How the Mariners, Seahawks and Huskies fell so far

Published on August 23, 2010 by     T.C.

As three Seattle sports teams struggle to crawl out of the darkness, fans wonder what went wrong and how things got so bad.

Two years ago, when every major Seattle sports team convened in the gutter, the only elixir was a notion that the despair couldn’t get any worse.

No one ever mentioned when it would get better, though.

So here we are, in 2010, waiting. The culprits in the misery of 2008 are at various stages of rebuilding, not to mention repenting. One team, the Sonics, is a memory. The Mariners improved temporarily and then fell apart again. The Seahawks are on their third coach in two years. Only the Washington football team, the longtime pride of this city, appears positioned for a swift turnaround. But some were saying the same about the Mariners only five months ago.

It’s so much harder to climb out of a pit than it is to fall into one. During that 2008 disaster, those four major teams won 85 of 272 games (31 percent). The Huskies and Sonics suffered their all-time worst seasons, while the Seahawks and Mariners came close. But if ’08 exposed the problems, these ensuing two years of recovery — and in some cases, relapse — have offered painful perspective on the depth of each team’s issues.

Over the next three days, The Seattle Times will explore why the Huskies, Seahawks and Mariners landed in the gutter and ponder when they’ll feel the sunshine again. For the Huskies, equipped with superstar quarterback Jake Locker and rumbling with momentum, a revival could begin this fall. For the Seahawks, it depends on whether new coach Pete Carroll was the right hire. For the Mariners, whose nine-year postseason drought is the longest of the three, there are almost as many question marks as there were two years ago.

So until one of those teams rises and carries the city, we’re left with this: Of the top 20 TV markets that have multiple pro teams and a major college, only Seattle currently doesn’t have a winner among its preeminent teams.

Yes, we have the Storm on pace to win a WNBA championship. And Sounders FC has made an incredible comeback this season. And the Washington men’s basketball team advanced to the Sweet 16. And several other smaller or nonrevenue teams have enjoyed success. But whether right or wrong, it takes the Seahawks, Mariners or Husky football to capture the city’s imagination, and influence how the rest of the nation views the Seattle sports scene.

It means the prevailing outlook here remains gloomy.

“We haven’t had as much losing and disappointment as we’ve had the last few years since, probably, the late 1960s and early 1970s,” local sports historian Russ Dille said. “That was the period when the Seattle Pilots were our first Major League Baseball team, but left after the 1969 season. Jim Owens was the Huskies football coach, and he finished 1-9 that same year and went through a lot of ups and downs before Don James arrived. The Sonics were new and just getting started. And the Seahawks and Mariners didn’t come until the late 1970s.

“That period, before Don James got it going, before the Sonics won their championship (in 1979), before we got baseball back and got an NFL team, those were the toughest, saddest times.”

Asked to compare that old era with this one, Dille says he’ll probably always consider the past more painful. He’ll always say 1969 was a harder year than 2008. Back then, the Sonics franchise was still an infant with the novelty of a player-coach named Lenny Wilkens, and Seattle had yet to establish itself as a viable long-term pro sports market, so losing the Pilots stung. The Huskies’ football season turned ugly that fall, and throughout that 1-9 campaign, Dille remembers going to Sonics games and hearing fans cheer when the Huskies’ scores were announced. Why did they cheer losses?

“They wanted to get Jim Owens out of there,” he said. “They had turned on him. They saw it as a positive that losing could lead to him losing his job. That was a strange time. That was sad.”

Owens survived that season and coached at Washington for five more years, including the Sonny Sixkiller era, before James arrived in 1975. These days, it’s nearly impossible for a coach to win just one game — a 30-21 victory over Washington State — and keep his job.

Dille talks often about how times have changed. Now, he sees Seattle as a more mature sports town. The Sonics lasted 41 years. The Seahawks and Mariners have been around for more than 30. James took Huskies tradition to another level. Seattle no longer needs to prove itself.

But advancing past the happy-to-be-here stage means that fans have a harder time dealing with the down periods. Fan rancor is teeming now, perhaps not to the level of cheering losses, but certainly the screams for change are defying Seattle’s reputation as being too nice. Just when it seemed Seattle had paid its dues, the teams hit rock bottom at the same time.

The reasons vary for each team. Looking back, one point rarely emphasized is that Seattle experienced its greatest era of pro-sports success from 1995 through 2005. During that period, the Mariners, Sonics and Seahawks all chased championships, and the Huskies went to the Rose Bowl in 2001. The cyclical nature of sports dictates that all of those teams were due for an eventual downfall, but it’s nearly unfathomable that they all lost steam at once.

Over the past nine years, the Mariners have never truly committed themselves to a rebuilding plan, but they’re rebuilding anyway, and it’s a process that has become longer and more challenging than necessary. During prosperous times, the Seahawks didn’t plan well enough for the future, allowed too many members of their core to get old at the same time, and the friction between coach Mike Holmgren and team president Tim Ruskell didn’t help, either. The Huskies hired the wrong coach two different times (Rick Neuheisel and Ty Willingham) for two different reasons, and as a result, they haven’t been to a bowl game in eight years.

Amid all the despair, the teams have leaned on hope. That’s the thing about bottoming out. There are thousands of inspirational sayings about making comebacks. But seldom is it as easy as those quotes sound.

“It’s darkest before dawn,” Washington athletic director Scott Woodward used to say.

“We have not yet begun to fight,” Mariners president Chuck Armstrong used to declare.

