Tales of Chuck Knox, 'the most intimidating coach I've ever been around'

Former Seahawks coach Chuck Knox, who died earlier this month, had the respect of his players. "He was tough, but he worked hard and he played hard." Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Those who played for Chuck Knox or worked alongside him remember the late Seattle Seahawks coach as someone who would strike fear in his players but could also relate to them, sometimes over a cold one.

Like he did one Sunday evening in 1990, inside a bar at the Kansas City airport.

The Seahawks were in the AFC West at the time, and until a few hours earlier, hadn't beaten the rival Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium since 1980. That was three seasons before Knox -- who died earlier this month at age 86 -- arrived in Seattle.

"Chuck was superstitious," said Steve Raible, an original Seahawk who spent six seasons with the team as a wide receiver until retiring in 1982 to join their radio broadcast, "so if we lost and had stayed at the Westin Hotel in Kansas City, the next year we'd go in and stay at the DoubleTree, and if we lost, the next year we'd go in and stay at the Hyatt.

"We had stayed every place but the YWCA, it had been so long since we had won at Kansas City."

To many, this game is best known for Derrick Thomas setting an NFL record that still stands with seven sacks. Often forgotten is how the Seahawks won it in dramatic fashion when Dave Krieg ducked out of what would have been an eighth Thomas sack and hit Paul Skansi in the end zone for a 25-yard touchdown as time expired, tying the game at 16 before Seattle kicked the extra point.

Naturally, players were in the mood to celebrate. Kansas City's airport was one of the few that didn't allow teams to bus onto the tarmac to their plane, so they had to board through the gate. And when a mechanical issue delayed takeoff of their flight back to Seattle, many of the players made their way to the airport bar.

"A few guys went in and then a few more and then a few more," said Dave Wyman, a Seahawks linebacker from 1987 to '92. "We kind of lost track of time. All the sudden this little tiny airport bar is full of 30, 40 big, huge men buying drinks."

Knox wasn't there -- yet.

"We're whooping it up [at the bar], we're having a good time," said Paul Moyer, a Seahawks safety from 1983 to '89 who joined Knox's coaching staff upon his retirement, "but you didn't have a good time unless you peeked to make sure Chuck approved that you were having a good time."

So when Knox walked into the bar, the mood suddenly changed.

The fun was over, at least momentarily.

"We were like, 'Oh, s---. This is bad. We're going to get yelled at,' because I think we had delayed the plane," Wyman said.

What happened next surprised everyone.

Knox pulled out a wad of cash from his pocket, peeled off a few hundred dollar bills and told the bartender that he was buying.

"We drank everything that had alcohol in it except the cleaning fluid under the sink," Raible joked. "It was so much fun and Chuck was there enjoying it. He was telling stories and slapping guys on the back, and I guarantee you on Monday, when they went back to practice ... it was like ancient history. You're not going to win anything by worrying about what you did on Sunday. We've got to get ready ... Forget about it. But for those few minutes, it was really precious."

Said Wyman: "He was tough, but he worked hard and he played hard."

Knox the intimidator

Wyman and Moyer developed a nickname for their coach: Mona Lisa, because it felt like his eyes never left you.

Only Knox's eyes were steely blue and produced an intimidating glare.

"It didn't matter where he was, he pulled his cap down, his hat, it always looked like he was looking at you," Moyer said. "I've had guys say that, a million guys, say no matter where they were on the field, it always seemed like he was staring at you."

Moyer recalled how Knox didn't like to call out players by name in front of the team, but he would when he was announcing fines for team violations. He was strict about making weight, and the penalty was $50 for every pound over.

"He wanted me to be 245," Wyman said. "Chuck, can I have some extra weight? Alright, I'll give you 246. He was big on that. But if you were over, he'd announce the fine in the team meeting and it was just not something you wanted to hear. You felt terrible."

It wasn't about the money. It was about not wanting to disappointing Knox.

"He was probably the most intimidating coach I've ever been around," Moyer said, "and his intimidation was, it was just a look, it was just an expectation. There was just an accountability. You didn't want to let him down."

To Moyer and others, few things were more intimidating than the thought of walking past the open door of Knox's office.

"We used to have to go get our checks," Moyer said. "Back then, they didn't have ACH deposits. We had to go physically upstairs and get your check on Mondays every two weeks. The way you had to get there was you had to go down to Mickey Loomis, who's now with New Orleans, but he was our CPA accountant person at the time, and we had to walk by Chuck Knox's office to go get our check.

"And I kid you not -- guys would talk about this all the time -- if you didn't play well, you might wait another week before you went up to get the check."

