BY Art Thiel 06:30AM 07/04/2019

Thiel: When Ken Behring lied to John Nordstrom

Ken Behring, who died last week, did some good works with philanthropy, but did some awful things as Seahawks owner. Ask the man, John Nordstrom, who sold him the team in 1988.

Ken Behring’s tenure as Seahawks owner from 1988 to 1997 was a mess. / Mike Urban, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

The news Friday that former Seahawks owner Ken Behring died at 91 called to mind a January 2006 phone conversation I had with John Nordstorm. He was the leader of the family ownership group that brought the Seahawks into existence in 1977, then in 1988 sold to Behring, perhaps the worst choice in Nordstrom’s otherwise illustrious business career.

I called from Detroit, where the Seattle Post-Intelligencer sent me to cover the Seahawks in the Super Bowl, the first in the franchise’s 30-year existence. I figured Nordstrom, an intense, knowledgeable fan, then and now, would be in a magnum giddy mood among his fellow owners, nearly all of whom developed great respect for him during his time as managing general partner of the franchise.

He was giddy, all right. But he was in Johannesburg, South Africa, and wasn’t returning for the game.

A licensed private pilot, Nordstrom and his wife, Sally, had long plotted an around-the-world plane trip with him as captain, never dreaming the dates would coincide with the Seahawks in the Super Bowl. Irony can be supremely annoying.

The conversation covered multiple topics, the most intriguing of which was the ownership of Paul Allen, who in 1997 bought the Seahawks from Behring for $200 million and became its transformative figure, despite having little passion for the game. Since 1988, he had owned the Portland Trail Blazers of the NBA, his first sports love, and didn’t want another pro sports team, doing so only as a civic favor to bail out his home town of the odious Seahawks owner.

Behring in 1996 moved the club to Orange County for two dramatic, semi-hysterical weeks before a mortified NFL and the courts yanked the team back to its headquarters in Kirkland.

When the Microsoft co-founder agreed to buy the club — pending a positive outcome of a statewide vote in June 1997 to subsidize a replacement stadium for the decaying Kingdome with public money (it passed with a 51 percent plurality) — Nordstrom said he had to jump in to preserve the deal.

It turns out that the NFL owners were afraid of Allen and his wealth, which was far more substantial than any owner in league history — then and now, with his current estate, in the charge of his sister, Jody Allen, valued somewhere around $20 billion.

Nordstrom flew to the Super Bowl in New Orleans with Allen to assure an informal meeting among his one-time football partners that Allen was not a titan prepared to devour the football landscape.

“It was said to me more than once that, ‘We’re not sure we can have him in the club,’ ” Nordstrom recalled of the wide-spread fear. “They were really worried about a guy they thought could buy the whole league.

“But after the meeting, they found out he wasn’t that kind of guy.”

The scaredy-cat owners eventually might have figured that out on their own. Nordstrom wasn’t trying to white-horse himself in the recollection. He knew better. Because he was playing catch-up from a similar situation nine years earlier, when he helped sell the NFL on the worthiness of Behring, a California real estate developer and classic-car enthusiast, as an owner.

The Nordstroms, scarred by NFL labor strife in 1982 and 1987, wanted out before pro sports became toxic to their retail-clothing empire that was a Fortune 500 company. In his 2015 autobiography, Mr. John, co-written by longtime News Tribune sports columnist Dave Boling, Nordstrom revealed that the for-sale sign drew numerous inquiries, including from, ahem, Bill Cosby. But the prospective bidders did not promise to keep the club in Seattle. Except for Behring.

He promised $80 million and no relocation. The sale produced a rolling nightmare of mismanagement and embarrassment for the Seahawks. This was the first sentence of a column I wrote in 1989: “In his first six months on the Seattle sports scene, Seahawks owner Ken Behring has supplied the most bewildering smorgasbord of misinformation since the Nixon White House.”

To highlight a signature low-light, in 1991 Behring had the Seahawks’ first-round draft choice spent on QB Dan McGwire, brother of baseball slugger Mark, instead of a kid from Mississippi named Brett Favre.

For those who believe it gauche to speak ill of the dead, Behring in later years made numerous philanthropic donations to a variety of causes, including universities, the arts and the Smithsonian museums, and founded the Wheelchair Foundation, which by 2015 had distributed more than one million wheelchairs worldwide.

