He gave up security, the Green Bay Packers and the best quarterback in football for the chance to do it all again - on his terms - with the Seattle Seahawks. Job titles replaced division titles. Hope replaced history. Frustration replaced success.
Three years later, Holmgren's legacy in Green Bay remains intact and his future in Seattle remains unclear.
In a season when they expected to grab a playoff berth, the Seahawks are off to a dreary 0-3 start and buzzards have started to circle new Seahawks Stadium.
"I did not think we would be in this situation right now, and I'm not any less optimistic than I was at the beginning of the season," Holmgren said, undaunted, in a news conference earlier this week.
"I'm frustrated about a few things, but if you walk through the locker room, I think you will see an upbeat locker room. I think you will see guys who are still together."
It's Seattle's season that appears to be coming apart. The Seahawks are giving up 188 rushing yards a game - worst in the NFL - and 5.1 yards a carry. Their own running game ranks 31st. They blew their second straight halftime lead on Sunday against the New York Giants in a 9-6 loss, and they had just seven first downs and 145 yards in total offense.
The bottom line is very unbecoming of a coach many thought was the best in the business three years ago. After a successful seven-year run in Green Bay, Holmgren went to Seattle as executive vice president of football operations, general manager and coach. Stripped of Favre, a three-time league MVP, and Ron Wolf, then the general manager of the Packers, Holmgren looks remarkably vulnerable.
He has a record of 24-27 in his fourth season with the Seahawks going into Sunday night's game against the Minnesota Vikings (0-3). He also has a five-year contract with a three-year club option. His personnel moves, his master plan and even his game plans have come under criticism.
But Wolf, now in retirement in Annapolis, said Holmgren's fall from grace has more to do with injuries and circumstances than misguided management.
The defense has missed tackle John Randle, who had offseason knee surgery, and linebacker Anthony Simmons, who has a high ankle sprain. The offense has missed Pro Bowl left tackle Walter Jones, who returned from a lengthy holdout only last week.
"He doesn't miss me," Wolf said. "Mike Holmgren is as good a football coach as there is in the league. He was put in charge of everything, and you're only as good as the people around you. You can't do it all."
Favre, then? When asked last week how he would respond to critics who say he needed Favre to win, Holmgren gave a qualified answer.
"I say give us a little bit more time," he said. "We have had a very uncertain situation at quarterback, that is true. But to have a Brett Favre, there are not many Brett Favres running around."
It is Holmgren's inability to come up with a reasonable facsimile, however, that invites the most scrutiny around Seattle. He had already gone through Jon Kitna, Glenn Foley, Brock Huard and Matt Hasselbeck as starters before turning the quarterback job over to former Raven Trent Dilfer this year.
Holmgren's reluctance to replace Hasselbeck with Dilfer last season may have kept the 9-7 Seahawks out of the postseason.
Wolf, however, has no reservations about Holmgren's ability to coach quarterbacks.
"He's about as good with a quarterback as any guy in the league," Wolf said. "If you have to win a game offensively, I would think you'd want him on your side."
Dilfer went to Seattle from Baltimore for the chance to work under Holmgren in 2001, and he returned this season for the chance to start.
"Obviously, he has not been as successful as he would like to be," Dilfer said. "I personally am a huge believer. I re-signed here because I believed this was the best chance to get back to the playoffs and be a serious contender in this league. I have not swayed from that at all."
Holmgren acknowledged there are times when he wishes he were simply a coach. But that, he said, is the emotion of the moment. "I very much wanted the challenge of this; I like it," he said.
Despite Holmgren's struggles finding a quarterback, his four drafts have remade the Seahawks into a young team. He has 29 players in their third year or less. Eleven of his 38 draft picks are starters. Only three of his past 22 picks are no longer with the club.
But at this point, Holmgren's Seahawks need to show progress, not just promise. He said he has not been pressured by owner Paul Allen and does not feel pressure over two prime-time national television games in the next three weeks.
"Not for those reasons," he said. "Most definitely, we have to get this one [against Minnesota], but national TV doesn't enter into it for me. But yeah, we have to get this one."
It has been a tough year already on "geniuses" in the NFL. Here's a rundown on some big-name coaches having problems:
Coach, team '02 Year with team (W-L) Skinny
Brian Billick*, Ravens 0-2 fourth (30-20) Most successful in class of '99 hires
Mike Holmgren*, Seahawks 0-3 fourth (24-27) All-powerful in Seattle as GM/coach
Mike Martz, Rams 0-3 third (24-11) His system breeds turnovers
Steve Spurrier, Redskins 1-2 first (1-2) Does he realize value of QB now?
*-Have won a Super Bowl