Holmgren shows why he’s the boss

BEREA, Ohio – He is a man in charge of everything now and yet nothing is like what Mike Holmgren’s football world has ever been.

Holmgren (right) with head coach Eric Mangini.
(Amy Sancetta/AP Photo)

He looms around the Cleveland Browns offices at 61 years old, their new team president on what he calls “the last great adventure.”

In the mornings Holmgren no longer watches game films but instead sits through marketing meetings, makes promotional videos and spends hours phoning former suite-holders begging them to return. Whenever the NFL’s owners meet, he attends, taking the Browns’ seat at the big table next to Patriots owner Bob Kraft.

The other day, during a particularly dreary financial discussion, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones slipped him a note that read: “You need a PHD in economics to understand this.”

“I’m in meetings I’ve never been in before,” Holmgren says, a hint of wonder in his voice.

“Mike’s different,” says Gil Haskell, Holmgen’s longtime offensive coordinator who is a special assistant to him in Cleveland. “He’s smarter than a football man. There’s more to him than a football man.”

Last fall, back when he was on a one-year hiatus from football, he thought he would return to the Seattle Seahawks where he had coached for the previous decade. An executive job was discussed. But the power was all wrong, the organization in too much turmoil.

“It wouldn’t have been the right thing,” he says.

Browns owner Randy Lerner offered a franchise along with the control. It was a chance to remake a team. Such opportunity might never come again. So Holmgren seized it, maybe unsure exactly what it was he was grabbing.

And yet his presence has invigorated a team that has made the playoffs just once in the 10 years since its recreation and was in need of some kind of hope.

“It’s like a giant weight has lifted because the uncertainty was done,” the Browns general consul Fred Nance recently told the Cleveland Plain Dealer about Holmgren’s arrival. “It was clear what direction we were going.”

Still, Holmgren knows the perception lingers that he is only pretending to enjoy the meetings and that his real plan is to stabilize the Browns for a year, learn the organization, then at season’s end, dump Eric Mangini and make himself the coach. How can he not know it? The rumor has been percolating since he took the job in December. Many expected Holmgren to fire Mangini then, given the Browns’ 5-11 record and the fact Mangini was not a devotee of the West Coast Offense like all of Holmgren’s protégées.

The thought appears to disturb him. So many times in his time with the Seahawks he felt he was fending off some kind of assault from the men above him on the organizational ladder, who were believed to be plotting to have him removed. It is not the kind of atmosphere he wants to create in Cleveland.

As a result, Holmgren tries to squelch any longings he might have to coach again, beating them down – if not for the sake of his own stomach, which did not handle defeats well at the end in Seattle – then for Mangini’s sake. He owes his coach the comfort that the boss does not desire his job.

Mangini himself seems to believe Holmgren is on his side, saying he appreciates the fact that as a former head coach, Holmgren can understand what he is going through. “Even though you didn’t share the experiences on the same team, a lot of times there’s carry-over between the type of experiences you have.”

Holmgren remembers how Packers general manager Ron Wolf was with him when he was a new head coach in Green Bay. After particularly grueling defeats, it was Wolf who came by his office to listen.

“I always knew he had my back,” Holmgren says. “I hope with Eric he is comfortable enough with me to know I have his back, and he doesn’t have to deal with this other stuff and [I can] free him up to be the best coach he can be.”

“If this is my last job in the NFL, I hope I do what I am doing right now,” Holmgren adds.

Then he is asked if he has lost his zest for coaching.

Holmgren pauses.

“No,” he finally replies.

“Am I contradicting myself?” he asks, pausing again.

“[Last Wednesday] at practice was fun,” he says.

The day before, the Browns held an OTA on their outside practice fields. It was a beautiful sun-splashed morning after a dreary week of wind and rain, and Holmgren celebrated the occasion by donning NFL official issue coach’s shorts and a coach’s shirt and strolled out across the grass. For a few minutes he strayed into the middle of the practice, standing in a prominent spot not far from the huddle in a full-team scrimmage. And it was clear the coaching had never left him.

But he also spent a greater part of the workout on the sideline, talking with clusters of reporters who had been allowed to watch the session. And when he walked, he limped slightly, the result of a painful foot condition that might require surgery. Standing on the field for two hours is not as easy for him as it once was.

As much as he might long to coach again, he also seems to understand it is time to try something else.

“When the actual season comes along, that will be the next test [of his yearning to coach],” Holmgren says with a laugh.

“I’ve thought a lot about this,” he added. “And I’ve committed to being the president.”

Back in the late fall, when Lerner first proposed the job, Holmgren consulted people like Dolphins vice president Bill Parcells and Colts president Bill Polian, to see how they handled their roles. He wanted to understand the job, to see if he could fit into it. He had, of course, been the coach and general manager when he first went to Seattle in 1999 but fell under the controlling hand of team president Bob Whitsitt, who denied him as much influence as he expected. Ultimately Whitsitt forced him to give up the general manager role when the team struggled.

A part of him remains haunted by what happened to the general manager’s job in Seattle. Could he run a team?

“I’m wiser now,” he says.

Looking back he can see his mistakes. He talks about wishing he could have “a couple draft picks back.” He looks back at his first NFL draft in 1999 when he didn’t replace the previous scouting staff and instead tried to merge the old scouts with the new ones he brought in. The two groups had conflicting approaches and the draft was a bust.

This time, when he arrived in Cleveland, he fired many of the team’s scouts and hired his own to give the organization a single philosophy.

Another error he can see was drafting at times to fill needs rather than grab the best player left. This caused the Seahawks to “stretch,” picking players who weren’t good enough to be picked as high as they were. He vows not to do that with the Browns.

Holmgren with McCoy during a practice session last week.
(Jason Miller/US Presswire)

Unless it’s a quarterback. Holmgren loves quarterbacks. A former backup quarterback at USC himself, he built his career on developing quarterbacks like Joe Montana, Steve Young, Brett Favre(notes) and Matt Hasselbeck. He loves to tinker with broken-down passers, studying them, trying to figure out how they think. And with the Browns lacking their quarterback of the future, he was not going to let the team pass on former Texas star Colt McCoy(notes) when Cleveland made the first of its two third-round picks this year.

He always liked McCoy. McCoy was smart, had a good personality and seemed to know how to deliver a pass at just the right time. When the team’s third selection came up and McCoy was available, Holmgren would not let the moment die.

“I said: ‘What do you think? Let’s do it,’ ” Holmgren said.

General manager Tom Heckert and Mangini got the hint. They picked McCoy.

“He helped them make the decision,” Haskell recalls, smiling. “How’s that for being diplomatic?”

He is the boss, after all.

On some things, Mike Holmgren will never change.

Les Carpenter is a feature writer and columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Les a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, May 26, 2010