When asked to analyze Mike Holmgren’s coaching success, those who know him often point out his skills as a teacher.
From his office at Seahawks headquarters last week, when asked to look back, Holmgren spoke less about teaching than of the lessons he has learned in his 10 seasons in Seattle.
Clearly, this time has been a process of absorbing, interpreting and then adapting. Learning.
As he prepared last week for the final home game of his tenure with the team, won by the Seahawks, 13-3, over the New York Jets today at Qwest Field, he chuckled a little when asked about the “legacy” of his time in Seattle.
“... Sounds like I’m dead.”
No, not dead. In fact, he seemed energized by the prospect of taking time off after 17 seasons as a head coach in the NFL.
And he seemed free to open up about his experiences here. He spoke of some misconceptions he had when he arrived, how he got off on the wrong foot with the fans, and how he twice reached the verge of quitting because of front-office politics.
Yes, he said, in the past year or so he considered backing off his plan to retire at the end of this season but the momentum was already built up to have Jim Mora take over.
As for the future, he definitely will take off a year as he promised his wife, Kathy, and after that he still wants to have a shot at controlling a franchise as a coach/general manager ... but he’s not closing the door on any possibilities.
Maybe it’s more accurate to consider this a sabbatical, or a tactical withdrawal, than a retirement. And maybe what he’s left is more of an overarching sense of excellence than a single achievement that stands as his legacy.
“There’s a couple things I feel good about,” he said. “One is how people view the Seahawks now. I feel good about that. This has been a tough season, but I think they believe this is an odd year, and they’re still in there with us, still behind us, and I feel good about that.”
He addresses this topic as he does so many others, in layers, general to specific.
“Personally, I always wanted respect from my peers; it was important to me that they thought I could coach,” he said. “I’ve had any number of phone calls from people I really admired as colleagues or competitors. I think I’ve done that a little bit.
“And the third thing, I like to see that certain players ... to use (quarterback) Matt Hasselbeck as an example ... he came here, you kind of mold him a little bit, if you will, and then you watch him grow. As a teacher, that’s important to me.”
He sees now that he hardly came off as the professorial type when he arrived. Cocky, arrogant, egotistical ... those were some of the terms tossed at him in the early years.
“I think a couple things got in the way; my contract and all that hoopla,” he said of the $32 million over eight years that was initially reported. “People kinda go, ‘Oh, geez.’ ”
The other impression was that he was a raging bully, screaming and spitting at cowering players.
“I joke about it now, but every picture that ever appears of me in the newspaper seems like I’m mad at somebody, yelling at somebody,” he said. “(Reporters) who watch practice every day know that I might get after somebody, but I don’t do that a lot. That’s not how I do stuff all the time.”
It was a much larger misinterpretation that created a significant early rift with fans.
“We were in Husky Stadium for Matt’s first start, and there was a group that started booing him after his second pass,” recalled Holmgren, who in somewhat salty language told the team afterward to ignore those people.
“It wasn’t about the fans; it was only about those six people,” he said. “But it comes out (in the media): ‘Holmgren says blankety-blank to the fans’. After that, I had some ground to make up, and that was too bad.”
That it actually got out of the locker room and into a magazine was another lesson for Holmgren.
“I’m not a total open book (with the media) but I’m not condescending, I’m not argumentative, and I’m not dishonest,” he said. “(That it was misinterpreted) bothered me more than it probably should have. I’ve always been aware of how the fans are involved with your team, and the fact that they thought I actually said something like that about them ... yeah, that really bothered me.”
Holmgren’s imperial status as executive vice president/head coach/general manager not only shaped his public image, but also led to issues at the headquarters in the days when Bob Whitsitt served as team president and was the primary conduit of information back to owner Paul Allen.
Holmgren had enjoyed nothing but success – two Super Bowl trips and high approval ratings while coaching the Green Bay Packers. He left that comfortable environment only because he wanted the challenge of having total control over a franchise.
But after going 7-9 in 2002, his fourth season with the joint titles, Holmgren had the GM job taken away. “Relieved of his general manager duties” was how it was stated publicly.
