Since the Seahawks brought professional football to Seattle in 1976, they and the Huskies have traded their days in the sun. Safely in the post-LOB era, it appears Washington is ready to rise again.
Assuming the preseason expectations for UW and the Seahawks hold true, one subplot to this football season is that this could be a year when we see yet another shift in which team takes over as the gridiron kings of Seattle.
Well, we’ve been here before.
UW for decades had nothing to worry about when it came to ruling the town in football.
But that changed in 1976, when the Seahawks arrived and promptly began selling out the Kingdome every Sunday.
Since then, the two have both had their moments in the sun. They’ve also each had their moments when they wondered if all those empty seats would ever get filled again.
Here’s a look at five pivotal moments in Seattle football history, when the title of “Seahawks Town” or “Huskies Town” appeared up for grabs.
UW was in the midst of a long drought that precipitated the end of the Jim Owens era and the hiring of Don James when the Seahawks arrived in 1976.
As the Huskies opened the 1977 season not having gone to a bowl game in 13 years, there was some serious concern about the potential erosion of their fan base. Just 36,489 showed up for UW’s second home game that season against San Jose State following an opening loss to Mississippi State — which itself followed records of 6-5 and 5-6 in James’ first two seasons. The Huskies, who had never had to worry about football competition before, suddenly loomed as a potential afterthought to their NFL counterparts.
That changed suddenly as the Huskies shrugged off a 1-3 start to win the Pac-8 and then, behind Warren Moon, Michael Jackson and a host of others emerging stars, upset Michigan in the Rose Bowl, a season that kicked off what remains the most successful period of success in the program’s modern (or post-World War II era) history.
“It was a huge start to the program,” Tom Turnure, an offensive lineman on that team, told the Seattle Times in 2008. “You think about the ramifications of that season for the whole program. (James) didn’t have that good a record going into it and it just kind of started the whole thing off.”
The Seahawks, meanwhile, went 5-9 — at the time the best record for a second-year expansion team, a season that appeared to mostly prove that Seattle could easily support two major football teams if given a reason.
James’ Huskies spent much of the 1982 season ranked at No. 1 following Rose Bowl appearances in 1980 and 1981. They proved so successful that, soon, there was no reason to worry about losing any part of their fan base to the Seahawks.
In fact, after records of 4-12 and 6-10, the Seahawks fired coach Jack Patera during the NFL strike of 1982 — which in itself caused concern about how the fan base would react — amid attendances beginning to pale to those at Husky Stadum.
The Seahawks’ grand plan to revive things? Hire James, who was offered the job as Patera’s successor during the strike. James turned it down, memorably calling a press conference the day before a game at Stanford to make it clear he planned to stay at UW.
The Seahawks’ Plan B — Chuck Knox — turned out well enough. Seattle had to wait until after the season to hire Knox following five years in Buffalo. But Knox proved the perfect fit, guiding the Seahawks to the AFC Conference title game and kicking off a run of four playoff appearances in five years during a decade of the ‘80s when football truly ruled Seattle.
If the Huskies had to worry in 1977 about being an afterthought to the Seahawks, it was the Seahawks who had to worry about it 15 years. Following Knox’s departure, the Seahawks went 2-14 in 1992 under new coach Tom Flores amid what would soon be serious rumblings about the team’s future in Seattle with then-owner Ken Behring making plans to move the team elsewhere.
The Huskies, meanwhile, were winning a national title in 1991. And while 1992 turned rocky — an NCAA investigation that led to the eventual retirement of James — there was no doubt as the ‘90s dawned as to which was the cool football team in town.
On the opening weekend of the 1995 season, the Huskies drew 73,129 for a game against Arizona State while on the next day — in the debut for Dennis Erickson as Seattle’s coach — just 47,564 showed up to the Kingdome to see the Chiefs drub the Seahawks 34-10.
Oh how the tides of football fortune can shift. By the early 2000s the Huskies were embroiled in another NCAA controversy resulting in the firing of coach Rick Neuheisel and what would soon be a total bottom-out of a season in 2004, when UW went 1-10 — its first losing season since James’ second year in 1976. Sadly for UW fans, that would not turn out to be the worst it would get).
The Seahawks, meanwhile, finally re-righted their ship in the late ‘90s when Paul Allen bought the team, got CenturyLink built and hired Mike Holmgren.
It took a little while, including a two-year stayover at Husky Stadium when it was common for UW to sell out the building on a Saturday and for the Seahawks to stare at lots of empty seats on a Sunday.
But by the middle of the 2000s it was again a Seahawks town — UW opened its 2005 season with a “road” game at CenturyLink against Air Force, a contest that drew just 26,482 (admittedly, it was a bad idea with overpriced tickets and all, but still) while the Seahawks embarked on a season that ended in their first Super Bowl appearance.
The last few years have been about as good as it could get for Seattle football — the Seahawks have two Super Bowl appearances this decade and have sold out every game, going to the playoffs six of eight years, while UW appears poised for the closest thing to the James era under the steady guidance of Chris Petersen.
But are we about to see another shift?
As the Huskies open with maybe the highest expectations in program history — certainly the highest since at least the 1991 season that ended in a national title — the Seahawks are filled with new faces and uncertainty, the prospect of a new Top Dawg in Seattle football possibly on the horizon.