Super Bowl Bye Week: A (Necessarily) Brief History of the Seattle Area and Championship Games

The most joyous I’ve ever been at a sporting event was in the immediate aftermath of Game 7 of the 1987 Western Division Finals of the Major Indoor Soccer League.  My Tacoma Stars had just won by three goals, vanquishing the evil San Diego Sockers* and moving on to the league championship.  In retrospect, this was minor sporting news — as stars go, the Tacoma lot were a dwarf in a tiny, fading galaxy in a gigantic sports universe — but at that moment, to nine-year old me, beating a team called the Sockers in a sport called indoor soccer represented the peak of athletic accomplishment.  The MISL was just as big as the NFL, the Stars the equals of the Seahawks.  And the Tacoma Dome was rockin’ that night.  16,000 people were dancing to Irene Cara’s “Flashdance … What a Feeling” and clapping their hands above their heads, because that’s how Stars fans rolled.  My dad and I were there.

The Stars lost in the finals to the Dallas Sidekicks, a team that actually folded in the preseason before being resurrected in the eleventh hour.  In the deciding game, the Stars were winning by two goals with under three minutes left, but Dallas, led by league MVP Tatu, somehow tied the game.  Then in overtime a dream-crusher named Mark Karpun won it for Sidekicks with a golden goal.  I was crestfallen, but I got over it quickly.  I was nine and simply assumed the Stars would just win the whole thing next year.  Plus the baseball season had already started, and I had a hunch the Mariners were winning the AL pennant.  The Stars never won another playoff series; the MISL folded in 1992; the Mariners didn’t make the postseason until I was legally an adult; and they still haven’t played in the World Series.

It’s a common tale of woe for sports fans who grew up on the shores of the Puget Sound.  I’ve never seen one of my teams win a championship.  There haven’t even been many finals appearances.  The Seahawks playing in the Super Bowl next week is quite a rare event (if you’re not a Seattle sports fan, keep that in mind before you judge us for losing our collective shit about the Seahawks this year).  How rare?  Well, let’s try to answer that.  What follows is a (necessarily) brief history of sports teams in the Seattle area who played in a championship game or series.

Seattle Metropolitans: Stanley Cup Champions, 1917; Stanley Cup Finalists, 1920
That Seattle was home to the first American team to win the Stanley Cup is a cool bit of Seattle sports trivia that nobody knows.  It’s weird.  I mean, it was nearly 100 years ago, but still, it’s the Stanley Cup.  It’s kind of a big deal.

In 1917, the Seattle Metropolitans won the Pacific Coast Hockey Association earning them a best-of-five matchup against the National Hockey Association champion, the Montreal Canadiens, for ice hockey’s greatest prize.  Led by Bernie Morris’ 14 goals, the Metropolitans won the series 3-1.  The two teams were to meet again for the cup in 1919, but the series was canceled because of the Spanish Flu pandemic.  Seattle then lost in the 1920 Stanley Cup finals to the Ottawa Senators.

The Metropolitans played their home games at the old Seattle Ice Arena on University Street in the Central Business District.  They folded in 1924, and the entire PCHA went under shortly thereafter.

Seattle University Chieftains: NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament Finalists, 1958
In 1958, the Seattle University basketball team was led by an acrobatic forward named Elgin Baylor.  You probably heard of him; he did some cool stuff after college.  Baylor guided the Chieftains to a tournament bid and then through the Western bracket before they annihilated Kansas State by 22 in the Final Four.  Seattle then lost in the finals to the Kentucky Wildcats.

The championship game was a contrast of styles and racial identities.  Kentucky’s legendary coach Adolph Rupp, an old-school type who was “set in his ways” (yes, that’s a euphemism for “bigoted”), had his “Fiddlin’ Five”, a group of good-but-not-great, white athletes (they were fiddlers, not violinists, according to Rupp) who “ran its patterns” with “rigorous Rupp discipline”.  On the other side of the court, John Castellani, the younger, smoother head coach of the multiracial Chieftains (dubbed the “United Nations Team”), ran a more ad-lib style to maximize Baylor’s knack for improv.  Although Seattle twice had leads of 11 points, Kentucky prevailed in the end.  Baylor, however, did win the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player Award and go on to be the number one pick in the NBA draft.

