Usually dressed in the uniform of retired men (jeans, deck shoes, plaid shirt, etc.), the 76-year-old gentleman who frequents the sidelines at Seattle Seahawks practices looks as if he might be the grandfather of one of the players.
Some days he’s clean-shaven, others he goes with the scruffy look. Always genial, he shares warm words with just about everyone who comes out of the headquarters, from front-office personnel to ball boys.
When a reporter starts interviewing sources for a story on the man, it becomes less a matter of collecting quotes than it is sorting through an avalanche of praise and appreciation.
One team employee, for instance, said the man is considered the moral compass of the franchise.
A former player said the man personally took him into business to assure his financial security after his playing days.
Another former player said that the Seahawks of the early days felt more like a family than a sports franchise.
“He’s a regular guy and he’s a great guy,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “He’s friends with everybody in the program and everybody respects and loves him. And that’s because he treats everybody with respect and loves everybody, too, so it goes both ways.”
But when asked about the widespread reverence for him, the man scoffs.
“Me? Nah,” he said. “I’m no big deal.”
That’s just the way he is, sources say. And it becomes clear that he is a grandfather: To the Seahawks franchise.
As such, he’s a walking archive of team history going back to its genesis, with recollections of all the closed-door intrigue that shaped the team along the way.
Those who know him as an iconic figure – carrying a Fortune 500 name synonymous with top-quality merchandise and unparalleled customer service – always address him with the respectful: “Mr. Nordstrom.”
But his response is always the same: “No … I’m just John.”
IN THE BEGINNINGThe Seattle Seahawks were an accident, John Nordstrom said.
“When they heard there was going to be a baseball team here, my uncle Lloyd and his partners wanted to go after it,” he said.
When they weren’t successful, they considered an NFL expansion team as the next target.
They were in the running against Seattle SuperSonics owner Sam Schulman and a group fronted by Pro Football Hall of Fame player Hugh McElhenny, an All-American at the University of Washington. He was nicknamed “The King,” and the new team would be the Seattle Kings if they won the rights to ownership.
The initial expectation was that the expansion fee to the NFL was to be $12 million. The least enthusiastic of the group headed by his uncle Lloyd was John himself.
“I was a rag merchant, so I told Lloyd I thought it was a big risk. I was building a house and had a little family, so I was up to (my neck).”
The NFL expansion committee granted them the franchise, but informed them that one person or closely held group had to be majority owner with 51 percent. Lloyd Nordstrom pulled together a total of eight family members to try to raise the money, with the other non-family partners accounting for the minority shares.
Seven in the family agreed to up their ante to meet the required majority. The eighth, the lone negative vote, was John Nordstrom. But the family tradition in their retail business was that the majority rules, and after the vote is taken, the decision is always announced as unanimous.
So John Nordstrom was stretched to the limit and fearful the bank wouldn’t loan him the remainder. His stress level redoubled when the league then informed them that the expansion fee was more than they expected: $16 million.
“But a couple good things happened,” he said. “No. 1, we got a huge response when it was announced; we got something like 80,000 requests for season tickets right off the bat.”
The other good thing was a remarkable gesture by the league.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were the Seahawks’ expansion cousins, but owner Hugh Culverhouse walked into a situation where the stadium was already built and open to him rent-free, with the team also set to collect the income from concessions, parking and advertising.
The deal was so much better than the Seahawks had on their Kingdome lease that the league looked to balance the scales, asking Culverhouse to pay the $16 million fee up front, but giving the Seahawks partnership eight years to pay it off – interest-free.
“About that time, they renegotiated the TV contract and the annual payout went from about $2.2 (million) to $5.5 (million),’’ Nordstrom said. The league agreed to funnel the additional TV money toward retirement of the expansion-fee debt. So, after all the worries about overextending their finances, it turned out that no Nordstrom owners had to get in their own pockets to pay the league for the expansion rights.
“And because the season ticket sales were so good, selling out all our games, we had enough cash flow to operate the team,” he said.
So, in essence, you got the team for free?
“It was crazy,” he said. “A guy off the street could have slipped into my shoes.”
DID SOMEBODY MENTION SHOES?Driven by poverty and hard times in Sweden, John Nordstrom’s two grandfathers each sought to live out the immigrant dream of a better life in America near the turn of the 20th century. Each ended up in Seattle.
