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The greatest Seahawks team of the ...1940s?

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Seattle’s pro football club owes its name to a largely-forgotten armed forces training squad that in its time was as dominant as any in the war-rationed gridiron landscape

I love the Seattle Seahawks for lots of reasons, but one of my favorites is the name. I love the way the name, together with the team’s original insignia design, pays respect to the region’s native community and traditions. I love the visual resonance among the wet round finials on the s’s and a’s on the old-school wordmark. I love the affinity between the sounds of the first syllables in both words, and how the “Sea-” in Seahawks shouts out the local ecology and the city’s historical subsistence on Puget Sound and the Pacific Coast.

“A seahawk is a tough, fish-eating bird,” as the football club’s first general manager John Thompson said in 1975. (This is also why Field Gulls is such a great blog name.)

For these reasons, saying just “’Hawks” never rang true to me for addressing the Seahawks. It doesn’t seem as endearing or as specific to Seattle. I get that it’s a perfectly reasonable diminutive, no worse than “Pete” is short for Peter Clay Carroll. And I don’t hold grudges when other fans, or even the franchise quarterback, say “Go ’Hawks!” But because “hawk” is a more vague and ordinary word, a hawk a more ordinary bird, and especially more common as a team name around sports at all levels, “’Hawks” sounds much more generic to me in a way that other contractions of team nicknames (“Niners”, “Jags”, or “Pats”, for example) do not. Traveling to play the Falcons this week puts this in even clearer relief: “Atlanta versus the ’Hawks” sounds like a stadium dispute involving Gucci Mane’s favorite NBA team.

Of course I realize that this is a fussiness peculiar to me and I don’t fancy myself the arbiter of anyone else’s relationship to the team. I also know the name Seahawks is not actually unique to Seattle’s pro football organization.

There is, for example, the popular 1915 novel “The Sea-Hawk” by Rafael Sabatini, later adapted as a pirate movie starring Errol Flynn. There is the Sikorsky Seahawk helicopter, a class of naval assault and rescue choppers developed in the ’70s. And there are the UNC-Wilmington Seahawks, whose Colonial Athletic Association men’s basketball team is known for reaching the NCAA tournament five times since 2000—including last spring—and even upsetting 4th-seeded USC in 2002.

There are also plenty of lower-profile minor league, college and high school teams named the Seahawks, all around America and the world, including Chief Sealth High School in Seattle. You may have heard the Nordstrom consortium selected “Seahawks” from a fan contest in 1975, but one of the reasons NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle lobbied for the name was its previous history in pro football as the handle of the Miami Seahawks 30 years earlier in the old AAFC, the same league where the Cleveland Browns, the San Francisco 49ers and the original Baltimore Colts got started.

Unlike these storied franchises, the Miami Seahawks folded after just one year. But those Seahawks took their name in 1946 because the coach they hired, Jack Meagher, had lately been coach of a very successful “college” team, the Iowa Pre-Flight Seahawks, a side nearly lost to memory because it only played three years during World War II. From 1942 to 1944, however, just as today, those Seahawks were in their time as dominant as any football team in the land.

Or the air or the sea for that matter. But now the past isn’t even past. The past lives on the internet, so nothing’s ever lost to memory. And it is a fascinating story, touching on the straitened realities of wartime together with early commercialization of college football—but also the legacy of NFL legends like Paul Brown and even indirectly the origins of the zone blitz and Monday Night Football.

1942

After declaration of war, the United States Navy established training bases at college campuses around the country to help prepare a flood of recruits and enlistees for basic and advanced pilot training programs, including one at the University of Iowa at Iowa City. Like Pete Carroll does, Navy administrators believed in competition as a method for developing grit and habits of excellence in its aspiring pilots and sailors. So even though these were three-month camps for learning navigation and ground combat before entering flight school, not traditional colleges, the Navy determined they should install football teams and commandeer the partner schools’ athletic facilities to compete against regional university powers.

Many Army and Air Force camps did likewise during the period, so there were dozens of these service teams filling out college schedules during the war. Moneyed interests backing some of the powerful universities, radio broadcasters and the proto-NCAA organizing bodies probably had some involvement too, as the new military squads answered a shortage of box-office talent when many schools were suspending football programs due to the loss of able bodies to the war effort.

As a result, the U.S. Naval Aviation Pre-Flight School at Iowa was more of an all-star team than a typical collegiate roster. Or indeed you could call it a semi-pro team, since most of the players were former college stars elsewhere and even NFL veterans who had joined up. But rules on amateur eligibility were lifted for the war, and everyone else always called them the Iowa Pre-Flight Seahawks, or sometimes Iowa Navy.

