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Cradle of coaches

Hawk Coach Jack Patera remembers Zorn

By Brad Rorem
Special to the Reporter

As first head coach of the Seattle Seahawks in 1976, it was Jack Patera who first brought Jim Zorn to Seattle to be the franchise’s first quarterback. Both would eventually become Mercer Island residents.

Now Zorn is the new head coach of the Washington Redskins of the National Football League, and Patera is a nine-time grandfather living just over Snoqualmie Pass in Cle Elum, where he watches osprey circle over the pond in his backyard.

In 1976, Patera was the new head coach of the Seahawks when he moved to Mercer Island, eventually seeing three of his four children graduate from Mercer Island High School. His daughter, Mary, spent her senior year at MIHS, followed by son John and daughter Beth. John’s wife, Nina (Wisbeck), also graduated from MIHS. Patera’s oldest son, Mike, completed high school in Minnesota while Patera was a coach with the Minnesota Vikings.

As the man entrusted with building an NFL franchise in Seattle, Patera went looking for a quarterback and found Zorn. First impressions, recalls Patera — the NFL coach of the year in 1978 — were misleading.

“He was such a young looking person — well, young acting too,” said Patera. “I took him to dinner one night when he was first here. He liked to blow straws at dinner and skateboard down in the basement with John. But as the summer went along, he was just head and shoulders above. He was physically better than the other quarterbacks. That was pretty evident.”

Patera saw Zorn develop into a leading quarterback who eventually threw over 20,000 yards and 111 touchdown passes in his career, but he never had an idea that Zorn would someday become a head coach in the NFL.

“I’ve never been around a [player] that I thought was going to be a coach someday,” Patera said.

But there was one person — legendary coach Don Shula, with whom Patera played in Baltimore — who he knew would be a coach. In that case, Baltimore Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom had encouraged Shula to pursue coaching after he had ended his playing career.

“That’s the only player that I’ve played with or coached that I thought of as a coach,” said Patera, “because Carroll Rosenbloom said he was going to be a coach.”

Admittedly, Patera was never in the business of identifying future coaches from his players. But even if he had been, he would have been unlikely to identify Zorn as a future NFL head coach in the beginning.

Yet, as time went on and Zorn learned, Patera might have seen him as a future coach were it not for the exploding player salaries of the era.

“I’m thinking there’s no way any of these guys are going to move into coaching,” Patera said, “because they’re going to make so much money that they’ll be in some other form of business. So it never occurred to me that [Zorn] would ever become a coach. And becoming a head coach — that’s a very fortunate circumstance.”

As Zorn begins his tenure across the country as head coach of the Washington Redskins, his first NFL coach, Patera, only reluctantly crosses the mountains to Seattle. But Patera has a number of reasons to make the drive, namely his three children who live in western Washington, along with a bevy of his grandchildren. Only his oldest son, Mike, lives outside Washington, practicing law in Minneapolis.

Just call Mercer Island resident Jim Zorn a favorite cousin, twice removed. In his first stay on the Island, residents watched the southpaw become a record-setting quarterback for the Seahawks from 1976 to 1984. He left in 1985 to finish his football career in Green Bay and Tampa. He later coached college teams before returning to the Island in 2001 as quarterbacks coach for the Hawks.

Now, Zorn is leaving a second time. On Feb. 9, he was hired to become coach of the Washington Redskins. Just as Zorn reached the highest level of play throwing passes to Hall of Famer Steve Largent, he has now been given the opportunity to direct plays at the highest level in coaching.

From his new office in Washington, D.C., Zorn talked about the process that took him from the Island and made him the head coach of the resurgent Redskins.

Zorn had always been open about his desire to be a head coach in the NFL, but it was never clear to him how the opportunity would present itself. More specifically, Zorn didn’t know the formula that makes a head coach.

“I know what the formula is to be a coordinator in this league, the background you have to have, and what it takes to call plays,” Zorn said.

In fact, that formula proved successful when Zorn was hired as offensive coordinator for the Redskins two days before unexpectedly interviewing for the head coaching position.

“When you look at how you get a head coaching job,” Zorn said, “in my case there was no formula. But the bottom line is this: When you get that chance to interview, the idea is to be ready. I wanted to be ready when I got my chance.”

Zorn’s ability to capitalize on his chance came from being a coach of substance. Or, as Zorn put it, “making sure you have enough substance in answering the questions to make hiring you credible.

“I didn’t have any ‘I don’t know’ answers in the 14 hours we interviewed,” Zorn said. “My goal was to make sure that if I had enough depth in my experience, it would show. ”

As a new head coach, Zorn will need to manage a coaching staff and roster, something his previous boss — former Islander Mike Holmgren — seemingly mastered in his tenure as the head of the Seattle Seahawks. One element of Zorn’s tenure with Holmgren was ensuring time for family, something he plans to retain in his new position.

“I think that philosophy will continue to permeate my life,” Zorn said. “It’s part of who I am and part of what I believe in. The idea is to do the work that needs to be done and then go home.”

Many residents of Mercer Island have become accustomed to seeing Zorn attending his daughter’s lacrosse games or son’s basketball games over the years, and Zorn plans to keep his priorities in line even as he undertakes a new challenge.

“As a head football coach, there certainly are a lot more responsibilities,” Zorn said. “But there still have to be priorities.”

A priority for Zorn and his family will be to continue spending time in the Pacific Northwest.

“We’ll be back in the summers,” Zorn said. “What better place to vacation than Seattle? We have a lot of friends there, and I have a lot of years there. So I’m not going to be a stranger. People are still going to see me around.”

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