Catching up with Jack Patera, the Seahawks’ first coach
Content enjoying the quiet at his mountain home, Jack Patera, the Seahawks’ first coach in 1976, reminisces on his famous trick plays and the franchise’s first steps.
Seattle Times staff reporter
CLE ELUM, Wa. — Jack Patera, the first coach of the Seahawks, was a bear of a man, a 6-foot-1, 300-plus pound former NFL linebacker who might greet you with a withering stare and an intimidating growl.
Knock on the door of Patera’s country home today, and you get a much different greeting. Maggie, his 2-year-old German shorthair pointer, appears from behind the house and bounds up the front steps in a tail-wagging, tongue-lapping frenzy.
“She’s a rescue dog,’’ Patera says after answering his door moments later. “I was watching her play from out the back window, and when I saw her take off, I figured you were probably here.’’
One glance at Patera, 81, hugging Maggie tells you the old coach is more Teddy bear than grizzly. Patera’s still pushing 300 pounds, but his gentle smile reflects the great grandfather he has become.
For one welcoming afternoon this week, Patera talked about football and life. He’s a living symbol of what the Seahawks used to be, the man who guided them through expansion infancy for six-plus seasons starting in 1976.
But Patera also appreciates what the franchise has become compared to those fun-but-frustrating squads under his watch.
In a memorable moment during last weekend’s NFC Championship Game, Patera watched from his living room as the two eras reconnected. The Seahawks scored their first touchdown on a fake field goal, the type of gadget play Patera often relied on to win games with fledgling Seahawks teams full of spunk but short on talent.
“I enjoyed seeing it,’’ Patera says of the touchdown pass from punter Jon Ryan to offensive tackle Gary Gilliam. “I didn’t go ‘Woo-hoo, they scored on a gadget play!’ but I enjoyed it for the thought that went into it. It takes a certain attention to detail to pull off a play like that.’’
Patera should know. He invited his players to submit trick play ideas. He never used them.
“They came up with some of the goofiest, wackiest stuff you could think of,’’ he says. “Sometimes, an idea just pops into your head. You see something happen in a game and you start thinking about how you can take it that one step further.’’
Patera never took his Hawks on that next step. He was fired in October 1982, shortly after a player’s strike ended. His controversial decision to cut the team’s player representative just before the strike played a role in his dismissal.
He never coached again. Somewhat bitter, it was 17 years before he showed up at another Seahawks game. But Patera says he has put that behind him, attending the team’s final Kingdome game in 1999 and later hoisting the 12th Man Flag in 2005 at CenturyLink Field ahead of the franchise’s first Super Bowl appearance.
“We didn’t have the great success,’’ Patera says of his scrappy teams led by a young Jim Zorn and Steve Largent, and including characters like Efren Herrera. “But we had an exciting team and good times. We had some fun times.’’
Yet coaching was also all-consuming. It’s why, after the initial shock of his firing, he was content to leave the game at age 49 for an easier lifestyle.
That life now sees his hunting dogs, Maggie and Angie, a 12-year-old English Setter, living with him on this remote, 10-acre property overlooking a pond and the Yakima River. He has a few neighbors out front, but his nearest neighbor out back is a half-mile past the pond and surrounding forest.
“I’ll watch Maggie out there and she runs and plays with deer,’’ Patera says, staring out his living-room window. “She tries to play with the elk, but they’ll be like, ‘Get out of here.’ ’’
Patera moved here soon after his late-1990s divorce from Susan, his wife of 44 years. He embraces the solitude, content to watch his dogs, or spend time reading. His reading list includes the 1968 Charles Portis novel “True Grit.” It’s a classic from a different time, just like Patera.
“I probably read more than I should,’’ he says.
He plays bridge Tuesdays at a local seniors center and spends every day from 5 to 7 p.m. watching “The O’Reilly Factor’’ and “The Kelly File’’ on Fox News. His two sons and two daughters occasionally visit, as do grandchildren. But it’s a hike to get here. Neighbors come over for lunch, or a beer, but never on Sundays during football season.
That’s when Patera eases his arthritic limbs into a leather recliner for a daylong session in front of his big-screen TV.
“I don’t want anybody coming around to distract me,’’ he says.
