John Thompson, the first general manager in Seahawks history who helped oversee the selection of the team’s nickname and colors as well as the hiring of first coach Jack Patera, has died.
Thompson, 95, died Tuesday morning in Las Vegas, his son, Mike, told The Seattle Times. A cause of death was not immediately available.
Thompson, who grew up in South Bend, Washington, where he was valedictorian of his high school class at the age of 16 and later attended the University of Washington, was hired as general manager of the Seahawks on March 6, 1975, and held that position until October 1982.
“That was his dream job,” Mike Thompson said.
John Thompson came to the Seahawks with vast NFL experience, having worked with the Vikings as the team’s publicity director and assistant general manager from 1960-70.
He was then hired as the assistant to the president of the National Football Conference following the merger of the NFL and the AFL, and then in 1971 as the first full-time executive director of the NFL’s Management Council, the collective bargaining agent of the league’s clubs before being hired by the Seahawks.
Among Thompson’s first tasks was to help select the team name and colors.
The Seahawks decided to hold a fan contest to solicit suggestions. The team ultimately got 20,365 entries with 1,741 different names including a few mentioned multiple times such as Mariners, Skippers, Pioneers, Lumberbacks and Spacers.
The team got so many that it eventually missed a stated May 31, 1975, deadline to name the team, waiting until June 17 to announce that the winner was Seahawks.
“Our names shows aggressiveness, reflects our soaring Northwest heritage, and belongs to no other major league team,” Thompson was quoted as saying in a news release to announce the name. “The fans DID suggest the name. It was not one of our original working selections.”
Thompson at the time apologized for the delay in naming the team and setting the team colors, saying “our name is very important to us. We wanted to do it right, and to develop a suitable name, color selection, emblem and logo type to best represent the Northwest. Our fans have been extremely helpful, and their support is key to the Seahawks’ success.”
Thompson also oversaw the team’s initial season-ticket sales campaign. Reports at the time indicated the team hoped to sell 35,000 to 45,000. Instead, it capped sales at 59,000 in the roughly 65,000-seat Kingdome 27 days after tickets initially went on sale, setting a record for an NFL expansion team of 45,000 that had been held by the Atlanta Falcons since 1966. Ticket sales were capped to allow for some sales of single-game tickets and for the opposing team and players, as required by the NFL.
A few months later, Thompson oversaw the hiring of Patera as coach. The two had known each other with the Minnesota Vikings as Patera was hired to coach the team’s defensive line — a group that became known as the Purple People Eaters — when Thompson was assistant general manager in 1969.
The Seahawks also considered Leeman Bennett, Monte Clark and Ken Meyer — all of whom went on to become NFL head coaches — before naming Patera on Jan. 3, 1976.
A Seattle Times story at the time noted that Patera flew to Seattle for an interview on Jan. 2 and stayed that night at Thompson’s house on Mercer Island before signing his contract the next day.
Thompson later told Sports Illustrated that he first talked to Patera the nights before and after Minnesota’s famed playoff loss to Dallas on Dec. 28, 1975, on Roger Staubach’s Hail Mary pass to Drew Pearson in the final seconds.
“As impressed as I was with Jack the night before the game,” Thompson told SI. “I was more impressed by the way he took that defeat. Jack probably wanted to tear his hair out, but I admired his cool. I felt we had to have a man who was patient and could accept defeat. Of course, I don’t want him to accept defeat so graciously that he’ll never be a winner.”
The Thompson-Patera partnership proved to be an initial rousing success as the Seahawks had both the best records at the time for a second-year expansion team (5-9 in 1977) and third-year (9-7 in 1978). Patera was named NFL Coach of the Year following the 1978 season and Thompson named Executive of the Year by The Sporting News.
The Seahawks went 9-7 again in 1979 keyed by an explosive offense led by quarterback Jim Zorn and receiver Steve Largent as the Kingdome earned a reputation for being one of the loudest NFL stadiums.
The good times faded over the next few years as the Seahawks dropped to 4-12 in 1980 and 6-10 in 1981.
Both Patera and Thompson were fired in October 1982 during the NFL players’ strike, with Seattle holding an 0-2 record and in the wake of the decision to release receiver Sam McCullum, the team’s player representative, a move unpopular with other players.
Thompson never again worked in the NFL but spent a few years with the Sports and Events Council of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce before retiring.
He stayed in the Seattle area before moving to Las Vegas in 2018 with his wife, Marilyn, also known as Mimi, to whom he was married for 71 years. The couple had three children.
Despite the way his Seahawks tenure ended, Mike Thompson said John Thompson never had any bitterness and was an avid follower of the team until the very end.
“He was wearing a Seahawks hat right up until his last days,” Mike Thompson said. “He had fond memories.”
Mike Thompson said his father watched every second of the Super Bowl win in 2014.
“He said ‘that’s my baby,’” as the Seahawks won what remains their only title so far. “He was proud.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that John Thompson graduated from the University of Washington. He attended classes at UW but left before completing his degree.