Gary Wright’s office at Virginia Mason Athletic Center could be mistaken for a combined Sounders FC/Seahawks mini museum.
It is filled with mementos from the 32 seasons he spent with the NFL team, features memorabilia from his three years as senior vice president of business operations for the MLS club and includes souvenirs from his love affair with the game they call soccer in the United States.
But two items among the photos, jerseys, plaques and other tributes – aside from the pictures of his five grandchildren in their kit – mean the most to Wright: The Sounders FC Brand Wheel, which is framed and on the wall behind his desk; and a “full” team photo of the club, which includes all the employees as well as the players, that dominates another wall.
These two objects also explain how Wright is approaching being named Executive of the Year at 77th annual Sports Star of the Year banquet on Wednesday night at Benaroya Hall. Also at the event, which was started in 1936 by Royal Brougham and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, retired goalkeeper Kasey Keller is up for Male Athlete of the Year.
“There’s no question it is an honor, and I’m very appreciative,” Wright said. “But I do accept it humbly, and I do accept it on behalf over everybody here, everybody associated with the Sounders.
“I think the feeling about this team, and the community spirit around the team, that’s a team thing. I don’t just mean on the field. I mean off the field. And it’s all the people in this building that do that. They’re the ones that have created this, along with the fans.
“So this is absolutely a team award.”
Wright, 67, actually retired from the Seahawks prior to their 2008 season, only to join the expansion Sounders FC franchise. His sendoff as one of the Seahawks’ original employees included a retirement bash at CenturyLink Field, where the press box was named after him.
It was Wright’s love of soccer – not to mention a challenge – that prompted him to un-retire and join Sounders FC.
“We are so lucky that rather than retire, this great soccer enthusiast has led us, the Seattle Sounders, to the unparalleled place we now hold in American soccer,” majority owner Joe Roth said. “Gary has been the heart and soul of the organization and I will never let him retire.”
Such talk makes Wright uncomfortable, so he simply returns the compliment to Roth, owner and general manager Adrian Hanauer and owners Paul Allen and Drew Carey – as well as the rest of the Sounders FC family.
“It’s a magical ownership group,” said Wright, who refers to himself as a soccer evangelist.
Whatever it is they’re doing, it’s definitely working.
Sounders FC set a MLS attendance record in its inaugural season by averaging 30,897 fans, and Wright was named MLS Executive of the Year. What did they do for an encore? Bump their average attendance to 36,173 in 2010, when Sounders FC was named Professional Franchise of the Year by the Sports Business Journal. Last season, the record-setting average attendance was bumped to 38,496.
On the field, Sounders FC has captured three consecutive U.S. Open Cups and advanced to the MLS playoffs in each of its three seasons.
As he was with the Seahawks, Wright has been there to help guide the franchise from Day One.
“Gary is an experienced elder statesman in sports and he represents the Sounders in an incredibly professional way,” said Peter McLoughlin, president of Sounders FC, the Seahawks and First & Goal, Inc. “He brings kind of a calm equilibrium to the way he does business. He has made an incredible contribution on the phenomenal growth of the Sounders and the connection with our fans and the community.”
Tod Leiweke, the man McLoughlin replaced, concurred.
“Gary Wright is simply one of the finest professionals I have ever had the privilege to work with,” said Leiweke, now CEO for the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning. “He is not only a great sports executive, but he is a great man and as responsible for the success of the Sounders off the field as any one person.”
As McLoughlin put it, “I can’t think of anybody more deserving of this award than Gary Wright.”
Wright can. But then his has had a behind-the-scenes impact on Sounders FC, as it was with the Seahawks before that. It stems from a lesson he learned long ago from just one of the many impressive coaches he has worked with during his career.
“An old coach told me, ‘Always surround yourself with great people,’ ” Wright said, unable to hold back a smile. “You’ve got to do that. Nothing comes without we. If somebody thought it was I, they’re mistaken.”
Just as Wright has had an influential impact on Sounders FC and the Seahawks, the coaches he has worked with have had the same affect on him. From Jim Hanifan, when both were at Glendale College; to Jerry Tarkanian, when he and Wright were at Long Beach State; to Mike McCormack, who was the Seahawks’ interim coach in 1982 and made Wright the first vice president in franchise history; to Jack Patera, Chuck Knox, Tom Flores, Dennis Erickson and Mike Holmgren, the Seahawks’ other coaches during Wright’s tenure with the team; to Sigi Schmid, the Sounders FC coach.
“I’ve just been around great coaches my entire life,” Wright said. “I would say to people, I was really raised by coaches.”
It started when Wright was a kid growing up near the Pepperdine University – not the current campus in Malibu, but the old one at 79th and Vermont in South Central LA.
“I grew up within walking distance of Pepperdine, so I was a gym rat,” Wright said. “All the coaches at Pepperdine kind of just adopted me. I think they’ve given me a sense and perspective of how to treat people and how to do things right and how to set goals and expect the best.
“Just how to kind of really go about your business and treat people.”