The Seahawks also got to benefit, in their first year, from the best established coach in the country. Bernie Bierman, who had just finished a 10-year stretch at Minnesota where he won five national championships including the previous two in 1940 and 1941, was a Navy Lieutenant Colonel from his service in the First World War and a master of the single wing offense.

Like the semi-pro teams of the era, too, the Seahawks were barnstormers. Iowa Pre-Flight only played six true home games in three years—and still went 26-5. In 1943 and ’44 the Seahawks also got dates with their hosts the Iowa Hawkeyes on their shared field. But, according to John B. Scott of the College Football Historical Society Journal, “Due to some friction between the naval trainees and civilian students, it was decided not to schedule a game between the two in 1942. The civilian Hawkeyes had seven games at home among their 10 contests for 1942, effectively depriving the Seahawks of choice home games.”

I can only imagine the scene as these twentysomething gridiron superstars and wannabe-ace pilots invaded campus with their sailor caps among younger engineers, agriculture majors and writers workshop candidates, on their way between combat drills and football practice.

Bierman and the aviators went on the road and won anyway, 61-0 at Kansas in the program’s first ever game. Then they knocked off a strong Northwestern team featuring future Browns quarterback and Pro Football Hall of Famer Otto Graham, 20-12 in Evanston, while blocking both Wildcats extra point attempts. Although extra points were not in the 1940s the typically-sure things the NFL knows today, just like for Seattle in 2016 missed points after touchdowns became a running theme in all three of the Pre-Flight Seahawks’ seasons.

It showed up again the week after the Northwestern game when the Seahawks beat Bierman’s former team, the twice-defending national champ Minnesota Golden Gophers, 7-6 by forcing a Gopher fumble at the one-yard line to preserve a shutout for both sides after the first quarter. (Apart from other military teams, Iowa Pre-Flight mostly played the close-by schools in the Big Nine—now Big Ten; and Big Six—now Big 12.)

A week later they defeated Michigan 26-14 in Ann Arbor, using the Wolverines’ own former star fullback Forest Evashevski against them in what many considered a de facto No. 1 versus No. 2 matchup—except the first AP poll of the season didn’t come out until the following week, and the non-academy service teams weren’t included in the polls at all until 1943. Instead Ohio State debuted at No. 1, and then Notre Dame upset Iowa Pre-Flight 28-0 using Frank Leahy’s revival of the T formation that was, also with a freshly-established revenue stream, about to terrorize football for a decade.

There’s something disassociating about reading or hearing these classic college football titans juxtaposed in their mythic days with the name Seahawks. Sentences like “Michigan had an outstanding line in 1942, but even it tired badly in the last period as the Seahawks continued to outcharge it” seem like mashups out of a dream.

Iowa Navy didn’t play its only home game that year until more than a month later, after wins in Indiana and Fort Knox, but it was a 46-0 flattening of Nebraska. Hardly anybody came to see the Seahawks, however, partly because the Cornhuskers were terrible (had lost 26-0 to civilian Iowa) and partly because in November 1942 “stringent gasoline and rubber tire rationing made fans think twice before driving to stadiums,” according to Scott, and folks stayed huddled around their radio hearing about German advances in Russia and North Africa and Japanese expansion throughout the Pacific Ocean. “Football seemed of secondary importance in these perilous times,” Scott writes, sounding rather like Meryl Streep.

The Pre-Flight Seahawks were then 7-1 and had outscored their opposition 199-73, but only scored 12 more points in the two last games—including getting crushed by eventual national champion Ohio State under the coaching of none other than Paul Brown, who had already dominated Ohio high school football for a decade but at age 34 was only in his second year at the university.

The grown men at Iowa Pre-Flight outweighed the Buckeyes’ line by an average of 21 pounds per player, and it’s bruising backfield even averaged an 18-pound edge over that front, but OSU won like a modern-day unit with “blinding team speed,” a “well-spaced” passing game and better red zone output as the Seahawks’ 277 rushing yards were “mainly slogged out between the 20 yard lines,” according to Scott. Iowa Navy’s two missed extra points weren’t the difference as Brown’s side rolled 41-12.

After leading the Buckeyes’ to their first championship, Brown, of course, went on to win seven titles as the first coach and namesake of the pro football franchise in Cleveland, and later as founder and owner-coach of the Cincinnati Bengals his influence, through assistant coach Bill Walsh, eventually reached Pete Carroll during their spell together with the 49ers. But between Ohio State and taking over in Cleveland, Brown also helmed (in 1944) one of the Navy training squads—the Great Lakes Bluejackets in Chicago, not a pre-flight school like in flat empty Iowa but a nautical training center for incoming sailors.

