Rebuilding Browns represent Holmgren's 'last great adventure'

  • By Vic Carucci
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Amy Sancetta / Associated Press
Even though he's now the new Cleveland Browns team president, Mike Holmgren still does plenty of coaching.

BEREA, Ohio -- Seneca Wallace can feel Mike Holmgren's eyes following him in practice.

It's nothing new, of course. Holmgren routinely tracked what Wallace did on the field during their six seasons together in Seattle -- Holmgren as the Seahawks' coach, Wallace as their backup quarterback.

The difference is that Holmgren isn't a coach anymore; he's a club president. Wallace is still a backup quarterback, now for Holmgren's Cleveland Browns. And even though Eric Mangini and his staff handle the coaching, Wallace can still count on getting tips from Holmgren.

"For example, I threw a ball and I didn't have my left shoulder down when I was getting ready to throw that ball," Wallace recalled. "(Holmgren) called me over after we got done with the drill, just kind of to the side. He didn't want to intrude on the coaches, but he said, 'Hey, when you drop back, make sure you keep that shoulder down like we talked about when you first started (in 2003).' It's just little things like that, and that's just in him -- to always want to coach."

Everyone who knows the 62-year-old Holmgren makes the same observation: Once a coach, always a coach. A new title won't change that, nor will new responsibilities that go well beyond the scope of football operations.

His daily to-do list might be jammed with issues regarding the business of running a team ("Which vendors do we have at the stadium? What do we do about the parking lot?"), but Holmgren's default settings never change. Throughout training camp, he would move along the sidelines in a golf cart, his right foot wrapped in an orange cast and propped up on the dash board as he recovered from surgery on his big toe. Going from drill to drill, Holmgren took it all in -- everything that he thought was going right but especially what he viewed as going wrong. He admitted to often biting his tongue to avoid offering his opinion about some aspect of practice on the spot; the time to do that would be later, during a private session with Mangini.

"Now, my next hurdle will be when the games come and I'm not on the field," Holmgren said. "Probably everyone that's ever coached and then gotten into a position that I'm in has experienced that, I would think. I've been a coach for a long time and you don't just turn that off."

That's perfectly fine with Randy Lerner.

Last December, the Browns owner committed to spending a considerable amount of money for all that Holmgren could bring to Cleveland. And coaching is very much a part of that package. After all, Coach Holmgren got the Packers to two Super Bowls, winning one. He also made a head-coaching appearance in the big game with Seattle. Coach Holmgren shaped the careers of two quarterbacks in the Pro Football Hall of Fame (Joe Montana and Steve Young) while offensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers, another who is headed for Canton (Brett Favre) while in Green Bay, and a fourth who has had an impressive career (Matt Hasselbeck) while in Seattle. Coach and executive vice president-general manager Holmgren, as he was known for four seasons with the Seahawks, had some struggles and eventually lost the GM title.

Amy Sancetta / Associated Press
Mike Holmgren has gone to three Super Bowls, winning one. Maybe just as impressive, he's turned struggling franchises around quickly after his arrival. Can he do the same in Cleveland?
Mike Holmgren's track record
Team Prior season Holmgren's first year
Packers 4-12 in 1991 9-7 in 1992
Seahawks 8-8 in 1998 *9-7 in 1999
Browns 5-11 in 2009 ?
*Made playoffs    

Yet, three seasons later, he would guide the Seahawks to their first Super Bowl in franchise history. And he would be highly coveted after beginning a one-year "retirement" in 2009. To convince Holmgren to return to football (and for he and his wife, Kathy, to leave their four daughters and six grandchildren in the Pacific Northwest) and plunge into what he describes as "this last great adventure," Lerner's offer -- financially and in every other way -- would have to be extraordinary. It was, providing the sort of autonomy that Lerner had never given previous team presidents and is virtually non-existent elsewhere in the NFL.

"It's as good a job as you can have in this business," Holmgren said. "You have an owner who essentially said, 'You talk to me. Otherwise, go ahead and get this thing fixed up.' Then, all of a sudden, you get a little nervous because it's a big job. I probably didn't realize how hard I'd work.

"The football, that was in my wheel house, that's my comfort zone. The other stuff, I've had to work hard on learning. Not the people stuff. I think I'm good with the people in the building and all that kind of stuff. But the actual nuts and bolts of learning things that I didn't care too much about before, like budgets and all that stuff. Now it's my responsibility. I've worked very hard to try and learn that (part of the business)."

Since 1999, when the Browns were re-established in Cleveland after the original franchise moved to Baltimore for the 1996 season, they have gone 59-117 and made one playoff appearance (in 2002). Only the Detroit Lions (50-126) have done worse in that span. The Browns' last NFL title came in 1964.