It was no secret that Whitsitt and Holmgren were at odds. And as he looks back, Holmgren addresses the general situation but not the personalities involved nor Whitsitt specifically.
“Oh, yeah, I was upset,” he said of the demotion. “I left a wonderful situation to come here and do these two things (coach and GM), and if that was not available, I would have stayed in Green Bay.”
His wife talked him down and asked him a simple question: Do they still want you to coach? He had been so upset about the GM status that he wasn’t exactly sure. When told that he was wanted in that capacity, he had to decide what was most important.
“Kathy and I talked it out, like we do most big decisions,” he said. “And I think I saw into the future a little bit. We had won the last three games that season, and Matt was kind of coming into his own, and that was going to be a springboard for us.”
He stayed as coach, and chalked up another lesson learned.
But after the first-round playoff loss at home to St. Louis after the 2004 season “... I was really shot; I was ready (to quit), really on the edge of saying it’s time to let somebody else try this,” he said.
Allen got wind of Holmgren’s discontent, and summoned him to his home.
“I told him I was tired. My quote was, ‘It’s too hard to fight the battles on the field and fight the battles in the building, too. I can’t do it anymore.’ ”
His postseason visits with Allen, he said, usually last 20 minutes. This, though, went on for two hours.
“We started going through things he thought I had done and he found out ... well ... you know,” Holmgren said.
Allen promised action. By the end of the week, Whitsitt was out and Holmgren returned as coach.
Tim Ruskell took over as president/general manager and the team went to the Super Bowl and proceeded to stretch the string of NFC West titles to four.
Holmgren’s annual postseason re-evaluations caused management to begin considering the franchise’s future, which the coach said was “entirely fair.” Holmgren said he could see that Ruskell was interested in hiring Jim Mora as his replacement.
Holmgren’s concern at the time was for the assistant coaches on the staff. The sooner decisions were made about the head coach, the greater would be their options.
“Coaches were coming to me, so I asked, ‘Do you know who the next coach is?’ I said, ‘Fine, let’s let the coaches know so they can make plans.’”
Press conferences were called for Holmgren to announce his retirement at the end of this season and Mora to take over as head coach thereafter.
“The press conference telling the world ... looking back on it, I kinda wish, and I think Jim kinda wishes, that hadn’t happened,” Holmgren said.
Holmgren said that after this process was rolling, he actually waffled on his decision to retire from the Seahawks, which made matters a little “sticky.”
“The wheels were going so much in that direction nobody could put on the brakes,” he said.
Did you try to apply the brakes?
“Well, I didn’t slam on them; it was slight,” he said. “I kinda floated an idea out there to see how everyone would feel about it.”
It didn’t float.
“Nah,” Holmgren said. “Jim’s a heckuva coach. To his credit, he’s been super about handling this thing. Really, really super. And I appreciate him very much that way.”
He strongly reiterated that he will take the next year off. It’s not posturing or positioning for another job. It’s a promise to his wife he intends to keep.
“We’re going to travel, have fun, play golf, whatever,” he said.
And then he’ll address what he calls the “itch he hasn’t been able to scratch” – taking over a franchise. He said he’s “open and curious” about a lot of possibilities outside of football, and won’t rule out anything.
“The thing that I didn’t get a chance to finish was building a team,” he said. “If I had another chance to do that down the road, I would consider that; Kathy knows that and is on board with it. I still feel good. I’m still competitive. My feeling is that at the end of the year I’ll start getting that itch and wanting to get back in and do something.”
So, Holmgren is going to spend considerable energy over the next week controlling his emotions. He took a lap of the field after today’s game, making contact with the fans who have learned to appreciate and understand him since those rocky early days.
“I hope we got over those early years and they don’t think I’m this crazy person,” he said. “I would hope they know that I really put the team before myself. We all have egos and I like to win and feel good about it, but what I really loved was the challenge of building something up and making it better. That was my goal, that was the challenge that made me tick.”
And that stands as a legacy for this franchise no matter what you want to call it.
Dave Boling: 253-597-8440