Seattle Sounders: NASL Finalists, 1977, 1982
Before MLS came onto the scene, the biggest outdoor soccer league in American history was the North American Soccer League, which operated from 1968-1984.  The first iteration of the Seattle Sounders (the “FC” came later, presumably to make the team name sound more pretentious) joined the mix in 1974 playing in Memorial Stadium and later the Kingdome.  In fact, the fist ever sports event at the Kingdome was a Sounders game in 1976.

After a few early exits from the playoffs, the Sounders made a run all the way to the NASL championship, a.k.a. the Soccer Bowl, in 1977.  The game was played on August 28, and two things of note happened that day: 1) I was born, 2) the Sounders lost to the New York Cosmos.  The Cosmos of the late-’70s were a fascinating sensation captured excellently in the documentary Once in a Lifetime.  Led by the irreproachable Pele and European stars Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia, the Cosmos denied the Sounders the ’77 cup by dint of a 2-1 victory.

The two teams met again in the Soccer Bowl five years later.  Pele had since retired, but Chinaglia was better than ever, coming off his fifth scoring title in seven seasons.  The Sounders for their part were led by league MVP Peter Ward, a striker who later would play for the Tacoma Stars, and whom I once interrupted while he was disciplining his daughter to request an autograph.  (He signed a Stars button for me and was pretty cool about it all things considered.)  Like the Broncos and Seahawks in the NFL this year, the Cosmos and Sounders were the top two teams in the NASL the entire ’82 season, so it was only fair they would meet in the finale.  It was a defensive struggle with Chinaglia scoring the game’s only goal to give the Cosmos their fifth title and deny the Sounders their last chance at one.  We can only hope the 2014 Super Bowl goes differently than the 1982 Soccer Bowl for Seattle fans.

Seattle SuperSonics: NBA Finalists, 1978, 1996; NBA Champions, 1979
In 1978, the Seattle SuperSonics lost in the NBA Finals to the Washington Bullets.  A year later they won the championship rematch.  To date, this marks the only title won by a Seattle team in any of the four major American sports leagues (NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL).  I’m sure this means something to some Seattle sports fans somewhere, but it doesn’t really do much for me.  For one, I was one.  I remember some of the key players from the championship team (namely Jack Sikma and Gus Williams), but my first Sonics hero was Dale Ellis.  Everybody before him is a bit hazy in my mind’s eye.  For two, it was pre-Bird and Magic.  This is the delineating line for when the NBA became the NBA.  For three, and this is the biggest point, THE SONICS AREN’T A TEAM ANYMORE!  As a sports fan, I can think of few things more pathetic than hanging your hat on a single championship won 35 years ago by a team that no longer exists.

Maybe the Sonics come back someday, but I’m not holding my breath (where would owners who want to extort the public for stadium funds threaten to move to, if Seattle has a team?).  And while I’m not going to claim their ’79 championship as something special, I will occasionally sneak a peek on YouTube of highlights of the 1996 team that lost to the Bulls in the finals.  I mean, yeah, he got fat, and started racking up more illegitimate children per game than rebounds, but once upon a time Shawn Kemp could do things like this, and it was pretty awesome to watch.

Pacific Lutheran University Lutes: NAIA Division II Football Champions, 1980, 1987, 1993; NAIA Division II Football Finalists, 1983, 1985, 1991, 1994; NCAA Division III Football Champions, 1999
No disrespect to all the Lutes out there, but the football achievements of PLU don’t really warrant mentioning here.  Yeah, they won a bunch of championships, but they didn’t even play in the NCAA until 1998.  They played in the NAIA — the NAIA Division II; that’s the B division of the B league.  And when they did join the NCAA it was in Division III.  I’ve got nothing against small schools, but, you know, when you’re touting the greatest teams in the sports history of a large metropolitan region, you usually don’t want to point to college football teams that once lost in the finals to Georgetown — Georgetown, Kentucky.

So why am I mentioning PLU football?  One, I always thought Frosty Westering was a cool name.  Two, PLU is in Parkland, Washington, and I wanted to give the city some love.  Many an enjoyable afternoon of my childhood was spent at Parkland Putters miniature golf course.  The pirate ship hole looked formidable, but it was the back nine that would really get you.

University of Washington Huskies: National Champion Runners-Up NCAA Division I Football, 1984; Co-National Champions NCAA Division I Football, 1991
Prior to the advent of the BCS in 1998, there was no specific national championship game in college football.  Sometimes one of the bowl games became the de facto title game, but often there were several pertinent bowl games, the various permutations of winners of which would determine the national champion through the hugely unsatisfying process of voting.  The Washington Huskies twice played in such bowl games.