Say what you will about rich people buying grace late in life. As far as football . . . well, here’s how Nordstrom in his book told the story of Feb. 1, 1996, the worst day in club history, when Behring betrayed his promise.

The biggest Behring lie came at the end. I heard a lot of rumors that Behring wanted to move the team. So I called him, told him about the rumors and said I needed to talk to him. He happened to be in town, so he said he’d come over to my house. He sat in my living room and said, ‘I’m not going to move the team; I wouldn’t do it.” Okay, I told him, I’d take his word for it. As it turned out, at that very moment, the moving vans were at the team headquarters in Kirkland. I found out about it three hours later.

I was absolutely furious. How could he say that to me? How could a human being do that?

A man of contradictions, Behring’s time in Seattle was largely a mess. Nordstrom helped the club get into the mess, and helped them out of it with the purchase by Allen.

For the 12s who are new to the Seahawks since the 2010 arrival of coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider, it is probably good to be alert to the notion that the debates about who should start at free safety are, relatively speaking, sunshine, lollipops and rainbows.


YourThoughts

  • coug73

    The Blackhawk has departed the Seattle Seahawks a long time ago and now the Seahawks are in good hands. How long me thinks? The history of departing sport teams from Seattle is long and historical.

    • art thiel

      No one is leaving the Seattle market now, although Boeing’s travails are breathtaking.

      So far, Jody Allen has indicated no desire to sell the Seahawks. It’s not known publicly whether Paul’s estate put any conditions on relocation.

    • The NFL would never ever approve a relocation of the seahawks.

      • jafabian

        We thought the same about the Sonics. Never say never.

        • NFL is not the NBA. NFL would never approve of it. Also it was the NFL that stopped Behring from moving the seahawks in the first place on the threat of being fined every day.

  • Husky73

    In the same column, references to Nixon and Leslie Gore. Where can Art possibly go from here?

  • Tian Biao

    great column, Art, thanks for the history. what a bunch of ninnies these sports owners are: NFL owners afraid of wealth (an irony in itself) and MLB owners afraid of a Japanese buyer. also: why would it be gauche to speak ill of the dead? dying doesn’t automatically exonerate someone of their misdeeds. and if we can believe John Nordstrom, and I think we can, that was a brutal bold-faced lie on the part of Behring.

    • art thiel

      Some are sensitive about criticizing a person upon death. I get that, so I offered some balance by citing his philanthropy. None of that changes his public time as a sports team owner. The Nordstrom episode underscored Behring’s untrustworthiness, which was his sports hallmark.

  • wabubba67

    The Nordstrom family has deep roots in the PNW and a conscience to persist in righting a wrong to the region. In stark contrast, take a peek had Howard Schultz and the Sonics.

    • art thiel

      Good point. Schultz in his book was still attempting to walk back some of the backlash. He never understood his own culpability.

      • wabubba67

        Yes. More to my point, the Nordstroms rarely sought forgiveness in public for their mistake but worked behind the scenes (and in a crucial role) to broker a deal between Paul Allen and the NFL. Schultz constantly seeks the public’s understanding and forgiveness for his mistake but so far has done nothing meaningful in private (or public) to rectify a situation that he created.

        • art thiel

          It took him 10 years to publicly admit to a “mistake,” but he still never came clean, and refuses to explain himself in public forums other than to express regret.

  • DJ

    Thanks Art! Way to come up with a new angle to be thankful to Mr Nordstrom and Mr Allen.
    Funny, as a Seattle Native, and spent my formative years on the East Side, and it seems to me that the great expansion of residential development in Issaquah (plateau), coincided with Ken Behring’s “tenure” in Seattle. Maybe other areas as well. Are you aware of a link to some of the unreasonable growth to Behring as a developer?
    (unreasonable >> development without sufficient infrastructure already in place)
    No doubt that King County holds primary responsibility, but just thinking potential political pressure, etc.

    • art thiel

      Behring did indeed attempt a residential real estate development in King County during his tenure, something like the Blackhawk project east of the Bay. But it quickly went nowhere, further alienating Behring from Seattle. He never did any projects here.