It is common knowledge that John W. Nordstrom, founder of the retail giant, is John Nordstrom’s paternal grandfather. His story reads like a Jack London tale. Heading west with $5 in his pocket, he worked a series of hardscrabble jobs in mines and logging camps and eventually ventured to the Klondike to work a gold claim.
Although he didn’t hit the mother lode, he earned enough to get back to Seattle and buy into a partnership in a downtown shoe store. It was the start of a retail empire that now spans 231 stores in 31 states, and is regularly voted one of the best employers in the country.
Less well-known is the fact that his maternal grandfather, Dr. Nils August Johanson, not only learned English on arrival, but put himself through medical school and became the surgeon who helped establish Swedish Medical Center.
If being a product of two bedrock families of Seattle carried any pressure to succeed, John Nordstrom never felt it.
“The nice part of it … they put zero pressure on, absolutely zero,” he said. “They never said, ‘You’ve got to do this or that’ … never heard a word of that. My dad was just fantastic.”
But the family paradigm didn’t include any short-cuts to the board room; the business was to be learned from the bottom up.
“At 13, I was the stockboy in the University District (store) in the summer,” he said.
“I’m sure I was awful. But I advanced to selling children’s shoes at 15, then to women’s at 16 and men’s shoes at 17.”
EARLY SEAHAWKS YEARSLloyd Nordstrom, a tennis champion at UW, was on the court with John’s brother Jim at a league gathering in Mexico in January 1976. He went into his serving motion and after striking the ball, fell face-first to the court, dead of a heart attack. The Seahawks, who had become his passion, had not yet played a game.
“We had to elect a substitute (as managing partner), and that was my dad,” John said. “Elmer took over and he loved it, but it wasn’t really his thing, so I was kind of standing right behind him most of the time.”
In the previous year, they’d hired John Thompson as general manager. Thompson had been the executive director of the NFL Management Council and had also been with the Minnesota Vikings where he got close to Jack Patera, the defensive line coach of the famed “Purple People Eaters.”
While Thompson wanted Patera as the first coach, Lloyd Nordstrom was a fan of a sharp assistant coach under Paul Brown at Cincinnati: Bill Walsh.
“Lloyd got on a plane and saw Paul Brown,” John Nordstrom recalled. “He wanted to get clearance to interview Bill Walsh for the head coaching job. But Brown told him, ‘Oh, you don’t want him, he’s a terrible alcoholic, we’re having all kinds of problems with him.’ Lloyd hadn’t been in the league before so he bought what Brown was telling him. It wasn’t true … (Brown) just didn’t want to lose him, and we never got the chance to interview Bill Walsh.”
Under Patera, the Seahawks lost, but they did so in exciting fashion. Before the first season, scout Dick Mansperger latched onto a rookie quarterback named Jim Zorn, whom Dallas was trying to hide. Later, offensive coordinator Jerry Rhome was familiar with a rookie receiver from Tulsa who had been cut in the exhibition season by Houston: Steve Largent.
“In the last preseason game, Jimmy throws Steve eight or nine or 10 passes and he catches every one of them,” Nordstrom said. “It was a shock to us. Zorn-to-Largent in the last preseason game really got the fans going, along with Sherman Smith running the sprint draw.”
The fan response? “It was whacko,” Nordstrom said.
THE SEAHAWKS FAMILYComing to the Seahawks in the early days wasn’t just a matter of being drafted or signed, but more like being adopted.
Receiver Steve Raible remembers the Seahawks players being invited to the home of John and Sally Nordstrom for holiday parties.
“Everything they did for the team was about being family, because that’s what they’re all about, being family-oriented,” said Raible, news anchor for KIRO-TV and the team’s play-by-play announcer. “It’s one of the things they tried to engender from the beginning.”
Raible pointed to an indicator of their approach: “They never wanted their names in the media guide. They never did things to be noticed or for credit; they did it for the community. Really, they’re just damned good people.”
Zorn, who was part of it even before Lloyd Nordstrom died, said the roots of what the Seahawks became grew out of Lloyd’s vision.
“What I appreciated about John was he kept that Nordstrom attitude and tradition and stayed with (the) vision that was originally planned,” Zorn said. “John was such a calming owner … not a lot of antics or anything like that. I always remember the whole group loving the idea they were owners, but not ever trying to be experts in the coaching or playing aspect of it.”
