The making of THE MAN
The old man simply wanted his salad. The young waiter, an ex-jock named Mike, wasn't sure
what he wanted. But Mike Holmgren knew this: He wasn't going to wait tables and tend bar at
the Nightwatch all his life.
"This was back when the steakhouse with a salad bar was being introduced, and Mike would
perpetually have to explain the whole deal about going up to get your salad," Holmgren's college
buddy, Skip Farina, recalls. "People just didn't understand that concept. They would sit at their
table and wait for the salad to come and then start yelling at him."
The old man never did figure it out. Finally, Holmgren took matters into his own tongs. He made
the salad himself. Delivered it, too.
It was the spring of 1971 and Holmgren, having been released by the St. Louis Cardinals and
New York Jets, was
finishing his degree at the
Nightwatch, a restaurant and bar in
Even then, at age 22, Holmgren demonstrated the ability to evaluate a problem, solve it quickly
and move forward - traits that have served him well during a remarkable rise to the pinnacle of his
Holmgren, hired Jan. 8 as coach and general manager of the Seattle Seahawks, now is well past
his salad days.
And at age 51, he commands more money and wields more power than any of his NFL
By now, even casual fans
know Holmgren came to
championship to the Green Bay Packers.
Most also know Holmgren served NFL apprenticeships under Bill Walsh and George Seifert
More discerning observers are even familiar with Holmgren's hard line on discipline, and his
nearly obsessive attention to detail. And it has been generally accepted that such traits were
acquired from acclaimed
mentors such as Walsh and
But there is more to the Seahawks' new leader than power, prestige and a world-class coaching
pedigree - much more.
This is the story of Michael George Holmgren's formative years, of the people, places and
experiences - many of them unforgettable - that shaped him most definitively. It is also the story
of a man whose life has been nourished by family, faith, friends and an abundance of strong role
models - none more enduring than his father.
"Mike's dad was an unbelievable guy - a disciplinarian, stern, big, nicknamed the Bruiser - but
such a nice man," says
Billy Jamison, Holmgren's boyhood friend from
remember one time, Michael, my brother and myself were smoking Camel cigarettes, if you can
"We were about 12 years old and we're coming out of some bushes in the neighborhood and
Mike's got them in his pocket. And boy, it's like 5:30 in the evening - we should have been
"And over the rise and down the street comes Mike's dad. He always had a big Cadillac; he was a
big man. And like, there he is. Mike says, 'Don't worry, I'll take care of it.' So he turns to talk to his dad. The cigarettes are sticking out of his pocket. He leans in. The father sees them and goes, 'Michael, get in the car.' He gets in the car and they start to go. Mike's dad looks back and says, 'I think the Jamison boys should go home as well.' We were scared stiff. But he never called my mother to turn us in. Enough discipline from him; just the chilling look was amazing. My mother
never knew. That was the end of our smoking careers."
The most easygoing and gentlest giant in the world stood 6-foot-3, weighed as much as 350
pounds and had hands so thick, he could pass a 50-cent piece through his wedding band.
Lincoln George Holmgren
played football for the
earned $100 a game as a tackle for the San Francisco Clippers, a professional team that predated
Born Feb. 12, 1926, in
"Tiny," but most everyone else knew Mike Holmgren's father simply as, "Link."
It was in his parents' bakery on Upper Market Street where young Link kneaded dough, building
the muscles in his hands and forearms to massive proportions. He weighed 250 pounds by the
time he left
championship in crew.
Link died far too young - he was felled by a heart attack at age 48 - but he lived long enough to
leave his undisputed mark as the first and most significant role model Mike Holmgren ever knew.
Jovial by nature, Link enjoyed pulling pranks and telling stories almost as much as he savored the
hamburgers he was known for grilling during church retreats in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
"Did you hear the story about how Link played for the San Francisco Clippers?" asks longtime
friend Gordon Bostrom. "He was in the Coast Guard and you're not supposed to play football
when you're in the Coast Guard.
"Well, he was going with two girls - one's last name was Oliver and the other's last name was
Pifler. So he played for a hundred bucks a game for the San Francisco Clippers under the name
Oliver Pifler. I think they just stuck him up in the line and nobody could get around him."
No one knows for sure, but Link was thought to have suited up as a professional wrestler once or
twice, a legend enhanced by his close friendship with Tom Rice, who earned a healthy living as
pro wrestling's original Masked Marvel.
When the two giants gathered to trade stories - of their days together at USF, or perhaps a
remembrance from Shanty Malone's venerable saloon - Mike and his cousin, Tony Bugge,
devoured every last syllable.
