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Packers training camp memory: Upon arrival, Holmgren initiates major change

His first camp limited full pads, hitting to one workout during two-a-days

Former Packers Head Coach Mike Holmgren
Former Packers Head Coach Mike Holmgren

When Mike Holmgren took over as coach, the Packers had failed miserably under his five predecessors. They had been to the playoffs twice in 24 years, finished with a winning record four times over that period and won one playoff game.

Clearly, change was essential and none was bigger than the practice schedule when Holmgren launched his first camp in late July 1992. Having spent the previous six years serving as an assistant coach under Bill Walsh and George Seifert in San Francisco, Holmgren knew one of the keys to the 49ers' success, which included back-to-back Super Bowl titles and five consecutive NFC Western Division championships, was to practice smarter, not harder.

Thus, starting on July 23 when rookies and selected veterans began two-a-day practices – the full squad checked in two days later – Holmgren followed suit and initiated a new approach. Players would wear full pads in the morning, and only helmets and shorts in the afternoon.

For the first week, both the morning and afternoon practices generally lasted about 90 minutes. Once the entire squad was on hand, the full contact morning workout normally ran 2 to 2½ hours with a shorter, lighter workout in the afternoon, or sometimes just a special-teams only practice.

"When you hit, hit, hit, they can't even listen to you at the evening meeting," Holmgren said in a pre-camp press conference. "It becomes a question of survival."

Like Vince Lombardi, Holmgren didn't feel the need to prove how demanding a coach he was; he figured his players would get the drift soon enough.

Nobody welcomed the change more than Domenic Gentile, who had been hired as a part-time assistant trainer by Lombardi in 1961 and was now in his 32nd and final season with the Packers. He had become head trainer in 1969 and that meant he had held the position under all six coaches who were the first to follow Lombardi.

"I'd always felt that Packers teams, since the end of the Lombardi era, worked too hard and too long in their practices," Gentile wrote in his book "The Packer Tapes," co-authored by Gary D'Amato.

"Many people thought Vince was a tough coach – and certainly in many ways he was – but he did not believe in contact during both sessions of two-a-days. It was always shorts in the morning, pads in the afternoon.

"But (Phil) Bengtson, (Dan) Devine, (Bart) Starr, (Forrest) Gregg and (Lindy) Infante all had their teams hitting twice a day during training camp. Injuries mounted, and players never had a chance to rehabilitate them properly. Criticism of the training staff and medical staff increased, but a lot of things were out of our control. The players were expected to be on the field, and they were expected to hit twice a day. Period. There is no doubt in my mind that many of our teams went into the regular season dog tired and leg weary.

"Holmgren changed that, and it was like a breath of fresh air."

First-day testing under Holmgren also was more in line with what a player needed to do to prove he was in football shape, which again agreed with Lombardi's philosophy. Holmgren required players to run a series of 12 110-yard dashes in a prescribed time for each position. In other words, there were no distance runs or requirements that weren't football specific.

But it was no easy camp and there were consequences for players who didn't report in shape. A little more than a week into full-squad workouts, general manager Ron Wolf publicly berated players for not working harder in what were then voluntary offseason workouts.

"This is their livelihood," Wolf seethed. "I mean, my God, they're grown men. They're adults. Don't they know what they have to do when they come in here?"

Holmgren agreed the next day and offered his own down-the-road solution.

"Eventually what will happen is that those fellas that choose not to (work out harder before camp) won't be here," he said.

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