Hard edge vs. easy rider Holmgren: Packers' low-key coach prefers to remain the guy next door, leaving spotlight but not crown to others

Super Bowl Xxxii

January 20, 1998|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

SAN DIEGO -- Mike Holmgren understood his role in last year's Super Bowl.

The coach of the Green Bay Packers played second banana to the swaggering presence of Bill Parcells, who dominated the pre-game hype because of his feud with New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft.

It was almost as if Parcells was going to play the Packers by himself. That left Holmgren as the other coach in the Super Bowl, but that didn't seem to bother him.

"You know when they put those little check marks in the paper for coaching and whatnot about teams? Bill gets more than I do," Holmgren said before last year's game. "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."

Holmgren not only showed up, but he also showed Parcells a thing or two about preparing for a Super Bowl.

He created mismatches against Parcells' defense, as the Packers thrashed the Patriots, 35-21.

Parcells moved on to the New York Jets, but Holmgren has his team back in the Super Bowl this week.

He navigated the pitfalls of staying on top and has his team ready to repeat against the Denver Broncos.

He could join the select club of coaches who have won back-to-back titles -- Vince Lombardi, Don Shula, Chuck Noll and Jimmy Johnson.

That doesn't mean anybody is calling Holmgren a genius. He has never been named Coach of the Year. What he lacks is a presence. He doesn't have Tom Landry's hat, Shula's jaw or Bill Walsh's professorial look. He looks like the guy next door, the guy you borrow the power saw from on weekends.

Just a week ago, 49ers tight end Brent Jones accused Holmgren of simply pirating his program from San Francisco.

"Everything they've gotten came from this organization," Jones said. "The coaches they have, the way things are done, practices, games, the offense. Everything. It all came from here. They're not putting any new spin on it. It's still our stuff."

If he did steal it, then his version is better than the original. The Packers have knocked the 49ers out of the playoffs three straight years.

Holmgren, an assistant with the 49ers from 1986 to 1991, said: "I would hope that we are recognized for being the Green Bay Packers. I also concede that while I was there [San Francisco], I think I was a good student. After six years now, I would hope that we have established our own identity."

Easy to underestimate

Slowly, but surely, Holmgren is establishing his identity as one of the best -- if not the best -- coaches in the game.

It's easy to underestimate him, but he understands the psyche of today's athletes and how to deal with them. Holmgren was with the 49ers when they won back-to-back titles in the 1988 and 1989 seasons, and he started out this season pushing his team hard. Probably too hard.

"I was so bound and determined not to allow this team to be complacent that maybe my approach created some tough situations for some of my players," he said.

The Packers started out 5-2 going into their bye week, but they weren't playing particularly well. That's when Holmgren came up with a different approach. He told them to take the bye week off.

"There's no way of underestimating the importance of getting that bye week off," said defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur.

The players came back refreshed, and the Packers are 10-1 since, including two playoff wins. The only loss was a 41-38 setback in Indianapolis when they overlooked an 0-10 Colts team.

"He treats us like we were his kids. He takes care of us and at the same time he disciplines us," safety LeRoy Butler said. "You can't play for him and then go play for a [dictatorial] guy like Bill Parcells or Tom Coughlin [of the Jacksonville Jaguars]. It'd be like night and day."

One of the reasons Holmgren may understand the big picture is that he wasn't an overnight success.

Craig Fertig, a teammate at Southern California, said: "He was like the little kid in the comics, the one with the little black cloud over his head. That's why it's nice to see good things happen to him."

The bad things started happening for the San Francisco native when he decided to go to USC after passing for 3,592 yards in high school and beating out Jim Plunkett to start in an all-star game.

No Heisman, no letter, no wins

A drop-back passer, Holmgren didn't fit in USC's tailback-oriented offense. Plunkett went to Stanford and won the Heisman Trophy. Holmgren threw 27 passes in three years, never lettered, sat out his last year with a bad shoulder and left with a season of eligibility left.

An eighth-round pick of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1970, he didn't stick with them or the Jets, so he went into high school coaching and lost his first 22 games.

"Any time I start feeling pretty good about myself or what we've accomplished, my daughters or my wife remind me of the start I had in high school," he said.

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