NEW ORLEANS -- When the Green Bay Packers unveiled Mike Holmgren as their 11th head coach on Jan. 11, 1992, he immediately flashed his self-deprecating sense of humor.
"It was like in that movie years ago, 'The Candidate' with Robert Redford," Holmgren said.
"They pushed him out and all of a sudden he gets elected senator and sits down on his bed and they say, 'You won.' And he closes the door and he says, 'Now what do I do?' But I'm a little more prepared than he was," he said that day.
Holmgren went on to prove just how prepared he was.
Five years later, he's in the Super Bowl.
In this era of free agency when owners want success in about five minutes, Holmgren may have put together the last of the five-year plans.
His Packers are favored by two touchdowns in Super Bowl XXXI over the New England Patriots and could become the league's next marquee team.
But Holmgren, 48, hasn't been proclaimed a genius yet.
He's used to being overshadowed. He worked under Bill Walsh and George Seifert in San Francisco. In Green Bay, he's overshadowed by the legend of Vince Lombardi, whose name is on the Super Bowl trophy.
At the Super Bowl, he's overshadowed by Bill Parcells, the New England coach who is often portrayed as playing the Packers all by himself. The game is featured as the Packers vs. Parcells.
He just flashes that humility that he showed at that first news conference in Green Bay when he said after it ended, "My feeling was I was hoping my tie was on straight during the whole thing."
Holmgren's comfortable with the role of being the "other" coach in the Super Bowl.
"You know when they put those little check marks in the paper for coaching and whatnot about teams? Bill gets more than I do. He's everywhere, larger than life. He's an outstanding coach. All I can say is I'm getting my team ready to play, too. We're covering the bases. I'll show up, I'll be there," he said.
Ron Yary, who played at Southern California with Holmgren and went on to become a star with the Minnesota Vikings, said Holmgren's an uncanny mimic.
"He could have been a professional comedian. Nobody knows that," Yary said.
Steve Young, the 49ers quarterback who worked with Holmgren in San Francisco, said: "He has a really good sense of humor. For a football coach, he's very unusual. To me, that's a real compliment because so many times we get these stoic, non-people people coaching the ultimate people sport."
He's a man who keeps his ego in check. In an era when coaches are screaming for more power, he works together with general manager Ron Wolf with no major problems.
The secret of his success is that he can appreciate it. A college quarterback who was an eighth-round NFL pick and spent time at the Cardinals and Jets training camps in 1970 before returning to his high school alma mater to teach, he never dreamed about being an NFL head coach. He spent 12 years coaching in high school in San Francisco and planned to make it his life.
"I really enjoyed high school coaching and teaching and really expected to do that my whole life," he said. "We were able to buy a nice little house and have a lot of friends and I enjoyed what I did. I was a classroom teacher then at the same time I got to coach. So I had a fine job there."
He eventually felt he was getting a little stale, though.
"I didn't want to do that to the kids. I thought I was cheating the kids in my classes," he said.
He took a sabbatical for one year to take a fling at college coaching at San Francisco State under a family friend named Vic Rowan in 1981.
On the first day, he asked Rowan for a playbook.
"Playbook?" Rowan said. "I'm going to show you the right way to fry a dog."
It wasn't a big-time program and the coaches earned money for expenses by selling hot dogs on campus.
"I fully expected to return to my high school job [after one year]," Holmgren said.
Rowan intervened again, convincing Brigham Young coach LaVell Edwards to hire him as a quarterback coach the following year.
"I convinced him this guy was a clone of him, that he would get done what LaVell wanted to get done," he said.
That was his first step on the way to the Super Bowl.
"I lost the chance to go back to my high school. So, I was there, I was in it," Holmgren said.
But he still didn't envision being an NFL head coach.
"I never really had career aspirations to be standing here, being the head coach in the NFL at that time. I just wanted to provide for my family and do something I enjoyed doing," said Holmgren of his wife Kathy and four daughters. "I was not driven, really, to this position. I love it. I'm very fortunate. I'm a lucky man to be here. And I love what I do. But I was very lucky."
Walsh hired him as an assistant in San Francisco in 1986 and the rest is history.
If he's lucky as a coach, it's a contrast to the misfortune he suffered as a player.
Craig Fertig, a teammate at USC, said, "He was like the little kid in the comics, the one with the little black cloud over his head. Something had happened. That's why it's nice to see good things happen to him now."
