RENTON, WA - Long before he led multiple franchises to Super Bowl berths, Mike Holmgren never imagined he would become an NFL head coach. Following the conclusion of his collegiate career at USC, he spent 10 years coaching and teaching at three different high schools in California, thoroughly enjoying the experience working with youth on and off the field.
But after taking a one-year sabbatical, Holmgren took a significant first step in his coaching progression by accepting an offensive coordinator position at San Francisco State in 1981. Then, after only one season with the Gators, iconic BYU coach Lavell Edwards offered him an opportunity to interview for the Cougars' vacant quarterback coach position.
At the time, Holmgren wasn't sure he even wanted the job. But he went through with the interview anyway, expecting another candidate to be picked over him.
"He got me an interview there. I didn’t want it, but they worked it out. I said, 'I’m not getting that job,' Holmgren told reporters on Friday.
Much to Holmgren's surprise, however, Edwards offered him the job and the hire turned out to be a slam dunk for all parties. Under his tutelage, quarterbacks Steve Young and Robbie Bosco emerged as stars orchestrating one of the nation's most potent offensive attacks and the Cougars wound up winning 43 games during his four years at the school, capturing a national championship in 1984 with an undefeated 13-0 record.
Suddenly, Holmgren found himself in high demand in NFL circles and in 1986, coach Steve Walsh and the 49ers hired him as their new quarterback coach to work with Joe Montana and Young. When George Seifert replaced Walsh in 1989, San Francisco promoted him to offensive coordinator and in three seasons as the play caller, Montana won two MVPs and and the team finished in the top five in points per game twice, including finishing first in 1989 en route to a Super Bowl victory.
Similar to his journey to BYU, Holmgren never thought he'd actually get hired by Walsh and the 49ers. After happily coaching at the high school level for a decade, he never envisioned himself ascending the coaching ranks this quickly to the league.
“No, I couldn’t," Holmgren responded when asked if he could have foreseen finding success in the NFL when he was coaching high school. "I’ve said this before too, honestly, I really loved high school coaching. Believe it or not, I taught history, I was a classroom teacher, and I coached all sorts of stuff, but I loved it. I loved the opportunity to work with young kids and help them, not only on the field but hopefully develop life skills and how they approached things."
Far from his days coaching high school ball and climbing the NFL coaching ladder rapidly, the Packers hired Holmgren as their 13th head coach in franchise history in 1992. Taking over a team that had won only four games the previous season, he nearly led them to the playoffs in his first season with a 9-7 record and found immediate success with young gunslinger Brett Favre under center.
Green Bay would make the postseason in each of the next two seasons with Holmgren at the helm, winning one playoff game each year. Then in 1995, the team finally got over the hump, beating his former employer in San Francisco in the divisional round to advance to the conference championship for the first time since the NFL/AFL merger in 1970. The following year, Holmgren and Favre would hoist a Lombardi Trophy after beating the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI.
Thriving as head coach for one of the NFL's most prominent franchises, Holmgren had a pretty comfortable situation in Green Bay, or at least that was how it looked from the outside. But after the Packers were eliminated in the wild card round in 1998, he made a stunning decision that rocked the league, resigning from his position to take over as the new coach and general manager for the Seahawks.
Initially, Holmgren's choice was viewed as a head-scratcher. Green Bay had re-emerged as a perennial contender in the NFC under his direction and boasted one of the NFL's most passionate fan bases, while Seattle hadn't been to the playoffs in a decade and had been mired in mediocrity for most of its existence as a franchise.
But while many outside of the Holmgren household may have been baffled by his decision, he knew exactly what he wanted. Joining the Seahawks provided a new challenge for him with the opportunity to run "the whole program" as a coach and general manager and brought him back to the West Coast closer to family. He also sought more balance in his life after shouldering the burden that comes with coaching in Green Bay.
"What I did think about there in Wisconsin, you guys know how rabid the Seahawks fans are, the head coach of the Packers really is responsible for the mood of the entire state. Sometimes, football is important, but it should be fun," Holmgren explained. "To them, the folks there, it was important, and I felt that. That burden hit me sometimes if we would lose a game and we didn’t lose too many, it was a good run. As an example, my wife’s a social worker and on the Monday after we would lose there was a spike in spousal abuse, it was just crazy. That was another reason, I think I wanted to get a change in that dynamic a little bit from how my mind was working towards this job.”
