The classroom history of Mr. Holmgren
He wore a striped shirt and a tie to his first day of school. He carried a briefcase, brand new, empty. The radio he brought into his classroom...
Seattle Times staff reporter
He wore a striped shirt and a tie to his first day of school. He carried a briefcase, brand new, empty. The radio he brought into his classroom played country western. With nervous hands, he scrawled his name across the chalkboard.
Students called him Mr. Holmgren then.
They watch him now on television, some 34 years later, and see their teacher in the famous football coach. The same mustache. The same mannerisms. The same presence.
The same Mike Holmgren.
The same guy pictured in dusty yearbooks grabbing one player by the collar, face red as a tomato, steam appearing to rise out of his ears. The same guy who sang tenor in a faculty band — in character as "Manifold Mike Holmgren" — wearing overalls, carrying a crescent wrench, face smeared black with grease.
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"It takes me back to high school every time I see him," says Mike Hallinan, a former student. "That was a long time ago. And nothing changed."
Mr. Holmgren taught them mechanical drawing and economics and history, taught them football, taught them life. The flip side? They taught him just as much.
The core of the football coach remains. The teacher is still teaching. And the lessons he learned in the Bay Area in the 1970s are what turned Mr. Holmgren into Mike Holmgren, what made him who he is.
His dreams of playing in the NFL dashed, Mike Holmgren takes a job as an assistant football coach at his alma mater, Lincoln High School in San Francisco, and as a substitute teacher in the district.
His first full-time job is at Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep in San Francisco as an assistant coach and a teacher of economics and mechanical drawing. The football team posts 22 straight losses.
Holmgren moves to Oak Grove High School in San Jose, Calif., to be an assistant coach and teach U.S. history. He also sings tenor in a faculty band.
Time for the college ranks. Holmgren spends one season at San Francisco State University as the offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach.
Holmgren won a national championship, in 1984, while working as the quarterbacks coach at Brigham Young under head coach LaVell Edwards.
Up to the pros: Holmgren becomes quarterbacks coach with the San Francisco 49ers. In 1989, he becomes the team's offensive coordinator. The team won two Super Bowls (XXIII and XXIV).
Holmgren begins his head-coaching days in the NFL with the Green Bay Packers. From 1995-98, Holmgren's Packers posted an NFL-best 48-16 record and won Super Bowl XXXI.
Holmgren joins the Seahawks as general manager, executive vice president of football operations and coach. In 2003, he is stripped of GM duties. Last season, he guided the team to its first Super Bowl appearance.
"It ingrained upon me a certain work ethic," Holmgren says. "And a perseverance. If you keep working at something and stay with it, eventually good things will happen to you."
So open up your textbooks, class. Learn how a man gave up teaching history to make some of his own.
Chapter 1: Finding his calling
Before Holmgren won a Super Bowl, he lost 22 straight high-school games in San Francisco. Before people called him a genius, he actually taught one, a Rhodes Scholar who went to MIT and sometimes corrected him during economics class.
And before he could stretch a defense, he first had to stretch the truth.
Lou Meyer interviewed Holmgren in 1972 for a teaching position at Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep in San Francisco. Holmgren desperately needed a job. His dim prospects of playing in the NFL were over, dashed twice in training camps, and his wife was pregnant with twin daughters.
He had been a substitute teacher and an assistant coach the year before at his alma mater, Lincoln High School in San Francisco.
Holmgren wanted to stay in football, even if it meant landing a job as a teacher and assistant football coach at a program that didn't have a football field or much of a team. Meyer needed someone to teach economics and mechanical drawing. But Holmgren didn't know the first thing about mechanical drawing, so ...
"I told a little fib," Holmgren says. "Then I went and enrolled myself in San Francisco City College. I was a chapter ahead of the students, that type of deal."
Steve Ellison, then the football coach at Sacred Heart, knew his protégé had, um, drawn a difficult assignment. So two weeks into the 1972 school year, he went by Holmgren's classroom.