Coming out of high school, he was a top prospect. He threw for 3,592 yards as a senior and beat out Jim Plunkett to start in an all-star game.
He then made a mistake when he went to USC. John McKay, then the coach, told him they were going to throw the ball more.
"Mike was a little enamored with the big-timeness of USC. But that's what happens to 17-year-olds," Rowan said.
McKay also recruited a running back named O. J. Simpson at the same time. Holmgren became a benchwarmer who played behind Toby Page, Steve Sogge and Jimmy Jones, who ran the rollouts and pitched back to Simpson.
McKay now admits, "I think Mike would have fit in better if we had been strictly a drop-back passing team."
Plunkett went to Stanford and won the Heisman Trophy. Holmgren threw 27 passes in three years, never lettered, sat out his senior year with a bad shoulder and left with a year of eligibility.
After his brief NFL shot, he went into high school coaching. He started out 0-22 and questioned whether he was in the right business, but he stuck with it.
"Everybody has been asking me if Mike had some kind of magical solution to coaching," Rowan said. "He didn't and it wasn't because of his knowledge that I brought him here. What he had were honesty, character and integrity. And he still has those traits. The football knowledge came later, with a lot of hard work."
Holmgren relates well to the players, which often isn't easy in this era of million-dollar salaries. He even has a players committee as a sounding board. And he has a couple of assistants who grade his performance at the end of the year.
He's also comfortable with the Packers tradition and dealing with the legend of Lombardi. Instead of resenting it, he likes to build on it.
"I talk to the players who played for him. I want to know how it was, why it was so good. If I can get some of that to our group now in this time period, then I'll be doing the right thing," he said.
When he was asked if he expects to have a street named after him the way Lombardi does, he suggests a "little alley" might be more appropriate.
He said until you live in Green Bay, you can't appreciate what the team means to the city and the state of Wisconsin.
"I'm a little bit overwhelmed at times. It's a special place. Standing on the podium after the championship game against Carolina and receiving the trophy as NFC champions and looking out over those people, it was very, very cold. They were still in the stands and it was an amazing feeling. It was a tremendous feeling," he said.
He hopes to have a similar feeling tomorrow.
"I do sense a feeling that this is our time, this is our game," he said.
And Holmgren's opportunity to escape from the shadows.
At a glance
New England Patriots (13-5) vs. Green Bay Packers (15-3)
When: Tomorrow, 6: 18 p.m.
Site: Superdome, New Orleans
TV: Chs. 45, 5
Line: Packers by 14
Holmgren file Age:
48 College: Southern California (degree in business finance, 1970)
Pro career: Selected by St. Louis in eighth round (1970); released by St. Louis (1970); tried out for the N.Y. Jets (1970).
Background: Assistant coach, San Francisco State (1981); quarterbacks coach, Brigham Young (1982-85); quarterbacks coach, San Francisco (1986-88); offensive coordinator, San Francisco (1989-91).
Notes: Green Bay is his first head coaching job; has guided the Packers to two straight NFC Central Division titles, never
finishing lower than second in his five years.
Year, Team, W, L, T, Pct
1992, Green Bay, 9, 7, 0, .563
1993, Green Bay, 9, 7, 0, .563
1994, Green Bay, 9, 7, 0, .563
1995, Green Bay*, 11, 5, 0, .688
1996, Green Bay*, 13, 3, 0, .813
Tot., 51, 29, 0, .638
*-Won division title
Year, Team, W, L, T, Pct
1993, Green Bay, 1, 1, 0, .500
1994, Green Bay, 1, 1, 0, .500
1995, Green Bay, 2, 1, 0, .667
1996, Green Bay, 2, 0, 0, 1.000
Tot., 6, 3, 0, .667
1993: Won wild-card game vs. Detroit, 28-24; lost conference semifinal to Dallas, 27-17.
1994: Won wild-card game vs. Detroit, 16-12; lost conference semifinal to Dallas, 35-9.
1995: Won wild-card game vs. Atlanta, 37-20; won conference semifinal vs. San Francisco, 27-17; lost conference championship to Dallas, 38-27.
1996: Won conference semifinal vs. San Francisco, 35-14; won conference championship vs. Carolina, 30-13.
Pub Date: 1/25/97