchise. The first happened in 1982, as the team fired their first ever coach and general manager. The second happened in 1988 as the original owners sold the team to a real-estate mogul from California .

Mike McCormack was in the eye of both storms.

McCormack was a Hall Of Fame offensive lineman (six-time All-Pro) with the Cleveland Browns from 1954 to 1962. However, he never experienced a winning season as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles (1975-77) and the Colts (1980-81). At the end of his brief reign in Baltimore, McCormack was given a title in Seattle, “Head of Football Operations”, overseeing a Seahawks operation that had struggled in the early 80s following some entertaining early expansion seasons.

1982 was a dark year for the NFL, and Seattle was caught in the epicenter. Off-season talk centered on the likely player strike. In pre-season games, players from each side met at mid-field for a solidarity handshake. Coach Jack Patera threatened to fine his players for participating, and when he followed through on his threat, Seattle became a microcosm of the flailing relations between labor and ownership. Patera and general manger John Thompson clearly had no sense of public opinion, when they released popular receiver and team union representative Sam McCullum the week before the season started.

Two weeks later, the league began a 57-day strike. McCormack used the respite to fire Patera and Thompson and insert himself as interim coach. McCormack would become the team’s second head coach… assuming the 1982 NFL season ever resumed.

And resume it did, with seven games remaining in an abbreviated nine-game season.

McCormack’s first game on the Seahawks’ sideline came on November 21, 1982 at Denver ’s Mile High stadium. The pre-Elway Broncos still represented a road division matchup, and with the prospect of an expanded playoff pool, the season felt brand-new. McCormack benched upstart quarterback Dave Krieg and re-inserted Jimmy Zorn who found Steve Largent for a 34-yard 4 th quarter score to win a 17-10 struggle. For Seattle fans, it was the first regular-season win in 11 months. Zorn to Largent was restored and football felt fun again

The next week, McCormack made his Kingdome debut against the vaunted Pittsburgh Steelers. The ‘hawk defense, led by Ken Easley and Jacob Green, shut out the Steelers 16-0. Zorn-to-Largent cranked up for over 100 yards and the Seahawks were 2-2 and in the thick of the playoff hunt.

Week three of the McCormack era was an understandable trouncing by the eventual division champion Los Angeles Raiders. The Seahawks mounted a fruitless 4 th quarter comeback to narrow the margin to 28-23. On the bright side, Zorn-to-Largent produced another touchdown, and a 2-3 record still left plenty of room for a playoff chase.

On December 12, 1982 , the Seahawks returned home for a match-up with Walter Payton and the Chicago Bears. In another great defensive effort, the Seahawks held Payton to 40 yards in a 20-14 win. While nursing that 6-point lead, Zorn appeared to be calling a time-out on 3 rd and long, but instead called a direct snap to fullback Dan Doornink, who quick-kicked a beautiful punt that Largent downed at the one yard-line. This bit of mis-direction not only sealed a victory, but also gave fans that bit of razzle-dazzle that made the Patera years such great fun. This 3-3 team seemed destined to fulfill its playoff destiny.

Sadly, the next two Sundays resulted in only 10 Seahawk points and a 3-5 record. A slim 13-11 season-ending win over Denver put the team in a 3-way tie for the eighth seed in the AFC, with the 4-5 Cleveland Browns backing into the final playoff spot.

For McCormack, the disappointment had to be tempered by a simple accomplishment: He had finally coached a team to a winning regular season record. The attitude on the team was finally swinging upward and the rumblings from the players were that they wouldn’t mind if Mike McCormack appointed himself the permanent head coach.

Shortly after the season ended, McCormack renounced any claim to the head coaching spot and assumed the title of President and General Manager. Three weeks later, he hired Chuck Knox as his head coach and the two presided over a six-year stretch in which the Seahawks made the playoffs four times.

As GM, McCormack was responsible for bringing in Seahawk legends Curt Warner, John L. Williams and Brian Blades. He also deserves the credit for Owen Gill, Brian Bosworth and Kelly Stouffer. Well, never mind….

Another huge change happened on the eve of the 1988 season, when Ken “Bubba” Behring purchased the Seahawks from the Nordstrom family. McCormack now reported to a new owner and he quickly learned that his life wasn’t going to be the same. McCormack endured the meddling and back-handed media comments by Behring until Behring abruptly fired him after the season. Behring announced he wanted to bring in his “own people”, but the front office was mostly barren for a month or so before Tom Flores was hired in late February.

Mike McCormack’s reputation, however, was unsoiled. He later was the first general manager for the Carolina Panthers, building a team that reached the NFC championship in its second year, and he was the first inductee into Carolina ’s Hall of Honor. But in Seattle , he’ll always be remembered as the man who brought us Chuck Knox, the man who retired #12 for the fans…

And the man who coached one winning season with the Seattle Seahawks.

"The Hawkstorian" writes about Seahawks history, the salary cap, and many other things for Seahawks.NET on an alarmingly regular basis. You can reach him at hawkstorian@yahoo.com.

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