But if Lincoln Holmgren was a character of sorts, he was a character with character, those who
knew him say. Backed by a system of values that never wavered, Link also knew the value of
"He was this guy that was very similar to Mike in that you kind of had a little bit of fear, but he
would always soften it with a little bit of a sense of humor or a little smile at the end," Farina
says. "Just like Mike when he gets mad at somebody on the practice field."
People were to be shown respect, Link insisted, and rules were not to be broken. The four
Holmgren children - Bobbi, Mike, Calla and Jens - were taught these and other lasting lessons at
an early age.
"One of the biggest lessons I learned has carried on with my wife and how I treat women," Mike
says. "I was in junior high and I had been at the playground all day. I came home late and I was
tired and hungry and had lost a game."
It was the one time Holmgren can remember sassing to his mother. What happened next will
never be forgotten.
"My father never smacked me - he didn't do that - but I was out of my seat before I could even
blink," Holmgren recalls. "We went out the hallway and right out the front door. Right during
"And he said, 'Now listen,' and he didn't raise his voice, and he gave me his speech about how I
was to respond at all times to my mother, what she had done for the family and what she had
done for me growing up."
Lincoln Holmgren was making a point about respect.
"He really helped form some of my own coaching philosophy," Holmgren says. "I really
understand the need for separation between what I do and what the players do and I have to make
tough decisions, but I really do think about those guys in another way, other than just what they
can do for me on Sundays.
"I suppose cynics would say, you know, come on. But that's how I have to live my life."
"When you first looked at him, you wanted to step back from him out of fear, but Link was one
of the kindest and gentlest people that I ever met," says Dick Loughlin, part-owner of the
Carolina Panthers and one of Link's former business partners. "He was not necessarily
emotional, but very caring.
"His thing was respect. He treated everybody with respect, regardless of their position, whether it
was a waitress or somebody shining his shoes."
Criminals weren't so fortunate.
"I remember one time Link caught a shoplifter at the Safeway," Bostrom says. "He just put the
guy to the ground quickly and had his knee on his throat until the police came."
Life at the Swedish-American Bakery was a family affair. When Link married Barbara Bugge, a
former philosophy student at California and the daughter of a late U.S. Army colonel, the bakery
gained another employee.
"We all took part," Barbara says. "I was at the cash register. Grandpa (Link's father) made the
bread and Lincoln took the bread out."
The bakery featured a popular lunch counter. The manager's special would invariably include
healthy portions of compassion and goodwill.
Link's parents, George and Estrid Holmgren, never forgot their roots in the Salvation Army, and
so their doors were always open to those in need. By the time Mike was born in the summer of
1948, the Holmgrens were running what amounted to a boarding home.
The family lived upstairs, above the bakery.
"We all lived there," Mike recalls. "People would come over from Sweden and live there until
they found jobs. At Christmas time, we'd have 100 people there, easy, and we'd sing songs."
When the family wasn't at the bakery, they could often be found at the First Covenant Church on
nearby Dolores Street. Their spiritual investment was total. In fact, when Link's parents retired
from the bakery, they became stewards of the church grounds and lived on the premises.
Link was chairman of the church for more than a decade, while he and Barbara served as deacon
and deaconess. Link also anchored the back row of the choir, in addition to his duties coaching
the church basketball team.
Everyone knew the Holmgrens.
"They were a real class act, a very solid family," says Eric Newberg, who went to Sunday school
with Mike and now is a pastor on Mercer Island. "Link coached our church basketball team and
so I got a little taste of his discipline. You didn't want to mess with Link.
"He was very strict in terms of behavior. Mike was taught to be polite. He's always been that
way. Never arrogant in the least."
Summers were spent at Mission Springs in the Santa Cruz Mountains - where the region's
Covenant churches still maintain a conference center with cabins and dormitories.
The Holmgrens owned one of the cabins, a modest structure in every way except for its
sprawling porch, which was large enough to accommodate more than a dozen beds. The
challenge was always the same for Mike, cousin Tony and the rest of the family: To fall asleep
before Tony's father, whose cacophonous snoring might have stirred Rip Van Winkle himself.
"My wife and I used to sleep in the basement of that place," says Bostrom, whose father was a
First Covenant pastor in the 1950s. "I remember Link making these incredible hamburgers and
the family would all be there. And Mike just fit in. Who would have ever known where Mike was
going to land?"
More than four decades later, the Holmgrens remain a fixture at Mission Springs. A new
generation knows Holmgren not necessarily as the championship coach. Of more relevance to
them is his role as one of the men who scoops ice cream on the Fourth of July.
"Mike was always very devout about the church, certainly," Farina says. "That's how he met
It was the summer of 1961 when Holmgren, then 13, met and fell in love with Kathy, whose
family belonged to a Covenant church in San Jose. Both families were at Mission Springs when
Holmgren mustered the courage to ask Kathy to take a walk around the grounds - a ritual known
among campers as "taking a walk around the mound."
