Seahawks Shine Under Top Brass
Wednesday, January 11, 2006
SEATTLE -- Bob Whitsitt was a basketball man, which must have seemed odd to the people who worked at the Seattle Seahawks' headquarters when he arrived in 1997. But he was Paul Allen's designated sports mastermind and Allen was the world's seventh-richest man as well as the determined new owner of the franchise, which made him the best hope the Seahawks had.
Without Whitsitt, there was no Allen. And without Allen the Seahawks would probably have been sold and moved to Houston, San Antonio or some other city desperate for a team. So they accepted the basketball interloper, crossed their fingers and prayed for the best. Only to find the next eight years would be worse than anyone imagined.
Whitsitt set up an office at the team's headquarters in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland and ruled with a force that shocked everyone. While only in the office half the time because he was also president and general manager of Allen's basketball team, the Portland Trail Blazers, Whitsitt did away with the marketing department and the ticketing people. Down came photos of the franchise's most famous men -- Hall of Fame wide receiver Steve Largent and Chuck Knox, the team's only playoff coach other than Mike Holmgren. There would be a new history, a new regime and it would be run by Whitsitt.
When in 2002, Holmgren agreed to give up his role as general manager to concentrate on coaching full-time, Whitsitt moved permanently to Seattle and pulled a move straight from Pat Riley's playbook: He put himself in charge of all player moves in a move that generated so much animosity around the franchise that it almost came apart last winter.
"We were dysfunctional, a house divided," said one team employee who asked not to be identified so as not to create further acrimony. "It was unbelievable, much of it emanated from one man and one office."
Then something unexpected happened one year ago to the day of this Saturday's playoff game with the Redskins. Whitsitt was fired.
It came as a surprise because Allen was seen as stretched so thin with the biotech and multimedia facets of his $21 billion empire that he wouldn't be comfortable cutting ties with the man who ran his sports operations. But the moment he did, one of the most tumultuous franchises in the league suddenly exhaled.
"There was the most amazing group of assets here," said Tod Leiweke, the Seahawks' chief executive. "You had an owner who was committed and did it in his home town, we had a stadium he built that was built right. The last piece you needed was a unified organization."
That the Seahawks were not. In the days before Whitsitt's firing, it had become clear that Holmgren had so tired of his dealings with the de facto general manager from the NBA that he was going to quit unless a change was made. At the same time, team executives realized that Matt Hasselbeck, the quarterback Holmgren had groomed into the team's leader, was going to leave as a free agent if Whitsitt stayed.
The firing changed all that. Both NFL sources and sports executives in Seattle say Leiweke, hired in 2003 to stabilize the team's business operation, was the one who finally convinced Allen that Whitsitt had to go. While Leiweke refused to discuss Whitsitt, there was instantly a new joy around the team offices. The tension of the previous several seasons had disappeared overnight.
And it has a lot to do with the difference between the Seahawks' underachieving records the last couple of years and this season's 13-3.
"I don't think you get to [13-3] unless you have everyone pulling in the same direction," Leiweke said. "This isn't a widget business, it's a people business."