Unlike when he arrived in Green Bay, Holmgren dealt with some lean years at the beginning of his tenure in Seattle. Though the team made the playoffs and won the NFC West in his first season, they finished in fourth place with a 6-10 record the following year and struggled to find consistency without a franchise quarterback. After missing the playoffs for a third straight season in 2002, he was terminated as general manager and replaced by Bob Ferguson.
Despite those struggles and his "demotion," however, Holmgren felt good about where the Seahawks were headed at the time. He could see a shift in how fans embraced the team and suddenly, playing in a new stadium, Seattle became a hostile environment where opposing teams didn't want to play due to the ear-piercing sound.
"Early on, teams were still getting to where we got to be," Holmgren reflected. "There were a lot of different color jerseys in that stadium. I feel like losing teams would buy tickets, you guys remember that. Then all of a sudden, the idea Tod Leiweke brought in of the 12th Man kind of erupted. It was a fun, great place to be on Sunday. It was different. Maybe because it’s larger, it has to be. It was a unique place."
In 2003, the Seahawks finally got over the hump in large part due to the development of quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who made his first Pro Bowl and threw a career-best 26 touchdowns to lead them back to the postseason. While they lost in the wild card round in back-to-back-seasons, Holmgren eventually led the team to their first-ever Super Bowl after a 13-win campaign in 2005.
During a five-year stretch from 2003 to 2007, Seattle made the playoffs each season and captured four division titles, winning four playoff games and advancing to at least the divisional round three times.
"There was a developing period early on, like every franchise goes through until you find the right person to play quarterback with," Holmgren remarked. "We were kind of going through that and then we finally got Matt [Hasselbeck]. There was a ton of maturity with Matt as well but when he hit it, I thought it was his third year in the last five games that he I could see that he got it and it was going to be okay. Then you build a team around it, and you have a chance to be good for a long time if you have that guy."
Though Holmgren's time in Seattle ended after a dismal 4-12 season in 2008, at the time of his retirement, he ranked first all-time in franchise history with 86 victories and coached five division champions in 10 seasons. Coach Pete Carroll has since surpassed surpassed him in the victories column and tied him for division titles.
"It was hard early, but that was the challenge for me, and it always has been, approaching and taking a job to try and build it back up," Holmgren reflected. "I feel good about what we did and for a stretch there, we were pretty good. I think it did set a tone for the future and all of the great things that happened under Pete [Carroll] and Russell Wilson.”
Carroll agrees, crediting Holmgren's efforts for building a foundation that paved the way for the Seahawks to enjoy sustained success over the past decade.
"Mike did [so much] for this program and for our fans and connecting us with winning and division championships and all the great post season stuff, but also the personality that he brought and the style and the competitiveness and the toughness and the glib and everything that Mike’s all about. We’re lucky to have him," Carroll said on Friday. "I kind of feel like he set the stage for us to be successful here and the expectations and the standards that he set."
More than a decade since he last coached for the team, Holmgren will be immortalized as the 14th member of the Seahawks Ring of Honor at halftime of Sunday's game against the Jaguars in remembrance for the imprint he left on the franchise. Already with a street bearing his name near Lambeau Field in Green Bay, his name will now forever be in the rafters alongside other icons, including players who starred for him such as Hasselbeck and Walter Jones.
Honored and humbled by this special recognition, it's been quite a journey since he was roaming the sidelines at Lincoln High School in 1971 and Holmgren can't wait to enjoy the momentous occasion with his family this weekend.
“It’s very cool. Your body of work in whatever you do, I happen do be a football coach, if you are honored by this in your profession by other people as a thank you for what you had done, you should feel good about it. In Green Bay as an example, when the powers that be like the mayor and politicians said to me that they wanted to do this, I said no but they said, “No, we want to do this.” There is a corner in Green Bay which is the corner of Holmgren and Lombardi. How cool is that? Being in a stadium like this, and having your name there, I don’t want to overstate it, but it’s very, very special to me.”