1943

Following that first season in Iowa, the Navy called Bierman up for active duty in the war. So, to lead the Seahawks the government commissioned Missouri coach Don Faurot, whose team had provided Pre-Flight its final loss of ’42—a 7-0 snow game in Kansas City, where the 7,600 fans were asked to come down to the field and help the grounds crew to trample the thick drifts down to a playing surface.

Faurot’s squad was even more overpowering than Bierman’s outfit, smashing through eight straight wins to start the year by a total margin of 232-84, including rematch victories over Brown’s Buckeyes, 28-13 in Columbus, and Faurot’s former Tigers, 21-6 again in K.C., which were the closest games the Seahawks played to that point in the year. But they were so dominant in part because by now military recruitment had so depleted the regular college teams of most of their scholarship athletes that many of them had to rely on previously-ineligible freshmen, and Iowa Navy’s grown men took advantage of a schedule that didn’t include any of the three Big Nine campuses that could stockpile recruits thanks to the V-12 training program, Michigan, Purdue or Northwestern. The Seahawks even got to play two home games this time, against other armed forces teams Fort Riley and Camp Grant, plus host one “road” date in Iowa City, because tension with the local students had evidently calmed down, Scott writes. Though maybe it didn’t ease matters when Pre-Flight beat the Iowa Hawkeyes 25-0.

But the talent shortage had led the Associated Press to lift its restriction against the semi-pro service teams appearing in its poll, and so in late November the undefeated No. 2 Seahawks matched up with the top-ranked Fighting Irish in South Bend for one of college football’s “Games of the Century.”

“War ravaged Europe and North Africa on Nov. 20, 1943,” wrote Mike Hlas in the Cedar Rapids Gazette 50 years later. “The Germans invaded Samos, Morocco. The British Army cut the Germans’ last lateral railroad below Rome. The First Ukraine Army turned back German thrusts near Korostishev. Yugoslav partisans halted a German drive below Flume with a series of fierce counterattacks. Great Britain’s Royal Air Force dropped 2,240,000 pounds of bombs on Nazi tankers in Leverkusen. That same day, Iowa Pre-flight met Notre Dame under the school’s Golden Dome before a crowd of 39,446.”

The Irish had managed to maintain an overwhelmingly competitive roster thanks to a secretive network of boosters, radio affiliates and gamblers capitalizing on what author Murray Sperber calls the “mature phase” of Notre Dame football, beginning around the time of the 1940 Hollywood release Knute Rockne: All American. “No football machine, no business firm, no nation, no way of life can live in a highly competitive world on nothing more tangible nor more active than former glory and the veneration of a hallowed name,” wrote Boston newspaper columnist Bill Cunningham, a friend of Leahy’s according to Sperber’s book “Shaking Down the Thunder”.

So there was a lot invested in the home team, with the game broadcast nationally on the Irish’s various cooperating radio outlets and oddsmakers installing Notre Dame as heavy favorites after it ran through its more-rigorous schedule by an even more extreme difference than Pre-Flight did, 312-37. Then for the Seahawks, mysteriously, “four starters and three second-stringers were assigned to other military bases the week of the game,” according to Hlas.

Art Guepe carries the ball for the Seahawks against Notre Dame, November 20, 1943
Wire service photo

Despite all this chicanery, Iowa Navy kept it close and even led 7-0 at halftime. But its kicker missed an extra point off the goalpost that ended up costing Pre-Flight the national championship after falling 14-13. Like Colin Kaepernick in Super Bowl XLVII, “the Seahawks ran four unsuccessful pass plays deep in Irish territory in the game’s final minute,” as they struggled without running back and Washington Redskins star Dick Todd, who broke his jaw just before that series on a tackle by N.D. end John Yonaker.

The clash lived up to the hyperbole of its promotion, with Pre-Flight outgaining the Irish 197-187. “It was a football game people dream about but see only once in a lifetime,” wrote Tait Cummins in a Cedar Rapids Gazette dispatch tagged SPECTACLE OF SEASON. “As for the Seahawks, they steamed into that one like a gallant old battle wagon with every gun firing.” It was such a brutal game that Great Lakes shocked Notre Dame the following week, 19-14, yet the Fighting Irish still retained the No. 1 spot thanks to the head-to-head win, even after Pre-Flight crushed Minnesota 32-0 while the angry Seahawks racked up 500 yards of offense and 120 penalty yards.

