Holmgren: From Over His Head to Hall of Fame

Mike Holmgren (Todd Rosenberg/Getty)

Looking back 20 years, not even Mike Holmgren could have predicted he'd be inducted in the Packers Hall of Fame. But that's what happened on Saturday night, as one of the NFL's great coaches is celebrated for essentially raising the Titanic from the bottom of the Atlantic.

Mike Holmgren was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame on Saturday night.

Who would have thought that was possible about 20 years earlier?

Taking over the perennially inept Packers in 1992, Holmgren lost his debut to Minnesota 23-20. Then came a Week 2 game in the sweltering heat of Tampa Bay, a 31-3 loss in which Vinny Testaverde was nearly perfect (22-of-25, 363 yards, two touchdowns) and Don Majkowski and Brett Favre were miserable (18-of-29, 148 yards, two interceptions).

"I was thinking to myself as I got on the airplane, ‘Whoa,'" recalled the man who hired Holmgren and presented him for induction, Ron Wolf, "because we had just lost (linebacker) Mark D'Onofrio forever, and this is his first game. He had made 18 unassisted tackles. He was having one heck of a game. You can't lose players of that caliber. And I thought, ‘Well, I went 0-14 in Tampa, it looks like we're going to go 0-16 in Green Bay.'"

Holmgren's "Whoa" moment came a week later, an unforgettable home game against Cincinnati.

"I was on the sideline, we were down 14-0," Holmgren recalled. "I said, ‘I'm never going to win a game in this league. I'm going to be the shortest-tenured head coach ever. This is too big for me. This is not working.' Then we won this crazy game at the end."

Crazy, indeed, with Favre's 35-yard touchdown pass to Kitrick Taylor providing a last-second win. There's no way the 57,272 in attendance could have known that that victory would jump-start one of the great coach-quarterback duos in NFL history.

"The thing that I remember, Majkowski gets hurt, Brett goes in the game," Holmgren said. "I'm watching the game from the sideline. I know the plays I'm calling. I know what's supposed to happen out there and it's the damnedest thing you've ever seen. I said, ‘Well, where'd that come from?' We were at the playground because Brett, in those days, at that time, third game, he was kind of just shooting from the hip. And somehow, some way, at the end of that thing, he threw two of the most beautiful passes I've ever seen."

In seven seasons, Holmgren posted a regular-season record of 75-37. That .670 winning percentage would rank 14th in NFL history. Green Bay won Super Bowl XXXI in 1996, the NFC championship in 1997 and NFC Central titles in 1996 through 1998.

Really, it's unthinkable. The "Titletown" moniker had long since been replaced by "Siberia." Outside of the occasional blip on the radar, the Packers were mediocre at best and stunk at worst. No good player in his right mind would play for Green Bay by choice.

And then it all changed. To be sure, it was a perfect storm with Bob Harlan, Wolf, Holmgren, Favre and, later, Reggie White forming a five-headed Mount Rushmore. But Holmgren's genius shouldn't be discounted because of those who surrounded him. For his first coaching staff, he hired some of the great young minds in the profession, with Jon Gruden, Dick Jauron, Steve Mariucci, Andy Reid and Ray Rhodes becoming head coaches. He rode it out with Favre, even when his assistant coaches wanted to give Mark Brunell a shot. He won games and reached the playoffs with Favre and Sterling Sharpe as the only weapons on offense, then kept right on winning when Sharpe was forced to retire.

"You think about coming here to Green Bay … for 24 years after (Vince) Lombardi left, there were four winning seasons here and one of the seasons shouldn't even count (because) it was a strike year," Wolf said. "That's cheap. Just think about that: 24 years, they had three winning seasons. That's incredible. He comes here and never has a losing season with a, well, I wouldn't say that's an All-Pro roster that he was working with, either. To me, that's his legacy. His legacy is, when you think about the great Packers coaches of all time, you got the 2 L's (Lombardi and Curly Lambeau) and you've got Mike Holmgren."

For the record, Mike McCarthy's winning percentage of .656 ranks 16th in NFL history. So, he's winning at the same clip and has the same number of Super Bowl rings as Holmgren. However, Holmgren forever should receive extra credit for the circumstances. While McCarthy righted a sinking ship, Holmgren in essence raised the Titanic from the depths of the Atlantic and got it steaming at full speed.

Without Holmgren and Co., would there have been not one but two Lambeau Field renovations? Not one but two successful stock sales? If not for what Holmgren, Wolf and Favre accomplished, maybe none of what's being accomplished now could have happened.

That's big time.

That's a Hall of Famer.

"We changed a lot of the culture in the building, and that's easy to say (but) hard to do," Holmgren said. "That probably to me over the course of time will mean the most. We were able to turn it, get it going in the right direction and then ultimately get the main prize, the Super Bowl. I just think (about) how good the Packers are now, what's happened since 1992 here, as opposed to what had happened prior to 1992 for all those years. I just have to look at the stadium, walk through here, it's unbelievable how things have changed. I had a little part of that, a little thing to do with that, and I feel good about that."


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.

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