Mike Holmgren always knew his relationship with Ron Wolf was special, but he’s gaining an even greater appreciation for it today.
In a conference call with reporters on Tuesday to discuss his upcoming induction into the Packers Hall of Fame, Holmgren – who is now president of the Cleveland Browns – talked about the rapport he had with the general manager who hired him to coach the Packers in 1992.
Holmgren said he and Wolf “never had a real argument,” which may be a bit of a stretch, but the respect they had for one another carried them though the difficult times.
“He was at his very best with me after we lost a tough game, and that’s tough to do,” said Holmgren, who will have Wolf present him at the induction banquet on July 21. “I’m learning that myself in my current position. You feel bad, but your job is to support the coach as best you can.”
One of the toughest losses came in the 1995 NFC Championship Game to the Cowboys, the Packers’ third consecutive playoff defeat in Dallas. The Cowboys went on to their third Super Bowl title in a four-year span, while the Packers were still the up-and-comers who hadn’t quite made it, yet.
“I remember talking to the team the last time, and it was a very emotional time for me. I had trouble speaking,” Holmgren said. “I told them, ‘One of these days we’re going to be able to do this. You just have to believe it.’”
The following year, of course, began the franchise’s most sustained run of success since the Vince Lombardi years. The team had been groomed though its formative years by outstanding coaches, as Holmgren’s first staff in 1992 included five future head coaches.
One key to getting over the hump was Holmgren getting quarterback Brett Favre to cut back on his gambling mentality in the pocket.
Holmgren recalled a conversation he had with Favre during which the quarterback said “that’s just the way I play,” and Holmgren responded, “If you play that way, we’re a 9-7 team. That’s what we are. We want to be better than that, you want to be better than that.” Eventually Favre, who went on to win three straight league MVP awards from 1995-97, sat next to him on the plane ride home after a big road win and finally told his coach, “I get it.”
“For a teacher or a coach to have your star player come up and say that to you, that’s about as good as it gets,” Holmgren said.
The Packers won Super Bowl XXXI following the 1996 season, returned to the Super Bowl the next year and then had a shot at a third straight NFC title snuffed out by San Francisco in the 1998 wild-card game.
That game ended on Steve Young’s dramatic, last-second touchdown pass to Terrell Owens, but the Packers would have won the game had a fumble earlier on that drive by San Francisco’s Jerry Rice been reviewable. Rice had been ruled down, and at the time, a down-by-contact call could not be reviewed because the play was considered over.
Holmgren, who came to Green Bay from San Francisco, where he was offensive coordinator, takes pride in the fact that as a member of the NFL’s competition committee he eventually helped get that rule changed. It was too late to help the Packers potentially get to a third consecutive Super Bowl, though. Wolf has said in the past he thought the Packers were in position to make another run.
“That was a tough game because at the time I thought our team was really peaking,” said Holmgren, who hinted that game is one his wife, Kathy, still harps on him to let go after all these years. “You watch how the Giants are playing now, and they had their moments during the season, but they seem to be peaking at the right time, and I thought we were kind of doing that.
“I agree with what Ron said, that we would have had a good chance to get there again, but it didn’t happen. Owens makes a great play and my old babysitter, Steve Young, makes the great throw, and that was that.”
That also turned out to be Holmgren’s last game with the Packers, as he left a week later for the dual role of coach-GM in Seattle. He said had he known Wolf was going to retire a year later, he might have stayed in Green Bay longer, but he has no regrets. As he sees his top personnel man from Seattle, Ted Thompson, running a successful Packers team now, he says “things work out the way they’re supposed to.”
That includes having Wolf present Holmgren for induction this summer.
“I’ve always said this that as an outsider looking in, you look at the Green Bay Packers as something special, but when you actually work there, you realize it’s even more than that,” Holmgren said.
“Our time there, my family, Kathy and the girls, is a very special part of our lives. Now to join some of the famous, great people that have been inducted into the Hall of Fame, it’s quite an honor. I’m humbled by it.”
(To listen to the complete conference call with Holmgren, click here.)