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Sunday, January 16, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Whitsitt's firing removes a dark cloud

Les Carpenter / Times staff columnist

Bob Whitsitt

Never could the loyal fans in Seahawks blue have known how little they mattered in the quick-money world of Bob Whitsitt. Even when the ticket notices for the new stadium arrived in the mail, attached to what amounted to a ransom note, they never realized they were simply football serfs ground under the heel of an organization that didn't care anymore.

There's a story they tell around the team's headquarters, and it sums up the Whitsitt years precisely. The way one former employee says he heard it, is that Whitsitt was overseeing a meeting to discuss possible ways of marketing a charter-seat package for the new stadium. A package that at $72 a seat plus a fee in the thousands of dollars must have seemed like a pyramid scheme.

At some point, someone suggested they could put the purchaser's name on a bronze plate that would be attached to the seat, perhaps as a token of appreciation.

And as the story goes, Whitsitt snorted.

"Yeah," he reportedly said. "They could write 'suckers' on it."

Which is all Seattle fans were in the Whitsitt regime.

Suckers.

Paul Allen was never around. The billionaire might have saved the team by writing a giant check and getting Whitsitt to maneuver his all-expenses-paid stadium vote through an unassuming electorate. But he couldn't save the franchise or its fans from the man who scorched the carpets daily at the team's Kirkland headquarters.

Fans wondered why it seemed the Seahawks had left them. But they never knew the team's history was being ripped from the walls. Like the victor in a bloody coup, Whitsitt stomped through the building cutting off heads. Out went the ticket people. Out went the marketing people. Out went the employees who had been coming to work for 20 years believing there was nothing more important in this world than Seahawks football.

Then the pictures went too. He had them pulled down. All of them. The four-foot snapshot of Chuck Knox, the giant photograph of Steve Largent breaking the receiving record, the pictures that lined the walls of the press room like an Italian restaurant, snapshots of all the people who had covered the team over the years.

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There was no Seahawks history before Bob Whitsitt. Instead, they were going to rewrite it under his name.

And the new history came with a jangling cash register. Right from the start, Whitsitt decided he couldn't sell football with football so he filled the offices with people imported from the NBA. And they ran around the offices with an appliance-store veneer, snapping their fingers and shouting things like "Show me the money!" and "Get that name on a contract!"

One ex-employee, who had worked for several large sports enterprises, was shocked.

"I've been around the block," he said. "This was the worst-run office for marketing I've ever seen. It was just like an aluminum-siding scam. It was like a used-car lot. They were just so cheesy."

Yesterday, as the fallout from Whitsitt's firing was settling around the league, there was a sense the Seahawks had languished too long under a dictatorship that took the franchise nowhere. Fans were alienated, coaches were frustrated and new employees, who came with grand visions of tapping into Allen's limitless resources, were left swiveling their heads, terrified the axe would fall.

"Everything was hard there," one football source said. "Life was just hard."

In some ways, it wasn't bad the Seahawks went from being a family organization to a shiny corporate entity. The team needed updating, especially after the disastrous Behring years. It was an aging operation that had long lost the glamour of the 1980s.

But under Whitsitt's watch, the Seahawks blew past a remodel and in doing so they lost the touch that made them so special in Seattle.

"We created an us-vs.-them mentality," said the employee who retold the suckers story.

One of the thems was Mark Collins, the Seattle contractor who ran the grassroots Save Our Seahawks group in the mid 1990s. He spent a year and a half and figures he lost more than $100,000 of his own money in the fight to keep the team in town. He was told his reward would be Seahawks tickets for life. Then, a few months later, he was told it would be tickets for six years.

Then he was told a mistake had been made. He would have Seahawks tickets for the first and sixth years only. He balked and was eventually given the tickets for six seasons.

Such an atmosphere permeated everything — from relationships with the fans to front-office dealings. There are many around the league who still hold Mike Holmgren accountable for what has gone wrong with the Seahawks. He is on his fourth defensive coordinator, after all.

Nonetheless, Whitsitt tormented him just as he tormented the previous coach, Dennis Erickson, and the dozens of workers who were thrown out, their desks emptied into cardboard boxes. Even the simplest football decisions became an ordeal.

Ultimately, it was the fans who were kicked in the teeth, who were treated with disregard, forced to pay extra, given little in the way of customer service. While things improved with the arrival of Tod Leiweke as CEO before the 2003 season, a cloud loomed over the franchise with the knowledge that only one man had Allen's ear. And as long as he did, there was dread in Kirkland.

On Friday, the cloud lifted.

"It might be the best move Paul Allen ever made," said a league source. "Paul might come out of this looking great. He saved the franchise, and he got rid of Whitsitt."

Maybe now, Seahawks fans won't have to be suckers anymore.

Les Carpenter: 206-464-2280 or lcarpenter@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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