Eyes widened and jaws slacked as the tour group moved into the next oversized room. Ruston Webster looked straight ahead at the hanging big screen, and then from wall-to-wall before uttering, "This whole room is a white board."
The Seattle Seahawks vice president of player personnel turned to pro personnel director Will Lewis, and discussed all the possibilities of the new War Room, before Lewis answered, "We can break all our scouting down all over this room."
Pro personnel assistant Chris Culmer, tape measure in hand, added, "They even gave us more room than we were promised."
And that was just one scenario as a handful of the Seahawks football operations staff ambled around the sparkling new Virginia Mason Athletic Center Thursday afternoon - just weeks before virtually the entire Seahawks organization will move into VMAC along the banks of Lake Washington in Renton.
With vice president of business development and general counsel Lance Lopes the quarterback of the operation from Day 1, the construction has taken just 18 months since ground-breaking in March of 2007 for the facility that has at least three practice fields outside, one inside, and state-of-the-art trappings everywhere for the 200-plus employees that will officially call this home on Aug. 18.
The initial goal was to be ready before training camp, but Lopes' audible was based on the certainty that everybody would be settled a few weeks before the regular season began. With the help of Seahawks owner Paul Allen's Vulcan on-construction group, Lopes was able to streamline the process and be able to take possession of the building on Aug. 1 when all the serious moving begins.
"Because it was just me and the Vulcan group managing projects and budgets, we were able to fast-track everything," Lopes said. "We weren't bogged down by meetings and 14 people weighing in on every move we made. We didn't have any luxury of time, so we had the architects designing just in front of the construction process. To do a construction project of this magnitude in 18 months required a lot of things to work in our favor - one of which was the cooperation of Renton. Their ability to respond quickly to our permit applications and things like that was exceptional. We wouldn't have been able to accomplish this in many other municipalities in our region."
The brick fade on the administrative side of the building is three floors, but most of it is dwarfed by the huge green siding along the full-scale indoor field that has more than 200 lights just daring punter Ryan Plackemeier to reach them once practice heads to Renton next month. A few steps inside and to the right of the indoor field is the enormous locker room and players lounge, and behind both is the weight room - with a "cardio-loft" above the weights for strength and conditioning coach Mike Clark and his staff. Rollup glass doorways overlooking Lake Washington allow them to go out on a patio and lift as well.
Above the lounge is the dining hall, adjacent to the hallway for the various meetings rooms for each position - plus a large meeting room that can either split into offense and defense, or the temporary wall can be removed to open it to everybody.
No doubt, this even-flow for the players was by design.
"We put more emphasis on making it functionally efficient for them for the training and playing of football," Lopes said. "The weight room is the central focus of the facility, plus the rehab areas are second to none. All of this is close together on the two floors because so many of the facilities we looked at had become so elongated the players were spread out all over the place walking 100-125 yards just to get something to eat. They still control the first floor like other facilities, but we've condensed it so everything else they need is a stairwell or elevator shaft above them."
How the concept began
))When the Seahawks hired Tim Ruskell to be president of the organization in February of 2005, the first order of business was figuring out what they would do with the team headquarters in Kirkland. It had already received one facelift and expansion since the 1986 move in from the original and diminutive Carillon Point offices when the franchise was born in 1976. Since then, however, the staff had more than tripled. Cubicles filled the hallways in Kirkland. So did boxes.
That's not to mention that essentially all of the business and marketing staffs were housed at Qwest Field. The result has been a 14-mile parade of Seahawks employees bouncing back and forth across the bridges across Lake Washington from the southern portion of downtown Seattle northeast to Kirkland with the infamous Bellevue traffic snarls in between for all to savor throughout the work week.
Seahawks CEO Tod Leiweke took Ruskell out on Lake Washington in his boat soon after the hire in the now famous tour that included a look at Renton. Ruskell mentioned how cool it would be to get some property like the one they were passing by and Leiweke chuckled at the notion and happened to mention that Paul Allen happened to own 20 acres approximately where they were cruising.