Holmgren remembers it well.
"Aug. 22, 1961," he says without pause. "We walked around the mound for the first time. I
probably held a girl's hand for the first time."
Adds Newberg, "There's a water tower there that's famous for people who are going steady
writing theirnames up there. And for years, Mike and Kathy's name was up there."
A decade after their first walk around the mound, Mike and Kathy were married - at Mission
Springs, of course.
Holmgren stood 6-foot-3 and weighed 205 pounds when he enrolled at Lincoln High School as a
14-year-old freshman in the fall of 1962. The family had grown as well, having added a sixth
member with the birth of Mike's only brother, Jens, in 1954.
Ultimately, the bakery could no longer sustain the lifestyle Link and Barbara sought.
Link found he could earn more money selling real estate, and in 1955 the family left the bakery
and moved into a two-story, Mediterranean-style home in the West Portal neighborhood, a
middle-class area south of Golden Gate Park.
The Holmgrens' new address was 551 Dewey Boulevard, but Mike might as well have taken up
residence at the West Portal Playground, a few blocks down the street. Other playground junkies
eventually call themselves the "Crackerjacks."
"We had leagues in softball, football and basketball," Jamison says. "By the time we got into
high school, we knew many of the guys we played against because we had played against them
on the playgrounds."
The list of opponents included Bob Portman, who set records at St. Ignatius High School and
Creighton University before the Golden State Warriors made him their first-round draft choice in
1969. Portman and St. Ignatius lost just one game during the 1964-65 season - a game in which
Holmgren scored 14 points while holding Portman to 12.
"Mike held him to maybe 10 points below his average and outrebounded him and Lincoln won by
about 15," Jamison says. "It really made news. And Portman was very good."
Holmgren, Jamison and Cooper were best friends and three-on-three teammates as far back as
they can remember. Their softball team, the West Portal Pelicans, featured Holmgren at first base.
"Our lives were all sports," Cooper says. "And you know, the thing was, we were always
"My mom's family is all from Renton," says Holmgren's cousin, Tony Bugge. "I was up there
until I was 16. In fact, Mike came up for the World's Fair in 1962. Stayed with us. We lived
down in Burien.
"I left Seattle for San Francisco in late '64. I got recruited, if you can imagine. Uncle Link came
up. I was playing baseball and there was a team up there called the Cheney Studs that was a big
semipro team. They wanted me to catch for them. I was having a good junior year at Evergreen
"All of a sudden, Uncle Link showed up one weekend and was scouting me and wanted me to
come down. They needed a guard and a linebacker and a catcher on the baseball team. So Dad
comes home from work one day and sticks a for-sale sign on the front yard. And he said we're
going to San Francisco."
Bugge wound up playing linebacker at Lincoln High School, but it was his placekicking that
secured a scholarship to Colorado State. These days, beating his famous cousin on the golf
course ranks among Bugge's favorite pastimes.
"I have to give him a couple of strokes when we play," Bugge says. "He's always negotiating.
He's got a bad elbow, or his back's sore."
Lincoln High School might have struggled to publish its 1965-66 yearbook without him.
Mike Holmgren was student body president, all-world quarterback and starting center on the
basketball team. He also found time to participate in a service organization called "40 Links."
"Mike was our good
buddy, but he was also a guy we looked up to so much," says
Jamison, Lincoln High's treasurer and Holmgren's favorite target on the football field. "Without
sounding corny, he's the kind of guy where you'll never get in trouble when you're with him."
Their revelry peaked in high school with a few beers among friends while spinning the records of
the Beatles, Beach Boys or
Of course, getting into trouble would have meant answering to Lincoln Holmgren - a losing
prospect all the way. And if such a notion wasn't deterrent enough, there was always the prospect
of sparring with Lincoln High football coach Bill Holland - quite literally.
"Bill Holland was a guy that went fishing all the time and he was a real man's man," says Dick
Valois, Holmgren's position coach at Lincoln. "I was a student teacher and one day Bill says,
'OK, I want you to go up to the wrestling room right now and wait for me.'
"So I go upstairs to the wrestling room and I wait for him and this student walks in and he's
about 6-foot-1, about 185. And Bill walks in about a minute later and he says, 'OK, put the
gloves on. I'm gonna straighten this guy out.'"
Valois protested meekly, to no avail.
"And they start swinging and the kid goes down to his knees and it was all over," Valois says.
"Nobody got upset about anything."
It was a vastly different era, to be sure.
