Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren does it his way
Mike Holmgren changed the Seahawks. But he changed, too. And now, he stands at the precipice of one final season in Seattle. One final opportunity to win that Super Bowl he was brought here for.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The end of an icon began on a January afternoon when a coach fresh off a few days in the Arizona sun sat behind a table to tell the city he would return for one more season.
Even as Mike Holmgren announced his encore as Seahawks coach, he relied on his rearview mirror to explain the road ahead.
"We're going to work very, very hard to finish the job that I hoped to do when I first came," Holmgren said.
The Super Bowl. It has cast a shadow over Holmgren's time in Seattle since he was hired a decade ago by the NFL's richest owner to perform a rebuilding job that entailed much more than just overhauling the roster.
Holmgren arrived in 1999 with a Super Bowl ring and a 24-carat resume. He was the man who had gone from a high-school history teacher to instructing Joe Montana, Steve Young and Brett Favre. The coach who had resuscitated the Packers, restoring Green Bay's status as Titletown.
And when Paul Allen hired Holmgren as executive vice president, general manager and head coach, he set about remaking the franchise with a heavy hand and at times a hot temper. He changed this team right from the very first game, a 28-20 loss to the Detroit Lions. After the game, a bird came running out onto the field. Or at least it was a man dressed up as a bird, who was using some bazooka-like device to launch T-shirts into the crowd at the Kingdome.
Now what in the world was that, Holmgren asked?
Blitz, the team's humanized bird mascot.
Holmgren's next words can't be repeated verbatim. Too much time has passed and there have been too many retellings to reproduce his words exactly. Besides, there were certainly a few adjectives too spicy to be printed when Holmgren declared that his this team was not in the business of selling used cars, but rather playing football.
Many things have happened in nine years since that first game. The Seahawks won four consecutive division titles, played in their first Super Bowl and won more playoff games the past three years than in their first 29 seasons combined.
But one thing has never happened since Holmgren's first game. Blitz has never run onto the field afterward to launch T-shirts.
It was one of the first footprints Holmgren left as he took a franchise known for mediocrity and made it meaningful. He arrived with the credibility that only a Super Bowl ring can bring, took a team that had not won a playoff game in 15 years and coached it to the sport's biggest stage.
"He showed us how to win," left tackle Walter Jones said. "Just brought his winning ways to Seattle, and I think that's what we needed."
Holmgren changed the Seahawks. Everything from the playbook to the laundry procedures.
But he changed, too. He became a grandfather here in Seattle, and he lost his mother. He suffered what remains the only professional setback of his football career when he lost his general manager's responsibilities in 2002, and stood at the brink of an unprecedented accomplishment when he took Seattle to the Super Bowl in 2006 and nearly became the first coach to win that game for two different franchises.
And now, he stands at the precipice of one final season in Seattle. A last chance of sorts, and when he decided in January that he would come back, one final opportunity to win that Super Bowl he was brought here for.
Protocol for success
Every news conference begins the same way.
Holmgren takes out a cough drop, unwraps it, places the wrapper flat on the table and the cough drop carefully on top of that wrapper. Ricola ready, he takes a bottle of water, unscrews the cap and places it on the table. Only then is he ready for questions.
He is an exacting coach. One who follows protocol precisely and expects others to do the same. No, wait. Actually, he doesn't expect that so much as he demands it.
"He's a very reasonable man," linebacker Lofa Tatupu said. "Just do what's asked of you. That's all he asks."
Tatupu remembers a time in his rookie season when a receiver lined up 6 yards off the tackle instead of 3 yards as the play called for. The play didn't work, and Holmgren stopped for a geometry lesson delivered in very visceral terms, explaining that the split was 3 yards. At 6 yards, the play was doomed.
"We ran the play again at 3 yards," Tatupu said. "The pass hit him in stride perfect."
Holmgren's offense is difficult, but it is not complicated. Not in the sense of intricate routes, pump fakes or misdirection. It demands that a player recognize the defensive strategy employed by the opponent and react precisely as the playbook tells him to.
A player must follow directions. That's all.
"If we do well, if we do what he expects, he's in a good mood," quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said. "When you don't, he's a lot less friendly."