"It was something we had to do," Leiweke said. "The Seahawks were one of the last teams to get a new facility and we've obviously outgrown where we are. When Tim got here, we realized this is what we had to do. We didn't want players eating lunch sitting at their lockers. Now we have what we think is the best facility in the NFL for our entire staff."
Ruskell had seen what it meant to have a special facility in Atlanta, where he was the assistant general manager in 2004 and knew they were building one in Tampa, where he has the rest of his career before going to Atlanta. He admittedly suffered some consequences early of being in Seattle, not because of the building, but without something special to help draw players.
Now with the Taj Mahal facility as the Seahawks backdrop – the superlative Qwest Field facility notwithstanding - it's a different story.
"We'll find out what kind of effect it has on free agency," Ruskell said. "We want players to realize it's a building they can work in and live in year round. We want players coming to Seattle when they see we have the best facility in the NFL.
"It's a long distance from home for most players. When I first got here, I got rebuffed from some players because, 'Seattle is just too far from where I'm from.' So we have to do things a little better here so they'll at least come and see it and realize, 'Yeah,* *this is a beautiful place I can live year round."
What's in it?
This clearly more than just a football facility, when grasping the vastness of the three administrative floors that are not only for the coaching staff and football operations, but public relations, marketing, ticket sales, corporate sponsors, and other sales divisions. In addition, the 14 or so employees of the new Seattle Sounders Football Club led by vice president of business operations Gary Wright - who retired on June 1 after 32 years with the Seahawks - also are located in VMAC. All that's left at Qwest Field is the box office, the retail Pro Shop and First-and-Goal stadium operations.
There are 140 fulltime employees, another 30-40 part-time, and anywhere from 61 to 80 players, plus the Sounders FC staff. And the accommodations are hard to fathom. That's not to mention the information systems that have to be transferred through the eyes and instincts of Joseph Nicoletti, Allen Olson, Steve Steensma, and Robert Ullman - with the extraordinary task of acclimating staff and technology.
There are nine separate conference rooms, and six meetings points that are informal areas for conferences. There is the entire computer operation that was a matchbook of a situation comparatively in the 1986 move to now. As for the video room for director Thom Fermstad, one of three employees since the team's inception in 1976 ... it's not even close.
"We're moving into a room that might be 10 times the size," Fermstad said. "I look at my office right now and just know I could fit at least six of those into the new one. This what every video operation wants."
The dining room is enormous and will feed not only the team, but the staff two meals a day courtesy of the organization and chef Mac McNabb. And oh yeah, that too is a room with a view.
The first meals will be served Aug. 17, with McNabb thrilled to be moving from a kitchen that Lopes said looks like it belongs in a submarine and a dining room small that the team could only eat in shifts. He has three refrigerators and an enormous freezer in VMAC surrounding his oversized kitchen.
"My new kitchen area is bigger than our dining area here," McNabb said. "And the walk-in freezer is much bigger than my kitchen. Heck, my storage room is almost the size of the dining room. And that's not to mention all the new equipment I can't wait to get my hands on. This will be a cakewalk for me."
The training room is extraordinary, with a rehab hydro-pool that actually allows the trainers or doctors to watch from a window how the legs are moving in the water. There are six permanent training tables and room for 10 more portables. The room positively dwarfs what they have in Kirkland
Finally, trainer Sam Ramsden has room to operate so to speak, as opposed to years gone by when they actually looked forward to going to Cheney during camp because the training facilities were bigger and better at Eastern Washington University.
"This move will be no problem at all," Ramsden said. "Now I get my own office, which I need and we'll be able to do a lot more with different players at the same time. Everything's good about this move for us."
Not only is the locker room huge, but there is an auxiliary locker room for when the roster swell from 61 to 80 for training camp. It's also there for free agents to function in the temporary locker setup when Lewis and his staff bring in players for tryouts.
There are also kitchens spread throughout the building for the various departments to utilize and numerous bathrooms. There also is a fitness and locker room with showers for staff, separate from the players on the second floor.
Other highlights include an auditorium with 146 full size leather seats that are obviously there for team meetings, film sessions and major press conferences. But it's also there for other staff meetings, presentations and in the offseason will be available for corporate partners to utilize. There also is a suite overlooking for the field corporate sponsors to watch practice, and general entertainment at the facility.