In 1984, the Huskies only loss of the season came in Week 10 to USC.  The Trojans finished with three losses on the season, but only one in the Pac-10, so they won the conference and the automatic bid to the Rose Bowl against the Big Ten champion, Ohio State.  Not winning the conference actually worked out well for UW as it freed them up to play in the Orange Bowl against the number two ranked team in the nation, the Oklahoma Sooners (with a defense led by a freshman linebacker named Brian Bosworth).  The number one ranked BYU Cougars had already beaten the unranked Michigan Wolverines in the Holiday Bowl, capping off an undefeated season, before the Orange Bowl was even played.  Regardless, many of the day’s talkingest heads argued that the Orange Bowl winner should leap-frog the Cougars and be crowned the national champion because of BYU’s creampuff schedule.

Anchored by game-MVP tailback Jacque Robinson, the Huskies rolled up 192 yards rushing and beat the Sooners 28-17.  The key play of the game was a 15-yard penalty on the Sooner’s wagon (seriously).  The victory, however, to the dismay of Huskies fans, was for naught, or at least not for a national championship; the AP voters selected BYU one and UW two.

The greatest team in Huskies history was undoubtedly the 1991 team.  It was an eclectic mix of a future NFL great (QB Mark Brunell), a few future NFL pretty-goods (RB Napoleon Kaufman, TE Mark Bruener, DT D’Marco Farr), a couple of NFL busts (QB Billy Joe Hobert, DE Steve Emtman), and a handful of college stars who were never quite cut out for the pros (RB Beno Bryant, WR Mario Bailey, LB Dave Hoffman).  The result was a 12-0 season in which simply stating their record undersells how good the team actually was.  Their closest game was a seven-point win at Cal who was ranked seventh in the nation at the time.  Their average game was a 41-10 victory.  Let me emphasize that: 41-10 was an average not a season best.  In the Rose Bowl, UW beat Michigan, the number four team in the nation, by a mere 20 points (34-14).  Bailey delivered the coup de grace, a 38-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown reception, after which he mocked Wolverines Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard with a celebratory pose.

Unfortunately for Huskies fans, UW picked a bad year to have a great year.  The Miami Hurricanes put together an equally impressive campaign, and when they shutout Nebraska in the Orange Bowl 22-0 to preserve their own perfect season, there was no consensus national champion.  UW took the coaches’ vote, Miami the AP’s.  The two teams are universally recognized as co-national champions of the 1991 season.  If a tie is like kissing your sister, then a shared championship is like sleeping with a distance cousin.  It’s not terrible, and it’s widely accepted in Europe, but it feels a little off here in the States.

Tacoma Stars: MISL Finalists, 1987
The aforementioned ’86-’87 Stars were my favorite sports team from my childhood.  Their games were a blast, and they almost always won.  They were the best team in the league throughout the season, and they had arguably the most dynamic duo in MISL history: Steve Zungul and Preki.  The latter went on to significant MLS fame and at one point in the late-’90s might have been the most well-known active soccer player among American fans.  But it was the former who was “Lord of All Indoors”.  Steve Zungul was to indoor soccer what Wayne Gretzky was to hockey — peewee league hockey.  He was a six-time MVP; he led the MISL in scoring six times; and he led his team to the championship six times (but, alas, never the Stars).  He racked up 1,123 career points in the MISL, over 20% more than any other player.  He was a bit over the hill, when he arrived in Tacoma at age 32, in 1986, but he was still a nearly unstoppable force. Also, Steve Zungul had the look.  Not the look of a soccer star — that was the beauty of it — it was more the look of an aging, burned-out rockstar.  He had one fresh balding mullet, that’s for sure.

SteveZungulThere are many more stories to be told about members of the ’86-’87 Stars — there was Greg Blasingame (a.k.a. the “Fastest Man in the MISL”) who would do a blackflip off the boards every time he scored; there was the goalkeeper, Joey Papaleo, who blew the finale against the Dallas Sidekicks and then signed with them a few weeks later (causing nine-year old me to dip my toe into conspiracy theory waters); and there was my personal favorite player, the underrated goal-scoring Brit, Godfrey Ingram — but these will have to wait for another post.  It’s time to move on.