They finished second in the national polls.

1944

Because of frequent activation of cadets and reassignment to other posts, there was constant circulation and hardly any continuity on the Iowa Pre-Flight Seahawks football team. The only player stationed at the Iowa City campus all three years was Bernard “Bus” Mertes, perhaps because he had lettered for the regular Iowa Hawkeyes at tailback in 1940-41. Mertes ended up playing in the NFL until 1949 and then coaching, first at Kansas State and then Drake University, then in the AFL as an assistant with the Denver Broncos and eventually in the NFL with the Minnesota Vikings—all the way until 1984 where he missed sharing a staff with Pete Carroll by one year.

The Seahawks coaching staffs also changed each year, as Faurot got assigned to coach at Naval Air Station-Jacksonville for the ’44 season. In came Meagher, who had actually played for Rockne on Notre Dame in 1916, then fought in the First World War and participated in the first-ever NFL season in 1920.

Meagher was known at the time for engineering one of the greatest college football upsets while at Auburn, as head of the only team to knock off Georgia in 1942. Meagher surprised Wally Butts’s team by running the T offense for the first time all season and basically inventing the zone blitz by having tackles drop into coverage while ends rushed, when Bill Arnsparger was still in high school. (Although Arnsparger, who is credited with developing the modern zone blitz in the 1970s, did later die in Athens, Alabama—perhaps a shout out to the two schools involved in its initial inception.) Back in 1942, Meagher’s Tigers thrashed Butt’s Bulldogs 27-13, thus preserving that year’s crown for Brown’s Ohio State side.

Meagher’s assistants at Iowa Navy included Jim Tatum, later coach at Maryland and Oklahoma, and, Bud Wilkinson, who followed Tatum to the Sooners and won three national titles there in the 1950s. At Oklahoma, Tatum even coached John Idzik, Sr., father of the former Seattle Seahawks VP of Football Operations and later Jets GM.

This group would have had another likely shot at the AP championship in 1944 had the Pre-Flight team not lost its opener to Michigan, 12-7, giving up 287 yards to the loaded Wolverines. But Meagher got his Seahawks on track after that, winning all 10 remaining matches and finishing with six blowout victories. But even with a composite score of 217-47 over those last six, Iowa Navy couldn’t crack the top six in the rankings with five other teams finishing undefeated that year.

In the Seahawks’ last ever game, against Iowa at their shared stadium on November 25, the final score was another oddity: 30-6 as all six touchdowns between the two teams were followed by missed extra point attempts. By the next fall World War II was over, but the training center had managed to win 26 of its 31 games in three seasons, including some of the most memorable contests of the war years. It outscored its opponents by an average score of 26-10—undoubtedly the most successful of the service football programs of the period.

Then, two years after leading Iowa Pre-Flight, Jack Meagher brought the Seahawks name into professional football for the first time.

But broil me in butter and call me a flounder—so terrible and so broke was Harvey Hester, the owner of the Miami Seahawks who had hired Meagher, that Paul Brown said he wouldn’t even play poker with the other owners of the All-American Football Conference. Hester was a restaurant owner from Atlanta who had gathered some money with a few wealthy Miamians, and his stewardship of the club was disastrous:

To avoid having the team play in hot temperatures in South Florida in September and October, six of the Seahawks’ first seven games were scheduled on the road in 1946. But by the time the homestand rolled around, Meagher had already quit and the team had got off to such a lousy start few fans showed up to the gates—which was still how football teams made most of their money in those days. To make matters worse, for reasons that aren’t clear city leadership discouraged playing football on Sunday afternoons, so most of Miami’s home dates were Monday night games (with a couple on Tuesday and one on a Friday). Although the NFL had scheduled Monday games occasionally in the past, it was the first time a frequent Monday series (rather than a showcase game) had been tried. In the pre-television era, weeknight football did not generate an audience.

With little income to balance the team investment, Hester was overleveraged as the principle owner. Hester went bankrupt after the 3-11 season, and the AAFC contracted the team. Miami boosters tried to raise new funds—the first Save Our Seahawks campaign—but the league commissioner awarded the team’s assets to Baltimore, and that was the end of Seahawks in the pros for 30 more years.

So that wretched Miami organization is not the most auspicious namesake. That’s why it’s valuable to carry the heritage of accomplishment from the Iowa Pre-Flight Seahawks. I’ve always preferred the more striking royal blue that used to belong to the Seattle Seahawks, but perhaps that wartime legacy is built into the reason the team calls the shade they wear now “college navy”.