KIRKLAND – Nine summers ago, Mike Holmgren headed toward a hot, dry field in Cheney beneath a bannered likeness so large it resembled those formerly favored by Chairman Mao.
He walked through a fenced chute lined by fans ready to lay palm fronds at his feet. Clearly, he was viewed as the presumptive savior of the Seattle Seahawks that day.
The saving of the franchise took a while, and mixed opinions arose in the interim.
Friday, at the Seahawks’ headquarters, Holmgren appeared in a new role: short-timer.
After the first practice of his final season with the Seahawks, Holmgren didn’t wish to dwell on this as the beginning of the end. This, he claimed, is just another training camp. And he contended that he’s the same coach he was that first day in Cheney.
“It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years,” Holmgren said. “But it’s the same for me; it has been the same, honestly, every year. Getting those players in here and getting going again and anticipating a great season, that is always very exciting, and it has been for me, which is why I’ve been able to do it a long time.”
Holmgren is an emotional coach who sometimes has to take moments to collect himself when he has to talk about players with serious injuries, or at times like that day in January when he told us that he would retire from the Hawks after this season.
He knows he can’t go through a whole season dealing with that kind of distraction, so he certainly wasn’t going to let it become a story on the first day.
When asked if he’d been struck with a wave of nostalgia, Holmgren said he’s deferring all that until the end of the season.
“I had a little talk with myself about that,” he said. “That doesn’t help anybody if I’m thinking (about that). At the end, I’m sure I’ll think about it a little bit, but for now, this is a new year. I’m the same person; my staff clearly understands that, the players understand that ... it’s business as usual.”
He may have coached his players on that point, because quarterback Matt Hasselbeck pulled out the exact “business as usual” comment when asked about Holmgren’s final camp.
Holmgren’s approach, at least for now, is unwavering, as he walked among the various groups during drills, offering comments and taking notes. He’s still authoritarian enough to get a point across with a few words, challenging the effort of anybody, rookie or veteran, while saving the outbursts for later in camp when the tempo slows or concentration lags.
To reinforce his claims of consistency over the years, here’s some perspective from the column out of that first day in 1999:
“After a fumbled center exchange and a blown play, Holmgren interjected, ‘Hold it, hold it, hold it ... listen up,’ and walked into the huddle while 11 players simultaneously wondered if they’d soon be selling insurance.
“It’s not like he’s degrading anybody or putting anybody down,” running back Ricky Watters said at the time. “It’s just that you can’t (make mistakes) and play on this team. I think the best thing about him is his balance. He called us up after we had some fumbled snaps and a couple off-sides and he said ... ‘Great effort, I love the way you guys are running to the ball. But, we will eliminate these mistakes.’ ”
That was the message. The result? The Seahawks of 1998 were the second-most penalized group in team history. Under Holmgren, over the past nine seasons, the Seahawks have been the second-least penalized team in the NFL.
On that day, Holmgren stunned the media by using an unprecedented phrase to express dismay: “Good gracious.”
Seriously. Good gracious. He still pulls out a “geeminee Christmas” and a “gee willickers” on occasion with the media. On the field, of course, comments are somewhat less sugary.
Regardless of the verbiage, he’s been preaching the same gospel since 1999. On that first day, he spoke of instilling the components of winning: making fewer mistakes, being more disciplined, playing smarter, expecting more of yourself and each other.
His message to the team Friday before the start of this practice? Virtually the same.
“Talking to them about our expectation level and what I expect from every facet of our football team, I reminded them of a few things that hurt us last year that I think are very correctable,” Holmgren said.
“We’ve been close the last couple of years and we haven’t finished the deal.”
Maybe one of the reasons they’ve been close to finishing the deal is because Holmgren has been so consistent in his approach, from the first day of his first training camp until the first day of his last one.
In which case, the business-as-usual approach is a very good thing for this team.
Dave Boling: 253-597-8440