He’ll watch for plays and trends only a coach’s eye can fully appreciate. He couldn’t believe his eyes Sunday as the final minutes unfolded in the Seahawks’ comeback victory over the Green Bay Packers.
“In all my years, I’ve never seen a team play that poorly and still manage to win,’’ he says.
Like any fan, Patera sometimes second-guesses decisions. But he doubts he could handle the stresses of coaching today.
“Everything has escalated,’’ he says. “I had six assistant coaches. Now, they have 40 or something. I don’t know whether I could handle 40 assistants.”
Patera’s instincts were honed in a bygone era. Two weeks in training camp under legendary Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry taught him more than he’d learned in five previous NFL seasons.
Patera was a guard from Oregon when he was drafted in 1955 by the Baltimore Colts. He was later converted to linebacker. The transition proved difficult.
He remembers Colts defensive captain Don Shula, a future Hall of Fame coach, chastising him for letting a tight end catch too many passes.
“I’d never been on pass defense in my life,’’ he remembers.
Dallas acquired Patera in the 1960 expansion draft, and Landry made him his starting middle linebacker. Landry schooled Patera on greater awareness, quicker reactions and picking up receivers.
A knee injury ended Patera’s career in 1962. But he carried those hard-learned lessons about pass defense with him as an NFL assistant coach.
Patera went on to coach two of the greatest defensive lines in NFL history: the “Fearsome Foursome” of Rosie Grier, Lamar Lundy, Deacon Jones and Merlin Olsen with the Los Angeles Rams, and the “Purple People Eaters” of Alan Page, Carl Eller, Jim Marshall and Gary Larsen in Minnesota.
Patera helped the Vikings advance to three Super Bowls, losing every time. The experience was nothing like today’s big game, with just a week to prepare and little hype.
By 1976, Patera had left for Seattle. His new players — especially the veterans — quickly came to respect his straight-shooter style. Things didn’t go as well with the media. One postgame news conference after a loss lasted only seven seconds.
“Any questions?’’ Patera asked. When none was immediately asked, he stormed out.
He says he saw The Seattle Times sports editor, Georg Myers, giggling. “I thought, ‘Why am I standing around here for this?’ and so, I just left,” he said. “That was one time I really lost my temper and shouldn’t have. Nothing I can do now.’’
Patera feels the incident contributed to a misleading reputation. He says he generally had decent relations with the media. Still, he wasn’t afraid to share what he really thought about something.
“I don’t know another way to be,’’ he says.
The only signs of his Seahawks days inside his home are two trophies from eight different NFL Coach of the Year awards from 1978, including one from The Associated Press. The third-year Hawks were 9-7 that season, their first winning record.
After that he floated around odd jobs and business ventures, but found he was happiest golfing, fishing and simply “taking it easy.’’
After his divorce, he packed up and moved from Edmonds out here.
“I guess I wanted the peace and quiet,’’ he says. “I sure got it.’’
He expanded his kitchen, where he cooked up a new risotto recipe for himself after the Hawks beat Green Bay. Patera also added a bigger bathroom with a Jacuzzi tub, but can’t climb in and out because of dual knee replacements.
Patera stopped playing golf last year because of arthritic hands. He used to fish for trout in the pond, but the eagles and osprey have cleaned out its stock.
Most of his old friends have died. He wonders where the years went.
His home’s only other football display is a set of four decorative plates with “Baltimore Colts” emblazoned on them, hanging in his front hallway; a long-ago gift from that team’s first owner, Carroll Rosenbloom.
The plates confused his housekeeper. “I know who the Baltimore Ravens are and I know the Indianapolis Colts,” she said. “But who are these Baltimore Colts?”
Patera smiles telling the story.
He’ll watch the Seahawks play the New England Patriots on Feb. 1 in the Super Bowl purely for enjoyment, not to relive the old days. Those days, like those early Seahawks, are gone for good, reduced to mostly pleasant memories of a time when expectations were low and you lived for the moment.
Kind of like Patera’s life out here.
He has his Tuesday bridge games, his dogs, the deer and the elk and the solitude he has come to appreciate.
“I’ve had a lot of time to reflect,’’ Jack Patera says. “And I’m content.’’