Seattle Storm: WNBA Champions, 2004, 2010
I’ll be honest, I could never really get into the Storm.  I like women’s basketball, but it’s hard to care about a league that nobody else really cares about.  Also, the Storm weren’t around when I was forming my sports bonds as a kid, and sports bonds are like languages — if they aren’t formed by the time you hit puberty, they take great effort to acquire, and you’ll always have a “fan accent” even if you do. (I’ve been trying to get into the Sounders FC for a while, and it’s just not taking.  I probably need to drill the flashcards a little bit more frequently.)

Come to think of it, women’s sports weren’t really around at all when I was kid.  The only female “athletes” I could watch regularly on TV were the Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling, and I was a huge GLOW fan.  And this is without being old enough to appreciate the camp or the T & A.  I unironically appreciated the wrestling.

Seattle Seahawks: Super Bowl Finalists, 2005
In retrospect, the most remarkable thing about the 2005 Super Bowl season is how different it felt from this year.  Back then there was no real enemy; the NFC offered almost no resistance; and we were all playing with house money.  Nobody expected much from the Seahawks.  This year it’s not like that.  This season it’s been our year from the beginning, as corny and cliched as that sounds.  The ‘Hawks came into the year as the best team; they were the best team throughout the season; they slew the villainous 49ers in dramatic fashion; and now there is only thing left to do.  After the Seahawks lost Super Bowl XL, I was disappointed, but not completely crushed.  This year, I suspect the crash won’t be as soft.  Hopefully I won’t find out.

Tacoma Rainiers: AAA Baseball National Championship Finalists, 2010
Yes, there is a national championship for AAA baseball.  And in 2010 the Tacoma Rainiers were runners up, losing the championship game 6-12 to the Columbus Clippers.  This is actually quite depressing, not that Tacoma lost, nobody cares about a thing they didn’t even know existed, but it’s sad because today the Mariners aren’t very good, and four years ago their highest minor league affiliate was one of the best in the country.  Wouldn’t you assume that some of the players that made the Rainiers good in 2010 would be making the Mariners good in 2014?  Yes, you would, but you’d be making an ass out of Uma Thurman.  Not a single contributor on the 2010 Tacoma team is a good player for the Mariners today.  Not a one.  Seriously, look at the roster.  The first baseman (Justin Smoak) is on the verge of being a big bust; the second baseman (Dustin Ackley) is on the verge of being an even bigger bust; and the most exciting starting pitcher (Michael Pineda) was traded for the man on the verge of being the biggest bust of them all (Jesus Montero).  And “bust” can be taken two ways with Montero, if you know what I mean.

Oh, there’s more.  The third baseman (Matt Mangini) was a former first round draft pick who never panned out; the left fielder (Mike Carp) hit .296/.362/.523 last season … for the Red Sox (the Mariners sold him for peanuts); and the right fielder (David Winfree) is somebody I had never even heard of before today (no, the former Sonics benchwarmer didn’t switch sports, it’s a different guy, I already checked).  If you’re still not sufficiently downtrodden, then let me remind you that the center fielder (Greg Halman) was stabbed to death by his brother.

Like I said, depressing.  Well, at least the 2014 Mariners are looking pretty good.  Or at least they would be if Felix Hernandez could throw 1,000 innings and Robinson Cano could hit in all nine spots in the order.  Sigh.  Is it pathetic to root for third place?

Well, that’s it.  That’s the history of the Seattle Area and championship games.  I hope you found it informative and entertaining in some order.  I also hope you can see why so much is riding on this Sunday’s Super Bowl for those of us nearing middle age who have put an embarrassingly large amount of time and energy into being Seattle sports fans over the last three-plus decades only to see it not pay off time and time again.  So let’s do it ‘Hawks.  Forget the sick girl in the hospital with Marshawn Lynch posters plastered all over her walls.  Forget the special needs kid who wears a Russell Wilson jersey to school every day.  Forget the children.  Do it for us.  Do it for all us pathetic thirty-somethings who didn’t even need to read this blog post, because we lived it, Dottie.  We lived it.  Do it for us, Seahawks.  We need it.

-DJG

*It seems weird to call a team with such a stupid name as the Sockers evil, but they really were the public enemy number one in the MISL.  They won the championship in eight of their ten seasons in the league, and their loss to the Stars was the only time they were defeated in a playoff series.