Skip to main content

Pro Football Hall of Fame: The case for Mike Holmgren

Green Bay’s fundraiser for Jim Thorpe

Mike Holmgren
Mike Holmgren

Chad from Tarpon Springs, FL

Being a former Hall of Fame voter, what is your opinion of Mike Holmgren? Just think of what he started and his coaching tree, especially compared to Bill Belichick.

Based on my observations during his seven years in Green Bay, I thought Holmgren was an exceptional coach who deserves more credit than he's received for turning what was a woeful, woebegone franchise for just shy of a quarter-century into a winner once again.

Admittedly, when my 13 years as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee ended in 2014, Holmgren's candidacy hadn't gained any traction. He was just two years removed from his unsuccessful stint as president of the Cleveland Browns. In turn, during my time on the committee, there had never been a rush to induct coaches, partially because of the uncertainty of them coming out of retirement. As I recollect, for several years that was part of the discussion after Bill Parcells became a Hall candidate. He last coached in 2006 and wasn't inducted until 2013.

That said, in my last year on the committee, when Tony Dungy became a finalist for the first time, I thought to myself: Holmgren is a more deserving candidate than Dungy.

Holmgren resurrected two franchises, won a Super Bowl and two other conference championships. Dungy took a Tampa Bay team that hadn't had a winning season in 14 years and turned it into a winner. But in Indianapolis he inherited a solid nucleus that had contributed to the Colts' 23-9 record over two seasons under Jim Mora before his 2001 meltdown and 6-10 finish.

While Dungy also won one Super Bowl, he never won another conference title and one-and-done was the fate of six of his other 10 playoff teams. Holmgren ranks seventh all-time with 13 postseason wins.

Generally, I thought Dungy's teams underachieved. He never had a franchise quarterback In Tampa Bay, but he had three Hall of Fame defenders – Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks and John Lynch – who were in the prime of their careers. And in Indianapolis, he had Peyton Manning, one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of the game, and two other future Hall of Fame weapons, Edgerrin James and Marvin Harrison; again, all of whom were in the prime of their careers.

There are 31 coaches in the Pro Football Hall of Fame based on the designations listed in the Hall of Fame section of the 2023 NFL Record & Fact Book. Six were inducted as coaches as well as players and completed their careers prior to the Super Bowl era. Two others, Curly Lambeau and Ray Flaherty, are listed only as coaches but also were accomplished players and basically fall into that same category. Among the other 23, Greasy Neale last coached in 1950.

Thus, I would contend there are 22 modern-era coaches in the Hall of Fame, going back to 1950 when unlimited, free substitution became a permanent rule. That also was the distinction made by those in Canton in 2005, when they compiled a list of the then 12 modern-day coaches in the Hall.

That number has almost doubled in the years since and five of the current 22 have been inducted since 2020, or almost a fifth of the total number. Clearly, the criteria for coaches have evolved or become less restrictive – however you want to look at it.

For the sake of full disclosure, I should note that prior to Holmgren's arrival in Green Bay, I had covered Phil Bengtson on a freelance and limited basis as a young sportswriter, and then Dan Devine, Bart Starr, Forrest Gregg and Lindy Infante as a beat reporter or columnist. In short, they were the ones most responsible for the failures of the 1970s and '80s.

Whatever impact that had on me, I was almost instantly awed in 1992 by Holmgren's commanding presence both on the field and around the team facilities; his mercurial mind, especially as a play-caller and at making in-game adjustments; and his focus on one thing and one thing only: Winning.

Again, I had witnessed three of his predecessors – Devine, Starr and Infante – become so obsessed with the media, down to the slightest sort of criticism, that it consumed hours of their days. Successful coaches constantly preach to their players: Control what you can control and ignore all other distractions. In Green Bay for at least 17 of what was a 24-year famine, it was the coaches more than the players who failed to live by that adage.