Well, dawn has taken the scenic route. And now would be a good time to throw a punch

Two years ago, when every major Seattle sports team convened in the gutter, the only elixir was a notion that the despair couldn’t get any worse.

No one ever mentioned when it would get better, though.

So here we are, in 2010, waiting. The culprits in the misery of 2008 are at various stages of rebuilding, not to mention repenting. One team, the Sonics, is a memory. The Mariners improved temporarily and then fell apart again. The Seahawks are on their third coach in two years. Only the Washington football team, the longtime pride of this city, appears positioned for a swift turnaround. But some were saying the same about the Mariners only five months ago.

It’s so much harder to climb out of a pit than it is to fall into one. During that 2008 disaster, those four major teams won 85 of 272 games (31 percent). The Huskies and Sonics suffered their all-time worst seasons, while the Seahawks and Mariners came close. But if ’08 exposed the problems, these ensuing two years of recovery — and in some cases, relapse — have offered painful perspective on the depth of each team’s issues.

Over the next three days, The Seattle Times will explore why the Huskies, Seahawks and Mariners landed in the gutter and ponder when they’ll feel the sunshine again. For the Huskies, equipped with superstar quarterback Jake Locker and rumbling with momentum, a revival could begin this fall. For the Seahawks, it depends on whether new coach Pete Carroll was the right hire. For the Mariners, whose nine-year postseason drought is the longest of the three, there are almost as many question marks as there were two years ago.

So until one of those teams rises and carries the city, we’re left with this: Of the top 20 TV markets that have multiple pro teams and a major college, only Seattle currently doesn’t have a winner among its preeminent teams.

Yes, we have the Storm on pace to win a WNBA championship. And Sounders FC has made an incredible comeback this season. And the Washington men’s basketball team advanced to the Sweet 16. And several other smaller or nonrevenue teams have enjoyed success. But whether right or wrong, it takes the Seahawks, Mariners or Husky football to capture the city’s imagination, and influence how the rest of the nation views the Seattle sports scene.

It means the prevailing outlook here remains gloomy.

“We haven’t had as much losing and disappointment as we’ve had the last few years since, probably, the late 1960s and early 1970s,” local sports historian Russ Dille said. “That was the period when the Seattle Pilots were our first Major League Baseball team, but left after the 1969 season. Jim Owens was the Huskies football coach, and he finished 1-9 that same year and went through a lot of ups and downs before Don James arrived. The Sonics were new and just getting started. And the Seahawks and Mariners didn’t come until the late 1970s.

“That period, before Don James got it going, before the Sonics won their championship (in 1979), before we got baseball back and got an NFL team, those were the toughest, saddest times.”

Asked to compare that old era with this one, Dille says he’ll probably always consider the past more painful. He’ll always say 1969 was a harder year than 2008. Back then, the Sonics franchise was still an infant with the novelty of a player-coach named Lenny Wilkens, and Seattle had yet to establish itself as a viable long-term pro sports market, so losing the Pilots stung. The Huskies’ football season turned ugly that fall, and throughout that 1-9 campaign, Dille remembers going to Sonics games and hearing fans cheer when the Huskies’ scores were announced. Why did they cheer losses?

“They wanted to get Jim Owens out of there,” he said. “They had turned on him. They saw it as a positive that losing could lead to him losing his job. That was a strange time. That was sad.”

Owens survived that season and coached at Washington for five more years, including the Sonny Sixkiller era, before James arrived in 1975. These days, it’s nearly impossible for a coach to win just one game — a 30-21 victory over Washington State — and keep his job.

Dille talks often about how times have changed. Now, he sees Seattle as a more mature sports town. The Sonics lasted 41 years. The Seahawks and Mariners have been around for more than 30. James took Huskies tradition to another level. Seattle no longer needs to prove itself.

But advancing past the happy-to-be-here stage means that fans have a harder time dealing with the down periods. Fan rancor is teeming now, perhaps not to the level of cheering losses, but certainly the screams for change are defying Seattle’s reputation as being too nice. Just when it seemed Seattle had paid its dues, the teams hit rock bottom at the same time.

The reasons vary for each team. Looking back, one point rarely emphasized is that Seattle experienced its greatest era of pro-sports success from 1995 through 2005. During that period, the Mariners, Sonics and Seahawks all chased championships, and the Huskies went to the Rose Bowl in 2001. The cyclical nature of sports dictates that all of those teams were due for an eventual downfall, but it’s nearly unfathomable that they all lost steam at once.

Over the past nine years, the Mariners have never truly committed themselves to a rebuilding plan, but they’re rebuilding anyway, and it’s a process that has become longer and more challenging than necessary. During prosperous times, the Seahawks didn’t plan well enough for the future, allowed too many members of their core to get old at the same time, and the friction between coach Mike Holmgren and team president Tim Ruskell didn’t help, either. The Huskies hired the wrong coach two different times (Rick Neuheisel and Ty Willingham) for two different reasons, and as a result, they haven’t been to a bowl game in eight years.

Amid all the despair, the teams have leaned on hope. That’s the thing about bottoming out. There are thousands of inspirational sayings about making comebacks. But seldom is it as easy as those quotes sound.

“It’s darkest before dawn,” Washington athletic director Scott Woodward used to say.

“We have not yet begun to fight,” Mariners president Chuck Armstrong used to declare.

Well, dawn has taken the scenic route. And now would be a good time to throw a punch

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