      • DJ

        So the rich boy got his feelings hurt and was gonna take his toys and go home…..Thanks for the refresher, Art!

  • Kevin Lynch

    “You don’t own me” – Lesley Gore’s famous feminist statement in song.

  • Michael

    And then with regard to the Behring era there is the much more minor matter of his one-time GM, Mike Blatt, being tried twice for the crossbow murder-for-hire of someone Blatt allegedly was angry at for costing Blatt the full-time GM job. Blatt got off after two trials but the guys who did the actual murdering, and testified against Blatt, were not so lucky. Perhaps in perfect post-modern 12-Step America, Blatt apparently now is running a drug rehab center in Sausalito where, among other things, one would assume he teaches the live-and-let-live philosophy. LOL

    • art thiel

      Blatt was also the prime connector between Behring and Nordstrom. Blatt, a player agent, put money in escrow to be a minority owner, but that didn’t happen. Then he wanted to be GM, and was given the interim title for three weeks. Then came the murder for hire episode, for which two former University of the Pacific football players served time. Blatt, however, escaped a jail sentence, as you mentioned.

      The episode permanently scarred Behring’s rep within the NFL. Only the finest people.

  • jafabian

    What do Jeff Smulyan, Ken Behring and Paul Allen all have in common? All three were in agreement that a professional sports franchise could not be financially viable while playing in the Kingdome. And I do remember the NFL owners being nervous about possibly losing the Seattle market. ( As well as a future Seahawk HOFer standing with fans to block the moving trucks) If only the NBA could feel the same. I’ll give Behring credit for selling the team to Allen rather than to someone who would have moved them to someplace like San Jose or Phoenix.

    Condolences to the Behring family at this time. Very hard to lose the patriarch of the family.

    • art thiel

      You could add the Mariners’ original owner’s group, along with successor George Argyros to the list. In hindsight, the Kingdome, a public stadium done on the cheap, was good for many things but not for feeding the ravenous revenue appetites of major league sports occupants.

      To cite one often overlooked example, the Kingdome had no capacity for on-site cooking of food for concessionaires. All those semi-glorious Kingdogs we consumed were heat-lamp lumps.

      • jafabian

        I have good memories of the Kingdome beyond professional sports: from participating in Boy Scout jamborees, working the big Seattle Boat Show, home shows and car shows for my employer, music concerts (remember how Madonna apologized that the sound sucked?) and even took my kids to the last event, The Great Paper Airplane Contest where a car was placed in the center with the sunroof open teasing everyone with a chance to win it. Never went to a Final Four but took it for granted that I eventually would. The memories at the Kingdome are priceless to many and I don’t know if any of the past sports owners could appreciate that. Even Paul Allen.

        As you stated the food wasn’t the best and notoriously made the bottom of lists ranking stadium foods nationwide (though I kinda miss the nachos) but you simply must miss $1.25 beer and .75 cent bags of peanuts! https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/f5f5048835994e7dbf96c7d4f818320678d9c21d786d2705413e6558d8222460.jpg

        • Husky73

          I admit to being one of the few people who liked the Kingdome. Parking was close by (south lot) and cheap, the seats were comfortable, tickets were reasonable and it wasn’t raining and cold. I could sit in the centerfield seats (chairs, not aluminum benches) with Ruppert Jones and Junior in the outfield below me, and my whole evening (including taking my son) would cost around $25. I liked the 200 level for soccer and football. Add in Linda Ronstadt, the Eagles, the Beach Boys, Paul McCartney, Mick and Keith and there were many good times.

          • art thiel

            Yes. See answer above.

        • art thiel

          Lots of great moments and memories for many of us, John. It was a fine, utilitarian public space, and could do some things hings we no longer can do (Final Fours). But pro sports monopolists dictated sports-specific palaces, and away went the Kingdome, Metrodome, Silverdome, Astrodome, etc.

        • Matt

          I’ll add a shout out to the Darigold Chocolate Ice Cream, with the wooden spoon.

          To think for a few years the Dome hosted the Seahawks, Mariners, Sonics and Sounders concurrently. Amazing. And yet the team the place was originally planned for never got to call it home (Pilots…).

          Also, if I remember correctly, legend has it Seattle was favored to host the ’92 Super Bowl until the ownership change.