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Originally published June 23, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 23, 2009 at 12:06 AM

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Steve Kelley

Who is Seattle sports' biggest lightning rod?

Steve Kelley looks at the athletes, coaches and administrators on the local sports scene who, merely by mentioning their names, spark intense feelings, pro and con.

Seattle Times staff columnist

The recent unpleasantness surrounding Ryan Leaf sparked a debate about lightning rods — athletes, coaches and administrators on the local sports scene who, merely by mentioning their names, spark intense feelings, pro and con.

Lightning rods don't have to be failures. They don't have to be bad people. But they must evoke strong emotions. They are people who fans either love, or love to hate.

I have my ideas, but let's make this an audience-participation column. Who are your favorite lightning rods and why do they boil your blood? Let us know your nominees.

Here is my Top 12 list:

12. Barbara Hedges, former Washington athletic director.

She will be remembered for the success of her capital projects. Hedges got facilities built, but she also presided over the fall of Huskies football. She hired and fired Rick Neuheisel (more later). She lost a lawsuit after firing Neuheisel. And she was the athletic director when Washington was cited for its "lack of institutional control" in the 1990s.

Hedges was the boss when Dr. William Scheyer (aka "Dr. Feel Good") was involved in a drug scandal involving the softball team. "Sometimes I wish I could put a bag over my head," she once said.

11. Jeff Smulyan, former Mariners owner.

I once said Smulyan was "a duplicitous Yuppie, leveraged up to the bill of his Mariners cap." Weird thing is, I liked him. He was young and charismatic and energetic.

If it weren't for the fact that he didn't have enough cash to be a successful owner. Or if it weren't for the fact that if he had gotten his way, the Seattle Mariners now would be the Tampa Bay Mariners and there never would have been a 1995 or a 2001 or a Safeco Field. Or if it weren't for the fact ... well, you get the idea.

10. Tyrone Willingham, former Washington football coach.

He cleaned up the program after years of neglect during the Neuheisel Era (more later). He should be applauded for that.

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But he seemed more interested in golf than recruiting. And he was as stiff as his starched shirts. In his four seasons as the Huskies' head coach, the team was 11-37 overall and 6-29 in the Pac-10. The Huskies were 0-12 last season. Enough said.

9. Billy Joe Hobert, former Washington quarterback.

The very definition of a lightning rod. Hobert, in many Huskies fans' eyes, is equal parts hero and villain. I like to think of him as a hero. He was a remarkably tough, clear-eyed quarterback. He was a winner, part of Washington's 1991 co-national championship team.

But there was the matter of the $50,000 in loans he received and the two-year probation levied on the football program following the investigation of those loans. Other players were implicated in the investigation, but Hobert was the poster child. He admitted he spent much of the money on cars, guns, stereos, golf clubs and wild weekends.

8. Brian Bosworth, former Seahawks linebacker.

Talk about a colossal flop. Bosworth came to Seattle in the 1987 supplemental draft, heralded as the next Dick Butkus. He played more like Dick Button.

He was supposed to be tough and fast and smart and everything you'd ever want in a linebacker. He was all that at Oklahoma. He was none of that in Seattle.

In 2004, ESPN ranked him the sixth biggest disappointment in draft history. He played parts of three seasons before retiring because of chronic shoulder problems. He was better known for his alter ego "Boz," who talked tough and wore a combo mullet/Mohawk haircut.

A harbinger of his career was a lawsuit he filed against the NFL asking for the right to wear No. 44, his college number. He lost the suit and wore No. 55. Another harbinger: When asked after he bought the team in 1988 if he had a favorite Seahawk player, owner Ken Behring said he liked "The Boz."

7. Ken Behring, former Seahawks owner.

In 1988, he bought the team from the Nordstrom family and did everything he could to alienate himself from his Northwest fan base. He even relocated the team to Southern California for part of one training camp.

By any measurement, he was a disaster. Behring, for instance, was the owner during the Hawks' 2-14 season. The region celebrated when he sold the team to Paul Allen in 1997.

I once wrote that class to Behring was wearing the tie without the gravy stain. I regret writing that; after all, like most lightning rods, he has his good side. Several years ago, he established the Wheelchair Foundation, which provides free wheelchairs for people in developing countries with physical disabilities.

There always are two sides to every lightning rod's story.

6. Wally Walker, former Sonics player, broadcaster and general manager.

Walker is a very good man who was a very bad general manager. After Seattle's 1996 run to the NBA Finals, Walker signed free-agent center Jim McIlvaine to a $33.6 million deal. McIlvaine was coming off a 2.3-point, 2.9-rebound season.

In many ways, that was the beginning of the end for the Sonics in Seattle. McIlvanine's salary greatly upset Sonics superstar Shawn Kemp and started the Sonics' march to the bottom of the NBA and, eventually, their march to Oklahoma City.

Walker knew the Sonics needed a big man in the worst way, and he delivered big men in the worst way: first-round picks Robert Swift, Johan Petro and Mohammed Sene.

On the flip side, Walker fought hard to keep the team in Seattle. He didn't want to sell the Sonics to OKC's Clay Bennett, and he has been part of a group that has lobbied to remodel KeyArena and return the NBA to town.

5. Bill Bavasi, former Mariners general manager.

Carl Everett. Carlos Silva. The Erik Bedard trade. The second season of Jose Vidro, etc., etc., etc.

Maybe Bedard will re-sign with Seattle. Maybe he will win 20 games here. Maybe I'll win a Nobel Prize. Anything's possible, but one certainty is that Bavasi presided over the collapse of the Seattle Mariners. Their 102-loss season of 2008 is on him.

On the other hand, he was a nice guy who treated the people who worked for him very well. After he was fired by the Mariners, he took many of the Safeco Field grounds crew to dinner at El Gaucho. He paid.

4. Clay Bennett, former owner of the Sonics and now owner of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

He never, ever wanted to keep the team here. Do we really have to say anything other than Oklahoma City Thunder?

3. Howard Schultz, local coffee maker and former Sonics owner.

I'll never forget the flop sweat pouring from Schultz when he talked with reporters, one last time, after the news conference announcing the sale of the Sonics to Bennett. I'll also never forget the balloons in the Furtado Center as the team tried to spin the sale as a good thing for Seattle.

2. Rick Neuheisel, former Washington football coach.

His players got in trouble with the law. He lied to his boss about interviewing for the head coaching position with the San Francisco 49ers. He was caught participating in a gambling pool that was against NCAA rules. He won with predecessor Jim Lambright's players and left the program with too many underskilled, undersized guys.

He is, however, the last Washington coach to have a winning record (33-16). And the Huskies haven't been to a bowl since he left.

"I fought to the end," Neuheisel said after his fall.

1. Alex Rodriguez, former Mariners shortstop.

He left the Mariners after the 2000 season, signing that obscene 10-year, $252 million contract with the Texas Rangers. Nobody in this town has been booed the way A-Lightning-Rod has.

The most disingenuous athlete Seattle has ever known, Rodriguez will be remembered for the confetti of fake money that floated around Safeco Field during his first plate appearances when he returned to town.

OK, now it's your turn.

Submit your picks in the comments section of this story online at seattletimes.com/stevekelley

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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About Steve Kelley

Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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