The chore of repairing the football side of the organization was large enough. Add the challenge of selling tickets to fans that have run out of patience and no longer see the wisdom in investing in seats to a perpetual loser, and you have the makings of a task far greater than any Holmgren has faced. And he has had some big ones. Before he arrived in Green Bay in 1992, the Packers hadn't won a championship since 1968. Holmgren won the Super Bowl in his fifth season and took the Packers back a year later. The Seahawks had had eight consecutive non-winning seasons before Holmgren took over in 1999 and guided them into to a 9-7 finish and their first playoff appearance since 1988.

When he joined the Browns, he was ready with his "list of guys" to give him help and has assembled what he considers an all-star crew in the front office, including GM Tom Heckert from the Philadelphia Eagles, executive vice president/business operations Bryan Wiedmeier from the Miami Dolphins, and vice president/football administration Matt Thomas from the Dolphins.

Holmgren's first major decision was what to do with Mangini, who was hired in 2009. Keeping him wasn't automatic, given the Browns' 5-11 finish.

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But Mangini had several things going in his favor. One, Holmgren liked him personally, ever since they met at a league meeting when Holmgren was with the Seahawks and Mangini was coaching the New York Jets. Two, the Browns had finished last season on a four-game winning streak. Three, after about two weeks of discussions, Holmgren was convinced he and Mangini could work together. Four, Holmgren's "natural prejudices" persuaded him it simply wasn't fair to give a coach only one season.

Their football philosophies -- including how they approach training camp and pretty much everything else they do regarding practice and meetings -- differ dramatically. That's to be expected. The bulk of what Mangini has learned comes from the teachings of Bill Belichick, for whom he worked as a defensive coordinator with the New England Patriots. Holmgren's NFL mentor was the late Bill Walsh, former coach of the 49ers.

"We talk about that good-naturedly all the time," Holmgren said. "There's more than one way to do something."

Although he doesn't insist that Mangini do things his way, Holmgren does have plenty of opportunities to offer opinions. They usually occur after practice, when Mangini will simply ask for the boss' thoughts on what he saw. "And he opens a wide door for me, which is nice of him," Holmgren said. "I didn't do that very much when I was a coach. I said, 'Look, you and I are going to talk about a million things and neither one of us is going to get upset about anything. We might not agree, but I know we both want the same thing.'"

The philosophical liaison between Holmgren and Mangini is Gil Haskell, whose official title is senior advisor to the president. Haskell coached running backs and wide receivers on Holmgren's Green Bay staff and was his offensive coordinator in Seattle. He began his NFL coaching career as a special teams coach for the Los Angeles Rams, making him as well-rounded a football person as there is in the Browns' organization.

Haskell watches practices and sits in meetings with a pad and pen to jot down the strategic and logistical preparation and adjustments Mangini and his assistant coaches discuss. Like Holmgren, he makes a point of staying out of their way and providing input only upon request.

"It's their offense, it's their defense, it's their special teams," Haskell said. "If they have a problem or say, 'What about this or what about that?' it's very easy for me to talk to them. They're not intimidated by me. It's a good situation, and I can tell them what Mike wants or how he thinks about things, about a practice or a drill at practice."

One notable suggestion that Haskell made was that Mangini put the top players on both sides of the ball against each other in one-on-one passing and pass-protection drills. It was an approach Holmgren had learned in San Francisco, where future Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice would go against future Hall of Fame defensive back Ronnie Lott in practice.

Mangini has welcomed the fact he doesn't have to carry nearly as heavy a load as he did last year. "It's nice to have Mike and Tom and be able to really focus on coaching," he said. "That's been a huge plus."

After retaining Mangini, Holmgren's second-biggest move was revamping the quarterback position. He gave the boot to incumbents Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson. He brought in Jake Delhomme, formerly of the Carolina Panthers, to be the starter, and Wallace and Colt McCoy, the team's third-round pick from Texas, as backups.

Holmgren has had a hand in other player-personnel matters, but his is not a behind-the-scenes role. With Lerner preferring to stay deep in the background, Holmgren is the primary face of the organization. His top priority is to reconnect the team with its long-suffering fans. Holmgren spent a good deal of the offseason circulating in and around Cleveland to help drum up interest in the Browns -- and ticket sales -- and regularly engaged with spectators during training camp for the same purposes.

He understands that, for many fans, he's a symbol of hope of better things to come.

"It's humbling and it's overwhelming and I can't thank them enough," Holmgren said. "It creates this thing where I just don't want to let them down. Everyone probably says that, but I studied and I know the proud tradition of this franchise and, in the last few years, I understand the frustration of the fans. It's a load on your shoulders, but that's what I signed up to do.

"Like I told our people in the building here, 'When we get it done -- not if, but when -- it's going to be a heck of a party.'"



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