There is one way with Holmgren's team: his. That goes everywhere from the playbook all the way down to the way they do laundry.
When Holmgren arrived, each player put his dirty practice clothes into a mesh bag. T-shirts, shorts, sweatpants, they all went in there. The bag was washed, then dried and finally hung back in the player's locker, clean but wrinkled.
No good, Holmgren said. He wanted the shirts hung up so they didn't end up looking like they were balled up at the bottom of a hamper. Shorts, too. The equipment manager said he'd need more employees. Fine, said Holmgren, and so now the Seahawks have their names and numbers on every pair of shorts, each T-shirt and all the other dri-fit garb they wear for practice. Those clothes get washed individually and then the men who do the laundry hang each piece on its own hanger in the player's locker.
It's part of the Seahawks protocol, something followed as rigidly and precisely as the news-conference preparation when the coach readies his Ricola and opens his water.
Seahawks Way. For nine seasons, Holmgren tried to define what that meant for this franchise.
Now it is an actual address: 12 Seahawks Way, site of a lakeside headquarters.
The team that seemed stuck in the middle of the standings has taken up residence in the penthouse of the NFC West and went from a cramped headquarters up on a hill tucked above a suburban university to a state-of-the-art facility with its own boating dock.
But this is no longer Holmgren's franchise. At least not in the same way it was when he was hired. He relinquished his general manager responsibilities after the 2002 season, which remains the only professional demotion he has experienced.
He argued against it. He pointed out the rash of injuries the Seahawks experienced that season, pointed to the three-game winning streak that concluded the season as proof that even in the midst of a doomed season the team hadn't quit on him. In fact, it had rallied.
But for all the arguments, Holmgren couldn't keep hold of both jobs. He lost final say on personnel, one of the very reasons he came to Seattle, leaving a championship-caliber team in Green Bay.
Tim Ruskell was hired to be the Seahawks' president. They have been an effective partnership, Holmgren with his knowledge of the offense and Ruskell with his knack for assembling a potent defense.
But Holmgren still has that itch to pick the personnel, something he understands won't happen in Seattle. That desire to do the general manager's job is now seasoned with a bit of self-awareness. He joked in January that his wife Kathy has told him he "might not be right" about his desire to pick the personnel once again.
Has he changed?
"Hopefully I've gotten a little wiser, a little more mature about things," Holmgren said. "I think I delegate better than I used to. I'm spending a little more time with players individually, which I like. I think we all change."
In 2001, Holmgren gave the team a vacation on its bye week. The Seahawks had won two consecutive games, and looked to be gaining momentum, but after that week off, the team lost 38-31 to Denver. Holmgren let loose in the locker room afterward, saying in no uncertain terms that he felt betrayed.
He was just as ornery in 2006 when the Seahawks went to San Francisco and turned in another stinker of a game, ending their string of 10 consecutive victories within the division. The doors to the locker room closed before the assistant coaches from the press box were inside. So the group of coaches, including both coordinators, waited outside while Holmgren lit into his team.
The next day he apologized to his players, saying he wouldn't talk to them that way again. He also told reporters about his apology.
A mellowed Mike? Maybe. Or perhaps the team has just gotten better at meeting the man's expectations.
"I don't think he has changed much," Hasselbeck said. "People say, 'Remember how Mike used to be?' I think he's the same, we just weren't hitting the bar. He sets the standard high and we weren't there."
The team has a new identity now. One forged through a few years of fire and brimstone as a franchise gradually placed its faith in the coach who arrived wearing a Super Bowl ring on that iron fist.
"I knew it was just going to be the best for us," Jones said. "He'd show us the right way, and everything he has said has almost happened."
Almost. Just one unfulfilled objective remains, and Holmgren has one last chance to win a Super Bowl for Seattle that would make coaching history.
Maybe when it's over, after this season when Holmgren is in Arizona on his motorcycle or in Hawaii on a beach, he will think about his evolution over this past decade. But for now there's just one thing, and that's achieving the goal that hasn't changed one bit since the day he arrived.
"I am going to enjoy this year," Holmgren said. "I really am. I like our team. I like how they're preparing and I like my coaches and then I'm focused on what I do all the time.
"And at the end, I'll reflect on how I've changed."
Danny O'Neil: 206-464-2364 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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