Jack Patera went 35-59 and led the Seahawks for six full seasons before being fired in 1982. He died on Wednesday from pancreatic cancer.
Jack Patera, the first coach of the Seahawks, died Wednesday at age 85 of pancreatic cancer, the team confirmed.
Patera died in Cle Elum surrounded by family and friends. He moved there in the late 1990s, he said in a 2014 interview with the Seattle Times.
Patera’s creative offense and willingness to take chances helped the Seahawks become an immediate hit among Seattle fans. He coached the Seahawks from 1976-82 and compiled a 35-59 record before being fired after the first two games of the 1982 season.
But that record doesn’t accurately indicate the success the team had early on, with winning records of 9-7 in 1978 and 1979, finishing a game out of the playoffs each year.
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Patera was named the NFL’s Coach of the Year in 1978 when Seattle recorded its first winning record in its third season of existence, the best record at that time for any third-year NFL expansion team. The Seahawks averaged 344 yards per game that year — third-best in the NFL — and were powered by the passing tandem of quarterback Jim Zorn and Hall of Fame receiver Steve Largent.
“It was very fun for us,” Largent recalled in a phone interview Wednesday. “That we were 9-7 in year three and year four boded very well for the future of the Seahawks. That was really exciting. And I think a lot of that had to do with his leadership and the strong personalities he had on the team as players.”
No personality, though, was stronger than that of Patera, who played guard at Oregon and then linebacker in the NFL with the Colts, Cardinals and Cowboys from 1955-61.
Following a knee injury that ended his playing career, Patera got into coaching and made his name guiding two of the most well-known defensive units in league history — the Fearsome Foursome defensive line of the Los Angeles Rams and the Purple People Eaters defensive line of the Minnesota Vikings.
After his Purple People Eaters line helped Minnesota advance to three Super Bowls, Patera was named the Seahawks’ first coach on Jan. 3, 1976.
Seahawks players, a collection of rookie draft choices, undrafted free agents and veterans who were made available by their former teams in the league’s expansion draft (Seattle and Tampa Bay each entered the NFL in 1976) immediately found out they didn’t have much room for error around Patera.
“He was a hard guy but he was a fair guy,” Steve Raible, a receiver for the Seahawks from 1976-81 and now the team’s play-by-play announcer, said Wednesday. “He was one of those old-fashioned coaches — quiet until he wasn’t quiet, and then you knew exactly where he stood. But he was pretty fair with everybody.”
Patera sometimes even aimed his wrath at the media. He became famous for once holding a seven-second news conference after a tough defeat when he opened by saying, “Any questions” and then, hearing none immediately proffered, turned and left.
“Jack very much had a drill-sergeant personality, but along with that he had an incredible sense of humor,” Largent said. “So it was kind of like he had two different types of personalities. But he made it work.”
Patera, born Aug. 1, 1933 in Bismarck, N.D., guided the team through its expansion years, forming teams that belied his image as a tough, no-nonsense, defense-first guy.
“As a coach, you work with the personnel that you have and he had a quarterback who could scramble around and throw and a guy who could catch the ball if it was anywhere close to him,” Raible said.
Seattle had, in 1977 (5-9) and 1978 (9-7), what were at the time the best records for any second-year and third-year expansion teams. Patera was honored as coach of the year following the 1978 season when the Seahawks swept the Oakland Raiders en route to finishing a game out of the playoffs.
Along with the entertaining Zorn-to-Largent-led offense, Patera’s teams also were known for their propensity for trick plays, particularly fake field goals and punts. A 20-yard pass from Zorn to kicker Efren Herrera highlighted a Monday Night Football victory at Atlanta in 1979 and had announcer Howard Cosell loudly singing the praises of Patera and the Seahawks.
“I want to tell you, folks, this is the kind of play pro football needs,’’ Cosell wailed as the unlikely play concluded. “Not parity, but enterprise, inventiveness. (Seattle coach) Jack Patera is giving the nation a lesson in creative football.’’
Said Raible: “He enjoyed that stuff, and because (assistant) Rusty Tillman was so good at coming up with those things, for the most part they worked. Almost every single time, they worked.”
Patera, though, couldn’t quite get the Seahawks over the hump.
A 4-3 start in his fifth season in 1980 ended with nine defeats in a row as Patera never could put together a defense that ranked better than 24th in the NFL. Seattle somehow lost all eight home games that season.
The Seahawks went 6-10 in 1981 and Patera was then fired following a 0-2 start in 1982, the season known for its prolonged player strike.
The team released its player representative, Sam McCullum, just before the strike, a decision that helped lead to Patera’s firing. (The National Labor Relations Board later ruled McCullum’s release illegal and ordered the Seahawks to pay for any costs McCullum — who quickly signed with the Vikings — incurred as a result of the move).
Patera was only 49 at the time but never coached again.
“It was too bad the way it ended,” Raible said. “It was a shame because Chuck (Knox) came in (in 1983) and with a couple of additions — (running back) Curt Warner is not just any addition — but he (Knox) came in and won with all of Jack’s guys the very next year.”
Recalled Patera in 2014: “We didn’t have the great success. But we had an exciting team and good times. We had some fun times.’’
Raible said he once asked Patera why he never coached again.
“He just said, ‘It left a bad taste in my mouth. I had done what I thought I could do there. We helped build that team and then somebody took it and went further with it,”’ Raible said. “But he was going to get paid for a few years after that, anyway. But I think it just kind of soured him a little bit.”
Raible also said Patera knew that his old-school ways might not be a good fit as the game continued to evolve.
“I think he saw kind of the direction of things,” said Raible.
Raible stayed close to Patera through the years, and especially in the last year or so after Patera was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Raible said he had thought the end might come for Patera as long as six months ago.
“Then his doctor said, ‘Gosh, he could be here for another year.’ Somebody said, ‘It’s because he’s too nasty to die. Just too mean to pass on,’ ” Raible said.
Indeed, Largent said Wednesday he walked on pins and needles around his former coach for years.
“He had a way of striking fear in your heart so even though he and I had retired, there was still a respect/fear factor involved in our relationship,” Largent said.
Patera was honored by the team in 2016 on the 40th anniversary of the first season, raising the 12th Man flag before the season opener against Miami.
“He was a great coach,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said Wednesday. “He was a great dude. I know the guys that played for him really loved playing for him. When we met them, on the days they come in for alumni days, he was really important to all those guys. Really important to a lot of them. So we’ll miss him.”
Zorn tweeted shortly after the news of Patera’s death: “My favorite memories of Coach Patera are: 1. If you called him “coach”, he would call you “player”. He liked to go by Jack! 2. He came up with the greatest fake field goals of all time. We had one every game ready to use. Rest In Peace, Jack, your legacy lives on!”