State Your Case: Mike Holmgren
Coached Joe Montana, Steve Young and Brett Favre
(Published August 2020)
The election of Bill Cowher to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the 2020 Centennial Class has opened the door for others.
The discussion of coaching candidates in recent years had centered on two-time Super Bowl champions Tom Flores, Jimmy Johnson, Mike Shanahan, Tom Coughlin and George Seifert. The election of Johnson as the other coach in the Centennial Class loosened up that logjam – but the election of Cowher created another.
Cowher won one Super Bowl as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, giving hope to other one-time champion coaches that there could be a Hall of Fame bust in their futures. Welcome into the conversation, Mike Holmgren.
Like Cowher took two teams to Super Bowls and Holmgren three — Cowher the Steelers twice and Holmgren the Packers twice and Seahawks. Cowher won his Super Bowl in 2006, ironically, against Holmgren and the Seahawks. Holmgren won his Super Bowl in 1997 against Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells and the New England Patriots. Cowher suffered his Super Bowl loss to the Cowboys in 1996.
Holmgren took teams to the playoffs in 12 of his 17 seasons, winning seven division titles and appearing in four NFC title games. He ranks 16th all-time in coaching victories with 161 but only 43rd in winning percentage at 59.2. Cowher won 149 games in 15 seasons, ranking 28th all-time with a 64.3 winning percentage. Cowher won eight division titles and took the Steelers to six AFC title games.
Holmgren developed his reputation as a quarterback guru in San Francisco in the 1980s. He won two Super Bowl rings with the 49ers, the first as quarterback coach in 1988 and the second as offensive coordinator in 1989. He coached Hall of Fame quarterbacks Joe Montana and Steve Young in San Francisco.
“Mike, to me, is the first coach to recognize that the coach-quarterback relationship needs to be a partnership,” Young said. “It wasn’t just a hierarchy. There was more of a collaboration and because of that, his play-calling reflected not a scientific approach but an artful approach. He brought out the best in people and that’s not just Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks. Anyone who played for him was going to play better football because of the way he approached coaching.”
Holmgren got his break as a head coach in 1992 when the Packers hired him – the same year Green Bay acquired quarterback Brett Favre in a trade with the Atlanta Falcons.
The turnaround was immediate. Holmgren inherited a 4-12 team but coached the Packers t a 9-7 finish in 1992. With Holmgren shaping Favre into a franchise quarterback, Green Bay went to the playoffs each of the next six seasons, appearing in three NFC title games and two Super Bowls. He picked up his third Super Bowl ring with the Packers.
“I know without a doubt I would not be where I am today without him,” Favre said. “The three MVPs I was fortunate to win are a direct result of his coaching and leadership. He taught me how to play the quarterback position. He was brilliant as an offensive play-caller, the best I’ve ever seen.”
Holmgren resigned from the Packers after an 11-win, wild-card season in 1998 to become the general manager-coach of the Seahawks in 1999. He stayed longer in Seattle than he did in Green Bay but did not enjoy the same success. He won 66.9 percent of his games in Green Bay but only 53.7 percent in Seattle. But he did take the Seahawks to the franchise’s first-ever Super Bowl, this time without a Hall of Famer at quarterback — Matt Hasselbeck.
“He absolutely was committed to pushing you harder than you thought you could ever be pushed, getting more out of you than you ever thought you could get,” Hasselbeck said.
Holmgren graduated from the Bill Walsh coaching tree but planted his own tree in Green Bay. Jon Gruden and Andy Reid served assistantships in Green Bay, then went on to win Super Bowls as head coaches. Dick Jauron, Steve Mariucci, Jim Mora, Marty Morhinweg, Ray Rhodes, Mike Sherman and Jim Zorn also left the employ of Holmgren to become NFL head coaches.
“Mike was like Bill Walsh in many ways, especially in the way he demanded perfection,” Montana said. “He pushed us to be perfect and those demands and his attention to detail helped make me and our offense better.
“Frankly, I’m surprised he’s not already in the Hall of Fame. He definitely deserves a spot in Canton.”