'Go grab as many beers as you can grab'

As intimidating as he was, there was a sentimental side to Knox. It came out late in his first season with the team, after the Seahawks pulled off a stunning road upset of Don Shula, Dan Marino and the Miami Dolphins in the divisional round of the playoffs in 1983.

Less than a year earlier, Knox had taken over a team that hadn't won more than six games in any of the previous three seasons and had yet to reach the playoffs since its inception in 1976. Now, the Seahawks were off to the AFC Championship Game.

"We win that game, and everybody's in the locker room and I think Chuck had a couple of words to say, but he was almost at a loss for words," Raible said. "I remember seeing the NFL video because I was still upstairs in the booth doing the postgame show. Dave Brown gave him the game ball, and he just broke down and wept, and you never saw that. I mean, nobody ever saw that out of Chuck Knox and it just so touched him.

"And I think the emotion of the moment, being in that big of a game and playing with those guys who he had only been coaching for that one season, and yet he takes them – they follow him all the way to the championship. They got hammered by the Raiders the following week, but they got to the AFC Championship Game on that performance, and he was just overcome, which was great because you think about players being really emotional. But it was Chuck."

The fun side of Knox came out more often.

Moyer recalls the coach halting a bus ride to the airport following a comeback win over the Patriots in Foxboro in 1986. It was to send some players out on a beer run.

"We had a long drive to the airport, so we stopped off at a convenient store," Moyer said. "I remember he gave me and about four other guys a bunch of hundred dollar bills and he goes, 'Go grab as many beers as you can grab,' so we grabbed just cases of beer and brought them back onto the buses and passed them all out.

"He liked to have a good time and reward his players. It was a fun time. First time the city had ever won in football. As crazy as it is here [now], there was nothing like that first time."

Be sure to tip your waitstaff

During the 1991 season, Wyman was in a self-described slump. Knox pulled him aside the night before a game and told him that if he didn't start playing better, he'd be standing on the sideline next to Knox.

"He told you exactly how it was," Wyman said. "That's the thing that you want. I came to appreciate that so much. I think Chuck, more than anybody, turned me into a professional."

The coach's message often came in the form of one of his frequently-cited phrases. Some of the Knoxisms, as they became known, were metaphorical.

Don't tell me how rough the water is; just bring the ship in.

That was Knox's way of telling players to save their excuses. Growing up in the hardscrabble Pittsburgh suburb of Sewickley during the Great Depression, he didn't have any use for those.

Don't [urinate] in my face and tell me it's raining.

Translation: Don't B.S. me.

Some Knoxisms were more straightforward.

No one wants to hear your sad story.

Working will; wishing won't

Be 30 minutes early, not one second late.

"I was never late when I was with Chuck, ever," Wyman said, "and actually my whole NFL career, because of him."

Something else Knox was big on was, of all things, tipping. That also stuck with Wyman.

"Still to this day, I'm super paranoid about tipping people that I make sure it's over 20 percent. My wife gets mad at me sometimes," he said. "Chuck would say this every year. He was like, 'Hey now, you guys are Seahawks' -- when we would make the team -- 'People are going to recognize you around town, so you better leave good tips or else people are going to be watching you on TV and go, yeah, I know that guy, he's a cheap p---k.'"

'He meant that much to me'

It's a rare quality, Wyman says, for a coach to be so stern and demanding but to do it in a way that doesn't cause resentment.

Players wanted to play hard for Knox, they wanted to win for him, and they wanted to impress him. But his approval wasn't easily earned, and it was sometimes subtly expressed, like when Moyer made a late interception of Warren Moon to help the Seahawks beat the Houston Oilers in 1988.

"I watched the film afterward and I was looking at our sideline because our sideline was going nuts," he said. "They're just going crazy and the coaches were going crazy, and the coach I was looking for was if Chuck was going nuts, like if he wanted to come up and high-five me or something, that would be so cool.

"He didn't even budge. He kinda sat on the sideline and he watched me and he nodded in approval, and after the game he said, 'It couldn't have happened at a better time.' And that was good enough. As long as he approved of it. He didn't give you praise for just showing up."

And when he did, it meant that much more.

For many members of the Seahawks family, the final time they saw Knox was three years ago in Arizona, before the Seahawks played the Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX. He and his wife, Shirley, had driven over from their home in Palm Springs. Knox was in a wheelchair, hardly communicative, and his memory was diminished by dementia.

But when he ran into his former players, he seemed to remember them.

"I saw him and his face lit up," Wyman said. "Once again, just like anytime he gave you a compliment, it just made you feel like a million dollars. His wife said, 'He definitely recognizes you, Dave.'

"It was rewarding, just because he meant that much to me."