Maybe most important of all was Holmgren's grooming of Brett Favre, an immensely talented but raw quarterback prospect who if not for Ron Wolf's infatuation with him might have been dumped by Atlanta in a fire sale a season later rather than in exchange for a No. 1 draft pick.

My first impression of Favre in the early days of his first training camp in Green Bay was that he might be another Bobby Douglass, the Chicago Bears' southpaw of the 1970s who spent his final NFL season with the Packers in 1978. Douglass had the body of an Adonis, played quarterback with a linebacker's mentality and threw like Nuke LaLoosh, the unbridled flamethrower in the baseball movie, "Bull Durham." And that in a nutshell was why Douglass' 10-year career ended with a 16-36-1 record as a starting quarterback and a completion percentage of 43.0.

Back to Holmgren.

I remember working on a post-career story about Reggie White and asking Wolf during my interview with him about White's often ballyhooed value as a leader. And Wolf's paraphrased answer was: First, let's get one thing straight: The leader of this football team those years was Mike Holmgren.

That was Wolf's way. No unwarranted puffery, just get to the point and tell it like it is.

But what I think is the most convincing point of all with Holmgren is that, arguably, he stepped into one of the two most hopeless situations in the NFL's last 75 seasons in Green Bay and produced an instant winner. In Seattle, the outlook wasn't nearly as bleak but it was still a franchise wallowing in mediocrity and there, Holmgren reached the playoffs in his first season.

When Vince Lombardi was hired in 1959, the belief among many, if not most, NFL insiders – people in the game – was that Green Bay would never win again. And the same was true when Holmgren was hired in 1992. The consensus around the league was that the Packers had been left for dead.

In the 24 seasons before Holmgren was hired, they had only five winning seasons and only two where they won 10 games, and had made the playoffs only twice, the fewest number of appearances by any franchise in the league.

In Seattle, Holmgren inherited a franchise that hadn't had a winning record in eight years and only one – at 9-7 – in the previous 10. Plus, the Seahawks had endured a 14-34 record over a recent three-year period under Tom Flores, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a coach in 2021.

Entering this season, Holmgren was the 15th winningest coach in NFL history with 173 victories and had a better winning percentage than seven of the coaches ahead of him, including Hall of Famers Chuck Noll and Parcells, and Hall of Fame candidates Tom Coughlin and Mike Shanahan.

Then there's the point you made: Holmgren's coaching tree, headlined by Andy Reid. When Reid was hired by Holmgren, he was 34 years old and his resume included one year as a graduate assistant at Brigham Young and then, as a fulltime assistant: three years at San Francisco State, one year at Northern Arizona, one year at Texas-El Paso and four years at Missouri.

University of Wisconsin fans will be able to identify with this: Reid's credentials when Holmgren hired him were more Don Morton-like than Barry Alvarez, which leads to the question: Would Reid ever have been hired for another NFL job?

Now, here it is, 31 years later and he's in the discussion about the greatest head coach in NFL history.

John from Oshkosh, WI

How can I access the "Legacy" series?

You can find it at our website: For those unfamiliar with "Legacy: 100 Seasons of the Green Bay Packers," it was a 10-part documentary produced in conjunction with the team's centennial season in 2018. (Editor's note: The "Legacy" series is also available on CTV [Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire TV] and on YouTube.)

Tyler from Madison, WI

I am just about finished reading the book "Path Lit By Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe." In the book, it says the Green Bay Packers organized a fundraiser for Thorpe when he was in his 60s and struggling financially. I was wondering if you had any information on how the funds were raised? How much money did they raise for him? Was there a special event for the fund raiser?

Author David Maraniss mentioned it in passing on page 521 of his book and cited in his footnotes a Jan. 30, 1952, United Press story. What I found were stories from the Green Bay Press-Gazette published in mid-November 1951, following a UP story about Thorpe's recent surgery for lip cancer and how an unidentified surgeon performed the operation free of charge because Thorpe was destitute.

