The voice on the other end of the phone was as friendly as it was familiar.
And why not? Mike Holmgren was doing a conference-call interview on Thursday with reporters from Seattle, where he oversaw the most successful five-season run in Seahawks history during his 10-year tenure as first executive vice president of football operations/general manager and head coach and later executive VP and head coach.
From 2003-07, the Holmgren-led Seahawks attained unprecedented success, highlighted by a 2005 season that saw the franchise play in its only Super Bowl, win its only conference championship and post club records for regular-season (13) and consecutive (11) victories along the way. That five-season run also included four NFC West titles, five playoff berths and an average of 10.2 victories.
The only period in the club’s 35-year history that is even remotely comparable was the team’s first six seasons under Chuck Knox (1983-88), when the Seahawks played in their first conference championship game (1983), won their first division title (1988), made the playoffs four times and averaged 9.5 victories.
Close, but not as successful – in all categories.
So Holmgren was very, very good to the Seahawks, and Seattle proved to be very, very good to Holmgren and his family. During his stay in the Emerald City, Holmgren and his wife, Kathy, became grandparents for the first of seven times, but he also had to deal with the death of mother, the loss of defensive coordinator and confidant Fritz Shurmur, his own health issues and the contradictory management styles of Bob Whitsitt and Tim Ruskell.
Life lessons that had an obvious impact on Holmgren’s life.
But that was then.
This is now: Holmgren is in his second season as president of the Cleveland Browns, who host the Seahawks on Sunday.
Holmgren has been in this situation before – when his Green Bay Packers teams faced the San Francisco 49ers and his Seahawks teams played the Packers.
“There’s a little twinge there,” he admitted. “Because typically you look across and you see players that you knew very well; players that went to the trenches for you. So there’s more emotion to it than most games.”
But this will be an atypical situation, because only seven players on the Seahawks’ 53-man roster remain from Holmgren’s final Seahawks team in 2008 – linebackers
Besides, you won’t see Holmgren in his customary looming-presence-along-the-sideline role.
“I watch the games now from a box with a tie on, of all things,” he said. “You get this feeling, ‘I can’t do anything. I’m not helping. I have no say whatsoever in the outcome of the football game.’
“It’s a challenge. But I’m better this year than I was last year. I think it was harder last year. I’m getting better. I’m not all the way there yet, but I’m getting better.”
With an assist from Kathy, who Holmgren calls “my council.”
“After the first game, I was very upset,” he said. “I came home and took Kath to dinner. We had some guests and I was kind of a jerk – that was my wife’s words. On Monday, I came into the office and kind of vented a little bit; released some more of my frustration.
“I went home that night and she said, ‘Listen, if you wanted to be that big a jerk get back into coaching. You’re not doing that anymore. Do you want to be that angry all the time? Do you want to be that frustrated?’ I said, ‘You know, I don’t.’ ”
Holmgren called that conversation “an epiphany of sorts.” And it left him saying that he doesn’t anticipate coaching again. Instead, at 63, he’s more concerned with building the Browns into a winning organization.
Holmgren has surrounded himself with what he labels “an all-star team of guys” – a group that includes general manager Tom Heckert; executive VP of business operations Bryan Wiedmeier; VP of football administration Matt Thomas; and VP of football operations Mark Schiefelbein.
“They all came to Cleveland with me, and I kind of proposed this thing, ‘Let’s make this our last great adventure,’ ” Holmgren said. “So I’m very, very lucky that way.”
This year, Holmgren added what he calls “the last piece of the puzzle” in Pat Shurmur. He is the Browns’ first-year head coach – and nephew of Fritz Shurmur, Holmgren’s longtime defensive coordinator who followed him to Seattle from Green Bay in 1999 but died of cancer before he ever coached a game with the Seahawks.
What’s it like to be coaching a team with one of the great offensive minds of his coaching generation just down the hall?
“I enjoy our interaction,” said Pat Shurmur, who first met his new boss when his uncle was on Holmgren’s staff in Green Bay. “There’s times we talk about football. There’s times we talk about things that have nothing to do with football.
“I think as a new head coach to have, in my opinion, a Hall of Fame coach in this league as a guy that I can talk to and ask opinions of, I think it’s terrific. In fact, I told coach, I said, ‘Hey, I pride myself on being a good listener.’ I know I don’t know everything. To have a resource like Mike Holmgren, it’s invaluable.”
The most telling statement in all those words is that Shurmur refers to Holmgren as “coach.”
“He will forever be a coach,” Shurmur said. “That’s a term of endearment in my opinion. I mean, he’s coach Holmgren.”