Nordstrom put it simply: “We wanted to make sure everybody in the building wanted to feel good about being a part of it and coming to work every day.”
Running back Smith, now a coach for the Seahawks, gives an example of how they accomplished that goal.
“Mr. Nordstrom gave me the opportunity to learn the business of retail, and I’ve never forgotten that,” Smith said. “He was looking out for me. He said, ‘Let’s think about what you’re going to do after you’re done with football.’ ”
GOODBYE, JACK; HELLO, CHUCKJohn Nordstrom was running marathons at the time, and understood the physiological importance of hydration on athletic performance. His coach, Jack Patera, did not. Patera famously did not allow water on the training camp field in sweltering Cheney.
“We almost lost (tight end) Mike Tice to dehydration; just about killed him,” Nordstrom said. “I told John Thompson this is unacceptable, and he said that Jack won’t change.”
When the players’ strike went into effect two games into the 1982 season, “I could tell he lost the team,” Nordstrom said. “The atmosphere around there was not good.”
He called Thompson. “I said, ‘Call Jack and get him in here, we’ve got to do something today.’ He said ‘Jack’s not here, he’s out at Queets fishing.’ I said, ‘Well, call him up and tell him he’s terminated, he’s done.’ John said, ‘I won’t do it.’ I said, ‘Well, you’re out, too, then.’ And that was that. I knew we were doing the right thing.”
Mike McCormack stepped in after the strike and went 4-3, and lobbied to take over full-time. Nordstrom wanted to keep him in the front office, and began sorting through interested candidates. John Robinson was interested but only if he could report directly to Nordstrom. No deal. Hank Stram, Darryl Rogers and Marv Levy were considered.
“We were agonizing over who we wanted to hire, and, boom, Mike gets a call from Chuck (Knox),” Nordstrom said. “He wanted to know if we were interested, and of course Mike said, ‘You bet!’ Man, did we get lucky.”
The 1983 draft arrived with its famous collection of quarterbacks, but Knox had no interest in John Elway or Dan Marino or the others, Nordstrom said.
“He knew he needed a running back for his offense, and he really, really wanted Curt Warner (Penn State).” The Seahawks traded up to the No. 3 spot to get him.
The roots of Knox’s coaching success, Nordstrom said, were in his organizational skills and attention to details, down to how the players’ socks were folded and the equipment was arranged in the locker.
“He said you have to have all the details right, so then they understand that when you told them to go out and turn right after five steps, they didn’t do it after six steps. He was very, very precise. And Chuck worked like hell … those guys really burned the midnight oil.”
Looking back, Nordstrom cherishes the memory of the divisional playoff win over the Dolphins at Miami on New Year’s Eve 1983. It was Knox’s first season, and the team’s first trip to the playoffs. But even more memorable to him was the mob of an estimated 20,000 fans waiting to greet the team at Sea-Tac Airport that night.
THE NORDSTROM CULTUREGary Wright, longtime Seahawks executive in public relations and communications, remembers the story of a Nordstrom discussion over the construction of an organizational chart for their retail business. They looked at the typical example of a corporate flow chart, with the owners at the top, getting broader as it goes down to the executives, managers, sales force and then customers.
After struggling to manipulate the chart in a way that suited them, “John took the chart and turned it upside-down, so the customers were at the top and the executives and owners were at the bottom,” Wright said. “John said, ‘This is the chart I want us to use.’ ”
As it applies to a football franchise, the sales force equals the players and the customers are the fans.
“That was the culture that he and the family established with the team, and it was the most important piece of it,” Wright said. “It was the same culture they created at their stores to make them successful.”
“The Nordstrom business philosophy is pretty simple,” John Nordstrom said. “The most important part of the business to the customer is the sales person, by far. Everybody has nice stores and merchandise and good parking. We elevated our sales people to the top of our pyramid so they really wanted to go to work in the morning. That wasn’t just a goal, that was our life blood.”
And the repeated imperative to the sales people? Use your best judgment.
Seahawks employees, even now, like to retell the famed “Tire Story.” As Nordstrom tells it, he was in Fairbanks, Alaska, setting up a men’s wear department in a recently converted B.F. Goodrich tire store.
“We’d been working like mad with our sales force,” he said, stressing the message that you never make a mistake in favor of the company; if you make one, it should benefit the customer.