There stood the rookie teacher, compass in hand, mechanical drawing on the overhead. The compass seems symbolic now. He had already found his way.
"I was in awe," Ellison says. "Thinking, 'Holy smokes, this guy is pretty good.' "
Teaching came naturally. Holmgren regaled students with stories of his playing days, first as a star quarterback at nearby Lincoln High School, later as a benchwarmer at USC. He wore his national-championship ring from college every day.
But it was more than that. The man could teach. He made up games, bingo and Jeopardy, and debates livening up the classroom. He equated everything in U.S. history to football.
"What kind of teacher was he?" asks Hallinan, his former student. "Just an imposing figure. When he would talk, you just wanted to listen to him."
There were two sides to Holmgren, even then. Students describe him as an older brother and a father figure, a comedian and a disciplinarian, tough and temperamental, but soft and understanding.
"He was such a hardass on the outside and such a softy underneath," says Steve Barulich, a former student. "He had that look. He could just freeze you. But he had a calming way about him, too."
Holmgren gave Frank Lee a mechanical-drawing set when he found out that he needed one. He forced Hallinan to join the tennis team to work on quickness. He made Rick DeMartini hold mechanical-drawing boards in his outstretched hands while classmates laughed. Or dropped compasses 6 inches onto the back of goof-offs' hands.
They all have different stories ending at the same conclusion.
"I love the guy," DeMartini says. "Tell him next time he's in San Francisco, I'll give him some of my mom's spaghetti sauce he loved so much. Cook him a big Italian dinner."
Chapter 2: Affirmation
Determine what's most improbable. A) That Holmgren coached the defense at Sacred Heart. B) That his team lost 22 straight games. C) That he almost quit coaching altogether. Or D) all of the above.
"Who would have thought," Lee asks, "that all that happened to Mike Holmgren?"
Holmgren winces at the memory. He used to cram players into his Volkswagen bug, then drive to Golden Gate Park so Sacred Heart could practice.
Not that it helped much. He coached a team short on money, short on equipment and short on talent. And while he had found his calling as a teacher, the losing took its toll.
"You put a tremendous amount of energy, your whole body and soul into something, and you need to win once in a while," Holmgren says. "Otherwise it becomes too hard."
So Holmgren went to Ellison after his second year, told his mentor he had reached his breaking point. They talked for hours about life and coaching and the kids on the team who had made T-shirts that read "0-10, never again." They needed Holmgren more than ever. He would stay on.
And when Sacred Heart beat Piedmont Hills to end the streak, Holmgren broke down right there on the field. To this day, after college coaching stops at San Francisco State and Brigham Young, after coaching for NFL teams in San Francisco and Green Bay and Seattle, after hundreds of games, he says only the Super Bowl win in Green Bay meant more.
"I cannot explain the emotion of that game," Holmgren says. "The parents, the kids, everyone was crying. It was unbelievable."
The win was all the affirmation Holmgren needed. He had stuck with it, and finally an opportunity popped up. Oak Grove High School in San Jose needed an offensive coordinator.
Chapter 3: Learning how to win
Oak Grove coach Phil Stearns heard from a friend about a young coach "wasting away in a football graveyard." So he set up Holmgren with a job teaching physical education, coaching football and track as an assistant.
Stearns sent Holmgren to meet the principal. Holmgren came back steamed. The principal wanted him to teach U.S. history.
"He ended up becoming one of the best teachers in the school," says Marty Mornhinweg, then Oak Grove's star quarterback, now assistant head coach with the Philadelphia Eagles. "He had this unique ability to make his point, and to make it very quickly. That's why he was as good a history teacher as he was a football coach."
The two were synonymous by then. The football coach in Holmgren often came out in the classroom. World wars were football games, historical figures were football coaches and football players. The class should have been titled: U.S. history — and how it relates to football.
More important, Holmgren loved one aspect of football more than any other. Teaching. In Mornhinweg, he found the ideal pupil. In Oak Grove, he found the ideal classroom — a good team, on the football field.
