GREEN BAY – When asked to describe his years in Green Bay, former Packers’ head coach Mike Holmgren summed it up in a word.
“Fun,” he said. “That’s a good word for it.”
Holmgren’s pursuit of fun and excellence proved to be a recipe for success during his tenure here from 1992-98. In that time Holmgren collaborated with general manager Ron Wolf, quarterback Brett Favre and defensive end Reggie White to create an NFL championship team.
Under Holmgren and Co., the Packers were transformed from laughingstock to juggernaut. His teams were 75-37 in regular-season play, and 9-5 in the postseason, during his seven seasons. The Packers won at least one playoff game in five straight seasons, a record matched only by John Madden’s Oakland Raiders teams in the 1970s.
The long-suffering Packers had just two winning seasons in the 19 years before Holmgren arrived. In 1996, they were champions once again.
“It was special because it was the Packers,” Holmgren said in the book, “A Year of Champions: The 1996 Green Bay Packers.” “We had built the thing up to go. I don’t think many people thought we could do that.
“The other reason it is special, I would say, is because of all those people that worked for the Packers for so long, certainly long before we got there. The happiness and the joy of seeing their faces getting to the top again, that was special.”
On Saturday night, Michael George Holmgren will be inducted into the Packer Hall of Fame. The 64-year-old current president of the Cleveland Browns will take his rightful place alongside Lambeau and Lombardi as the greatest coaches in franchise history.
Certainly, Holmgren was the right coach at the right time in Green Bay.
He was a Christian family man whose values meshed here.
He also was a tremendous leader, teacher and tactician. His undeniable charisma was borne of unwavering confidence wrought from years spent working hard and smart. Those attributes along with a football brilliance governed by plain old common sense made him a terrific coach.
As the Green Bay Press-Gazette’s beat writer and columnist, I marveled at Holmgren’s play-calling ability. He always seemed to be one step ahead of the opposing defense. He blended run and pass. He used screens to perfection. He also knew when to let Favre cut loose. To be able to call a game as clearly as he could and simultaneously retain control over everything on the sideline was a thing of beauty.
Sean Jones, the Packers’ right defensive end opposite White, always respected Holmgren. Over time, his admiration has continued to grow.
“The longer I was away from football the more I began to appreciate who Mike Holmgren was and is,” Jones said. “Mike is a great football coach. More than that, he is a damn good leader. He doesn’t get enough credit for that. The reason I say that is he has very clear rules. You never were confused about what he wants from you. And he’s demanding. He makes you accountable.”
Indeed, when the city named a street in Holmgren’s honor, it wasn’t Easy Street. It was Holmgren Way.
Favre, occasionally the demanding coach’s target, learned to take it in stride. He knew if he listened to Holmgren he’d be a better player.
“At first I was like, ‘God, get off my butt,’ ” Favre said. “But being a coach’s son, I was used to that. But I also would fight it. He found the middle ground. He would use his coaches at times to communicate with me. He also could flip the switch on with his players and himself. We knew when it was time to take it up a notch.”
Holmgren also had a softer side. It just didn’t show up as often.
I recall writing a column about Gary Brown, an offensive lineman, who had been struggling with family issues. About that time, he also was facing suspension for an off-field incident. Brown spilled his guts and the resulting column/tear-jerker grabbed attention.
What neither Brown nor I knew was that Holmgren had been working to get Brown help and possibly to prevent him from being suspended.
After the following day’s training camp practice, Holmgren asked to see me. I thought he might compliment me on a heartfelt column. On the contrary, he proceeded to rip me for writing about such a sensitive topic at a time when he was working behind the scenes to help Brown.
I was in my early 30s, but never before had I been chewed out like that.
A few days passed before Holmgren and I crossed paths after a practice. He nodded for me to come over. I’m thinking, “Great, now what?”
Instead, the 6-foot-5 coach put a big hand on my shoulder and said, “Hey, I got a little hot the other day. You’re OK, right? We’re OK?”
“Sure,” I said, trying to hide my surprise that he cared enough to inquire.
Holmgren had a positive influence on so many people and in so many ways during his time in Green Bay. Everyone who admired or respected Holmgren did so because he was a straight shooter and he was a winner.
On Saturday night, Holmgren’s brilliance will shine once again.
Chris Havel is a Packers News expert and national best-selling author. His latest book is Lombardi: An Illustrated Life. Havel can be heard Monday through Friday from 4-6 p.m. CDT on WDUZ FM 107.5 The Fan, or on AM-1400, as well as Fan Internet Radio (www.thefan1075.com). Havel also hosts Event USA’ Player Autograph Parties the evening before home games.