A man walked in with a tire under his arm – confused by all the suits and clothes –but still tells the clerk the tire he bought here doesn’t fit his car and he wants to return it. Without debate, the sales clerk refunded the price of the tire and told the customer he hoped he’d return when he needed clothes.
“We grabbed that tire and hung it up in the stock room with a sign that said: ‘This is how you give customer service,’ ” Nordstrom said.
SADLY, SOME SALES ARE FINALThe player strikes of 1982 and 1987 “were really brutal for us as a public company,” Nordstrom said. The image of the family as tight-fisted owners repressing the players “was something we just couldn’t stomach.”
The condition of the Kingdome was another negative factor looming for the owners as they headed toward the late 1980s. The family met for a vote. John and another relative were the only two voting to continue ownership.
“I still thought the future was going to get better for the league,” he said. “But I didn’t want to fight the family, and I didn’t want to go through the political hassle it was going to take to get a new stadium.”
As he examined it, one option was to buy out the rest of his family’s shares. “But that would have been risking everything,” he said. “I gave it some thought. If I’d know what it would turn into, whew! Looking back, I probably should have. I would rather have the team than the pile of money.”
They set the price at $80 million, and bidders flocked, including Bill Cosby and Hollywood types Marvin Davis and Jerry Perenchio (whose Bel Air mansion was used for the external scenes on The Beverly Hillbillies).
“But they all wanted to move the team,” Nordstrom said. “I did not even entertain the guys who wanted to move it.”
When California land developer Ken Behring began sniffing, Nordstrom told him his no-relocation caveat. “He said he was not even thinking about it. OK, then. And, by gosh, he sends a check for $80 million.”
The team foundered and the out-of-state owner watched an alienated fan base steadily decline.
By 1995, Nordstrom was hearing the rumors that Behring was going to move the team to Southern California.
“So I called him and said I needed to talk to him about the rumors, and he said, OK, I’m in town,” Nordstrom said.
Those still dyspeptic at the memory of Behring will be incensed anew at this Nordstrom recollection that has never appeared in print.
“So, he came over to my house, sat in my living room, and said, ‘I’m not going to move the team, that’s all just rumors.’ OK, I’ll take your word for it,” Nordstrom said. “It turned out, at that very moment, the moving vans were up in Kirkland (at the team headquarters).”
He lied to your face?
“How could that so-and-so say that to me?” Nordstrom said. “I was absolutely furious.”
SIDELINE ADVISORTall and lean as a down-marker, John Nordstrom stands on the sideline at practices because he still loves the team and the game, but also because he serves in an official capacity with the team now – as part of the Board of Advisors with Jacob Green, Largent and Wright.
“It’s fantastic to be connected with John,” Carroll said. “You immediately sense his history and love for the program. He is so much fun to be around and have as part of the program.”
The board consults occasionally with the front office.
“It’s really good for perspective,” Carroll said. “We’re just trying to get better and do things right, and we need all the help we can get, so we can use the wisdom those guys bring, and that John particularly brings.”
“I feel extremely lucky that all happened,” Nordstrom said. “(Former CEO) Tod Leiweke wanted to do it and my first reaction was, ‘What do you think you can get from us?’ He said he just wanted an outside view of the way they’re doing things.”
His thoughts for the future of the franchise? “I’d like to see them get Pete and (GM) John Schneider locked up for a long while because I think what they’re doing is really special.”
RELUCTANT LEGACYJohn Nordstrom flies in his retirement – occasionally piloting his float plane to practice at the lakeside Renton headquarters of the Seahawks.
“When you’re up there, the seat feels like it’s wrapped around you so you’re a part of it all,” he said. “I just love it.”
Raible said that he once was introduced to one of Nordstrom’s best flying buddies: Harrison Ford.
The marathon runs are a thing of the past for Nordstrom, though, and a bike wreck also curbed his interest in that activity. (He rode the 8 miles home after the crash with a broken hip).
While willing to share memories of the team’s history, he wasn’t keen on considering his legacy.
“I think we stuck around a long time,” he said of the family business. “A lot of businesses are built up and then they cash out, but we’re up to our fourth generation.”
No, obviously Nordstrom isn’t known simply for having “stuck around.”
“That’s the way he’s been from the start,” Wright said. “He doesn’t want anybody thinking he’s something special – he’d just as soon you think he is just another customer at Nordstrom.”
So … legacy?
“No, no big deal,” he said. “I just always thought you should do the best you can.”