He ran a stripped-down version of the offense he runs today. Oak Grove threw 25 times during the first half of most games — and it won so big, so often, that Mornhinweg often played only until halftime.
Sometimes Holmgren stood in at quarterback during practice. He looked very much like someone who played quarterback at USC, strong and accurate and fiery. He had the same temper, eventually forcing Stearns to ban him from talking to referees.
And he had that confidence, humbled but not shaken from his days at Sacred Heart.
"He said that given the rules of the game there was no defense he could not beat on paper," Stearns says. "He said, 'Give me a defense, and I'll pick it apart.' "
St. Francis High School gave him a defense in the section championship in 1978. St. Francis had not allowed more than 10 points in a game. It boasted seven shutouts.
Holmgren drew up a bunch of plays, and true to his word, he picked apart St. Francis. They all remember the final score, clear as the day it happened: 52-7.
"He was an offensive genius way before then," Mornhinweg says. "It's just that not too many people knew about it."
About the same time, Stearns put together a band to raise money for the athletic department called "Big Bop and the Choppers." Holmgren sang tenor with a voice Stearns swears was "melodious, a real crooner." If only someone had recorded it. The coach with the Hall of Fame résumé belting out doo-wop tunes such as "One Summer Night," "Puppy Love" and "Love Me Tender."
Not surprising, says John Jamison, an assistant coach for the Seahawks and Holmgren's friend for more than 50 years. When they were in high school together in San Francisco, Holmgren played the lead in "Around the World in 80 Days."
Holmgren went to Stearns in 1980. He said he didn't want to get stale. He wanted to become a high-school head coach or an offensive coordinator in the college ranks. Stearns offered him his head-coaching job on the spot. No, thanks, Holmgren told him. He had bigger things in mind.
Chapter 4: Leaving a legacy
Meyer, the man who hired Holmgren at Sacred Heart, says he often wonders if Holmgren's teaching experience "carried over." Trent Dilfer, former Seahawks quarterback, doesn't hesitate to answer.
"Mike Holmgren is a teacher," Dilfer says. "That is his greatest strength."
The core of the man remains. Only his classroom is in Kirkland now.
You can see it in the way he talks to players — "He can break down a complex thing very easily," Dilfer says — the way he runs practice, the way he breaks questions down in news conferences.
You can see it in his assistant coaches. Three of them — offensive coordinator Gil Haskell, offensive-line coach Bill Laveroni and Jamison — all worked and taught in San Francisco around the same time Holmgren did.
Holmgren hires assistant coaches, in large part, based on their ability to teach. Then he instructs them on the finer points of teaching.
He learned early in his teaching days that different students learn in different ways. Some learn by listening to lectures. Some learn by taking notes. Some learn visually. Some learn simply by doing.
In that respect, the Seahawks are no different than his students at Sacred Heart. They learn plays, formations and tendencies differently. So Holmgren instructs his assistants to really know their players, how they learn and the best way to teach them.
"Because ultimately," Holmgren says, "that determines how well you do — your ability to communicate and teach a player."
Mr. Holmgren's students are all grown up now. They are plumbers and policemen, doctors and business managers. Some of them, Lee and DeMartini included, even coach.
They are as much a part of his legacy as Matt Hasselbeck or Brett Favre.
The name Holmgren still resonates in the Bay Area. Former students turned police officers fight over the game assignment whenever the Seahawks come to town. Stearns says the "whole south side of San Jose is wearing Seahawks stuff."
Says Hallinan, the former student: "It's like six degrees of separation. So many people know him, know someone who knows him or has a story about him."
Holmgren has spent his whole life teaching. The pay, the stakes, the outfits, everything has changed. But one. The man himself.
"I've got a story for you," Hallinan says. "I was lucky enough to make my college's Hall of Fame in athletics. Mike Holmgren sent me a letter. This is 25 years removed. I'm nobody. This is Mike Holmgren."
Mr. Holmgren, always.
Greg Bishop: 206-464-3191 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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