As for the fans, a berm was built above the outdoor practice fields so in the future they will be able to attend practices during training camp as they did in Cheney. Not all the kinks have been worked out for this camp, but they will be by next season. A shuttle system will have to be devised because of limited parking.
And as for the dÈcor, it is all Pacific Northwest, bejeweled in wood and stone - particularly the vast entrance of the building.
"The line we used was, 'If you put this facility in St. Louis or Detroit, it would look odd and out of place,'" Lopes said. "We wanted it to speak to our unique beauty. You'll see a lot of natural products in the building with the wood and stone materials that are indigenous to us. Of course being on the waterfront, it all fits in."
Now for the move
For John Idzik, the vice president of football administration, the move has been dominated by the concept that this is no different than it used to be when the team had to move to Cheney for training camp and then back. Only this time, when they break camp and move, it will be permanent.
First of all, the move is a real asset to the entire organization. We were just over there (Wednesday) and it's remarkable. It has exceeded everyone's expectations. And you know, a lot of times, there is just the opposite reaction when something like this comes to fruition.
"In this case, there's a lot of coordination of movement in departments so the flow isn't interrupted at the most critical time of the year for the football team," Idzik said. "We've got the maximize-sized roster, we're going through critical evaluations at this time and you don't want anything to disrupt that. There are folks in football operations, much like during training camp when there are fires in the background that you put out, working on the move so there is no disruption to the team.
"If we can pull that off, I think we'll have a very smooth camp and an easy transition to Renton. You go into a new building and there are always nuances you have to learn and some kinks you have to iron out, but I think everyone on the football side will be blown away. Yes, there is some work involved, but we're just keeping it to ourselves in the background, so nobody else is thinking about it and when the move takes place everybody will be better off in the end."
Most of the fine-tuning falls on the plate of human resources director Cindy Kelley, who directed the move from Carillon Point, when the staff was a meager 50 in the olden days of Seahawks lore. To be sure, facilities manager Dale Cramer must carry the load in this move, but Kelley must see the big picture and the snap shots - before and after.
This is a whole new ballgame, with her trying to keep a lid on the total operations with the organization now more than four times the size and during training camp, no less.
"Just the difference in the number of people and sheer enormity of the building make this a completely different move," Kelley said. "The logistics while we're in training camp make this a different kind of move so we can keep everything running smoothly while we're moving in. Because we've got so many people spread out over three floors, there's no quick way to get to everybody right away.
"We'll have an orientation on Aug. 1 to help get everybody to understand getting in and out and where they have to be. But it's going to take time. We're going to have an evolving system as we move along, from the receptionist dealing with guests to the mail reaching everybody. We'll have a couple of weeks where we'll just have to figure it out as we go along. This is all about helping the Seahawks organization take the next step to a productive, exciting and wonderful culture that is the best in the NFL."
It is somewhat like just moving training camp for equipment manager Erik Kennedy, with more than a couple of twists on a personal level. On top of his wife expecting twins - their first children - and moving from Lake Tapps to Maple Valley, Kennedy and his staff have to do the heavy-lifting of all equipment.
This will be anything but a breeze, but he handles it with the calm demeanor that 18 years of experience have wrought. Most of all he's excited about having six washing machines and five dryers as opposed to 2 washers and three dryers.
"This move is going to be great for all of us," Kennedy said. "And it's going to be easier than going to Cheney and back because this is just one move. We've already moved a lot of our apparel and things that we don't need here now. And starting on July 31, we're going to start moving things every night so we'll be ready for the 18th.
We'll be much better organized because we'll have so much space."
Ultimately, this will be about the betterment of the organization as a whole and making the Seahawks a better prepared football team. And that's the reminder Ruskell reiterated.
"Right now, we have everything in place and we'll move in next month," Ruskell said. "We're all excited and we have a lot to do. And we have to stay focused on the task at hand - helping a very good football team play to its potential. We don't need the move to be a distraction. We want it to help us be as good as we can be."
They're simply raising the stakes on the Lake