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How Paul Allen saved the Seahawks from leaving Seattle

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Remembering Allen's impact in Seattle (1:40)

Longtime Seahawks owner Paul Allen died of cancer Monday at the age of 65. His former QB Matthew Hasselbeck reflects on Allen's legacy. (1:40)

RENTON, Wash. -- Remembering Paul Allen a day after his passing, Pete Carroll said never "in a million years" would he have left USC had it not been for the late Seattle Seahawks owner. Carroll was referring to the vision and the spirit that Allen expressed while making a convincing sales pitch, the likes of which Carroll hadn't heard from any other NFL owner.

If not for what Allen did more than a decade before Carroll arrived in 2010, though, there likely wouldn't have been an NFL team to come to in Seattle.

The saga of the team's near departure in the mid-1990s is worth revisiting in the wake of Allen's death on Monday at age 65 due to complications from non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Because to understand Allen's legacy as the Seahawks' owner, it's necessary to understand how close Seattle came to losing the team before he stepped in.

The past eight seasons of Seahawks football have seen so many monumental developments: Carroll leading the franchise to its only Super Bowl championship, Russell Wilson becoming a megastar on and off the field, the Legion of Boom becoming one of the greatest secondaries the league has ever seen, Marshawn Lynch becoming Beast Mode. None of them would have happened in Seattle -- or perhaps at all -- had Allen not saved the team from leaving when no one else would.

One foot in Southern California

Steve Raible, an original Seahawk and the team's longtime radio broadcaster, remembers the call he got one day during the 1996 offseason. It was from one of the Seahawks' assistant coaches under Dennis Erickson, who was telling Raible that he might want to get to the team's Kirkland, Washington, headquarters to see what was happening.

"'They're backing up moving vans to the building. We're outta here. We're moving,'" Raible recalled hearing.

The destination was Anaheim, California. Ken Behring, a California real estate developer who bought the team in 1988 and was never embraced in Seattle, announced in February 1996 that he was moving the team south. His stated reason was an inability to secure funding for a new stadium or improvements to the crumbling Kingdome.

So the organization packed up equipment, headed south and set up shop at the facility the Rams had vacated when they left for St. Louis a year earlier. The Seahawks even held a few workouts there before returning to Seattle amid threats of lawsuits from the city and hefty fines from the NFL.

But in the absence of someone stepping forward to buy the team from Behring, the feeling was that those legal actions were merely delaying the inevitable.

As detailed in this 2013 Seattle Times story, Allen had been quietly and tepidly discussing the possibility with local officials. He was fearful that he would be used as leverage for Behring to secure a sweeter deal in California. Plus, Allen -- who had owned the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers since 1988 -- was a basketball fan first. Football wasn't his biggest sporting passion. He was interested but hesitant.

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Allen was dedicated to Portland

Adrian Wojnarowski reflects on Paul Allen's impact on Portland and the Trail Blazers. The longtime owner died of cancer Monday at the age of 65.

He also was the only person with both an interest in buying the Seahawks and deep enough pockets to make it happen.

"Paul was really the only alternative," Raible said. "That's where they focused their efforts, the group here. Paul was pretty open to it for one simple reason. He believed it was good for the community. He believed it was something that should be done to keep the team here in the community."

The make-or-break vote

In describing the support the Seahawks received from fans at London's Wembley Stadium during their win over the Raiders last week, Carroll said it didn't just feel like a home game. It practically was one.

"All you had to do was go to London to see the extent to which (a) the 12s travel and (b) that the 12s are literally spread across the globe," Raible said. "We had fans with Seahawks jerseys and clothing on from Spain to Sweden to Germany and, of course, Great Britain and so many that came from here.

"That certainly was not the case then."

By "then," he meant during the 1996 and '97 seasons, when the Seahawks' future in Seattle was hanging in the balance. They were mired in mediocrity, cycling through coaches and highly drafted quarterbacks while finishing above .500 only once between 1989 and 1997. It wasn't anything close to a sure thing that the Seahawks would remain in Seattle when their fate there was effectively left up to a statewide vote.

Allen had agreed to an option to buy the team on the condition that voters pass a referendum to foot the majority of the bill for a new stadium, which would eventually become CenturyLink Field. Taxpayers would pay $300 million, while Allen would cover the remaining $130 million plus cost overruns.

"We knew that it was going to be difficult," Raible said of the vote. "And very much as the state is today, it's two different states. [With] Eastern Washington and so many of those folks, it was hard to convince them that they would be getting something from a building built on the west side of the state. ... They were not of the mind of, 'OK, let's build some more rich guys another stadium,' regardless of the fact that the vast majority of the taxes were coming from visitors who were renting cars and getting hotel rooms. Still, it was just that sense of government making something happen for sports owners. So we knew it was going to be dicey at best, and it was a very close vote."

The early returns on election night were discouraging before a late swing allowed Referendum 48 to pass with 51 percent of the vote.

'It meant everything to him'

It hardly needs to be stated that Allen's legacy in Seattle goes far beyond saving the Seahawks. The Microsoft co-founder gave away what Forbes estimated to be more than $2 billion of his fortune. The various charitable causes ranged from brain science to wildlife conservation to the Ebola crisis in Africa.

"Look at what he's done, and look at all of the extraordinary, amazing places he's taken us to because he could and because it was there to be challenged," Carroll said. "Whether it's in space or whether it's under the ocean or whether it's in the farthest reaches of the globe in chasing diseases and freeing animals and saving elephants and all the amazing things that he stood for, it's just being around an amazing individual like that, that had that kind of vision."

It was Allen's affinity for Jimi Hendrix and rock music that led him to found what is now called the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle.

It also led Allen to the stage at the team's victory party following Super Bowl XLVIII. Asked his favorite memory of Allen, Carroll recalled him wailing on his guitar as the Seahawks celebrated their first and only championship in franchise history.

"He was hittin' in," Carroll said with a smile. "He thought he was Eddie Vedder or something up there. He was going. But I think that was the great moment that we got to share, that he got to have. Because you can have all the money in the world, but it's really hard to have that world championship. It meant everything to him. To be able to share that with him was amazing."

It was a celebration that, like so many other moments in Seahawks history, never would have happened without Allen.