Three days after that wire service story appeared in the Press-Gazette, Ben Laird, president of WDUZ radio in Green Bay, organized the fund and enlisted as committee members Packers former player and executive committee member Verne Lewellen, head coach Gene Ronzani, assistant coach Tarz Taylor, Green Bay mayor and recently named executive committee member Dominic Olejniczak, and former players Bernard Darling and Herman Martell.

The plan was to solicit funds in Wisconsin and other NFL cities to contribute to Thorpe's cause. Local fans were asked to send their donations to the Jim Thorpe Fund, Box 148, Green Bay.

The drive also drew support from outside the city. Bill Stern, nationally renowned sportscaster, urged fans across the country to send donations to Green Bay. A spokesman for Warner Brothers committed to contributing $2,500 and Bob Mayes of KLIF radio in Dallas announced that several donors there had raised $500 that he planned to send to Green Bay.

I couldn't find how much was raised overall, but the last reported figure that I could find was nearly $3,000. Also, I found no mention of any special event being held in Green Bay. It appears to me that Laird was the driving force behind the fund and simply sought permission from the others to use their names in an effort to gain more publicity.

I should also note that one of the speakers at a testimonial dinner held in honor of Thorpe at the Hotel Onesto in Canton, Ohio, on the night of Jan. 30, 1952, was Rudy Comstock, who had played guard for the Packers from 1931-33. He likely contributed to the fund associated with that $10-a-plate dinner.

Tom from Charleston, SC

Just finished reading your four-volume series on "The Greatest Story in Sports." Interesting. Definitely, not boring. Don Hutson with 30 career interceptions! LeRoy Butler had 38 career interceptions.

Thanks. I assume your point is that Hutson's 30 interceptions is an impressive stat. Agreed, especially when you consider that all of them came in his final six seasons after he was moved from defensive end to defensive back.

But I also would suggest not falling into the trap of looking just at numbers. They need to be examined in the context of the time. When Butler played from 1990 to 2001, only twice did the league leader in interceptions hit double figures. And it has happened only seven times in the last 33 years, despite a 16- and now 17-game schedule.

That makes Butler's total all the more impressive. His 38 are tied for fourth most in Packers history.

Hutson shared the league lead in interceptions with six in 1940, the first year that interceptions were counted as an official league stat. Starting in 1943, when Hutson had a career-high eight interceptions, the league leader in 15 of the next 17 seasons had 10 or more.

That was during a period when the number of games per team ranged from 10 to 12.

In fact, as a team in 1943, the Packers intercepted 42 passes in 10 games, still the club record for most in a season. Second most was 40 in 11 games in 1940 followed by 33 in 11 games in 1942, all when Hutson was playing. In Butler's 12 seasons, the Packers never intercepted more than 26 and twice had as few as 13.

Compare, too, Hutson's total to two of his teammates'. Joe Laws' career paralleled Hutson's – Laws played from 1934-45; Hutson from '35-45 – and he intercepted 39 passes, 21 of them before it became an official stat. Charley Brock, a center on offense, intercepted 28, only two less than Hutson in two fewer seasons while doubling as a linebacker on defense from 1939-47.

Clearly, there was a much greater emphasis on not turning the ball over when Butler was playing as compared to Hutson's time.

Brian from Rockford, IL
I've met you a few times and love the four-volume book set and your weekly columns. One thing I have not seen anyone comment on, at least recently, is the fact that it sure looks like Reggie White's right heel is perhaps out of bounds (or at least on the line) before the ball leaves his hands on its way to LeRoy Butler before the first Lambeau Leap. I have taken a screen shot of this while looking at the play frame-by-frame. I've never seen any footage shot down the sideline. Your thoughts?

Your screen shot sure looks like White's heel was out of bounds. Thanks to the Bears and the 1989 "Instant Replay Game," there was no instant replay at the time.