Packers' turnaround started with Holmgren
GREEN BAY, Wis. — As storied as the tradition of the Green Bay Packers is, with four Super Bowl victories and 13 total league championships, there was a 20-year stretch when the franchise struggled to even finish a season with a winning record.
But ever since Mike Holmgren was hired as head coach in 1992, the Packers have consistently been one of the best teams in the NFL. In the 22 seasons prior to Holmgren's arrival in Green Bay, the Packers had only four winning years — or three if the strike-shortened 1982 season isn't included. But over the past 20 years, even though Holmgren was in Green Bay for only seven of them, the Packers have had a losing record only twice.
That successful run — which is still in full swing coming off a 15-1 regular season record — began with Holmgren, who was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame on Saturday.
"We changed a lot of the culture in the building, and that's easy to say (but) hard to do," Holmgren said before his ceremony. "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 (after the 1996 season).
"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."
When Ron Wolf took over as general manager in Green Bay, he brought in three coaches for interviews: Holmgren, Bill Parcells and then-Raiders offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie. Even with the possibility of adding Parcells, who had won the Super Bowl with the New York Giants just over one year earlier, Wolf's decision to hire Holmgren was apparently an easy one.
"When I finished with Mike Holmgren, I knew where I wanted to go," Wolf said. "I knew who it was I wanted to be the head coach for the Packers. Unfortunately, there were eight other teams that were looking for head coaches. (Holmgren) had already been to two places (Tampa Bay and Indianapolis), and then he was going to go to Pittsburgh, going to go here, going to go there. Finally, I talked to Bob Lamonte, who represented Mike, and asked him, ‘What do we have to do to get it done?' And we got it done.
"When you meet Mike and you listen to what he has to say about his approach to the game and how important the tradition of the game is to him, and more importantly the tradition of the Green Bay Packers … all you have to do is listen to him. Once you hear him, it's over. So it's quite simple. It was up to us to put up or shut up economically, and fortunately, we put up."
Holmgren had never been a head coach at any level, with his most recent position at the time being the San Francisco 49ers' offensive coordinator. Before that, Holmgren was a quarterbacks coach for the 49ers and at Brigham Young University. And only 12 years before coaching the Packers, he was a high school assistant coach in his home state of California.
"It's been a good ride," said Holmgren, who left the Packers in 1999 to be coach and general manager of the Seattle Seahawks and is now a the Cleveland Browns' team president. "You get into this as a high school coach in my case, happy to have a job and be able to pay the bills, and then somehow you wind up in the NFL having never really (had that) as a goal. All of a sudden you're there, and then you get a chance to be a head coach … and then all of a sudden, if you're not careful, all the things that that brings can really get you off track.
"So I always preached to my coaches and my players about enjoying the journey. Because it can be difficult, it can be great, but don't get caught up in the trappings of the job because then you're going to miss some things."
Holmgren's transition into being an NFL head coach was made much easier by Wolf. Together, Holmgren and Wolf helped lead the Packers to two Super Bowl appearances, one Super Bowl victory, six consecutive playoff appearances, seven winning seasons and back-to-back 13-3 campaigns.
"People laugh when we say (it), but we never did argue on anything," Holmgren said. "I'm not the smartest guy in the world, but I was smart enough to know that (Wolf) can put a football team together and run a football organization. And it was my first job. I was in no position, how am I going to argue about anything?
"The beauty of the relationship was he always asked. He always asked about how I felt about whatever. I appreciated that. If you build an organization, whether it's players to players, players to coaches, coaches to front office, and operate under an idea of mutual respect, you shouldn't have a lot of problems. There shouldn't be a lot stuff. Who cares who gets the credit? And that's the way it was. It was good."
Wolf echoed those sentiments.
"It was an amazing deal," Wolf said. "Why, I don't know. I'll tell you why I think it is: With Mike Holmgren, it was about what's best for the football team. That's an amazing trait.
"He had a much bigger ego than I had, but that never got in the way. All the personnel moves … So many people coming in, so many people going out. 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."
In Holmgren's seven seasons, the Packers finished with a 75-37 regular-season record, which is the second-best coaching record in the franchise's 93-year history. Only Vince Lombardi had a higher winning percentage while coaching in Green Bay, which is why Wolf's final comment about Holmgren said a lot.
"(Holmgren's) 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," Wolf said.
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