"He was an old-school guy, but I think a pretty moral guy," Holmgren says. "My high school
coaches were probably responsible for why I became a high school teacher and coach.
"They took an interest in me. They went the extra step for me and I really tried to emulate that."
Holland believed in Holmgren enough to make him the starting quarterback just three games into
his sophomore season.
After a disappointing junior year in which Holmgren suffered a freak shoulder separation during
practice before a playoff game, Lincoln rebounded in 1966 to win its first city championship in 23
It was Lincoln 13, Lowell 0, before 13,250 wet and chilly fans at Kezar Stadium. And Holmgren
managed to be the hero, despite completing just eight of 21 passes for 179 rain-slickened yards.
"Mike Holmgren, Lincoln's big record-shattering quarterback, finally untracked," the San
Francisco Chronicle reported. "Stopped for most of the day by a wet ball that his receivers
couldn't hold and a Lowell defensive backfield that stuck closer than the mud, he suddenly got
Holmgren sustained the pivotal drive by completing four consecutive passes - his only
completions of the second half - including a 7-yarder to Jamison on fourth-and-5 from the Lowell
As sweet as the championship tasted, the season's most memorable moment might have come one
week earlier, when Holmgren and Jamison helped Lincoln knock off St. Ignatius.
"The week of the game, the headline had the St. Ignatius coach talking about praying for rain - the
only way to stop Holmgren and company," Jamison says. "Well, the day of the game, it poured.
Rained like you've never seen it.
"So we go out and Mike throws for almost 350 yards and I catch 11 passes and set the city record
and we beat them like 30-0."
Holmgren completed nine of his first 10 passes - one pass was dropped in the open field - and
finished with 342 yards and three touchdowns.
"I'll never forget that day," Jamison says. "Mike was like a coach on the field."
The performance foreshadowed the offensive approach Holmgren would us so successfully as a
"Holmgren disdained the long bomb," the Chronicle reported, "instead calling an assortment of
short pitches to the sidelines and quick look-in passes over the middle.
"And he unloaded in a hurry each time, rarely asking more than two seconds to throw and thus
killing any chances the Wildcats had to pressure him into bad throws."
Jim Plunkett, Dan Fouts, Steve Bartkowski and Vince Ferragamo rank among the greatest
quarterbacks in Bay Area high school history.
And Mike Holmgren? Some say he was the best of the bunch.
"Mike was better than Dan Fouts because Fouts was in an offense at St. Ignatius High School
that was more run-oriented," says former San Francisco State coach Vic Rowen, whose career
spanned most of the area's outstanding high school passers. "I think the two best quarterbacks
were Holmgren and Plunkett, and I felt that Holmgren was better."
Former Stanford coach
Plunkett was the more productive high school player, Ralston says, Holmgren was clearly
superior in head-to-head battles before the 1966 North-South Shrine Game, which attracted more
than 50,000 fans to the Los Angeles Coliseum.
"Jim and Mike were the quarterbacks for the North team and I was at all the practices," Ralston
recalls. "The coaches went out on the field and it didn't take them long to figure out who was the
best of the two, and the best player was Mike Holmgren.
"So Mike played in the all-star game as the quarterback 58 minutes, and Jim Plunkett played as a
Holmgren graduated from high school at mid-year and promptly went to work with Billy Jamison
at a sporting-goods warehouse. Weekends were consumed by college recruiting trips, and
Jamison recalls driving his old friend to the airport each Friday in Holmgren's familiar
powder-blue 1962 Dodge Lancer.
"He went to UCLA one weekend and Tommy Prothro was the coach and he had Mike up to his
house on Sunday to play chess with him," Jamison says. "And Mike said, 'This is it. I'm going
to go to UCLA.' Well, two weeks later, he goes to SC, comes back and says, 'That's where I'm
California provided another option - coach Ray Willsey was eager to line up a successor to Craig
Morton - but Holmgren was smitten by the tradition of Troy.
"I knew I didn't have a chance to recruit Mike, but I told him he would be making a mistake if he
went to SC because SC wasn't running the kind of offense for him," says Rowen. "Of course, it
proved that I was right - they took a great throwing quarterback who was better than Jim
Plunkett, and he never even got a chance."
Fresh off an MVP performance in the Shrine game, Holmgren was optimistic. He would go to
Southern California, win a couple Rose Bowls and perhaps even a national championship.
The media seemed to agree.
"Let me just set the scene for you," offers Fred Khasigian, Holmgren's freshman roommate and a
three-year starter at guard. "I'm from an extremely small town in the Central Valley of California
and Mike is a big-city kid through and through.
"And I'm rooming with the guy who was more sought after and had more publicity than anybody
on the starting varsity lineup. He's on the front page of the sports section, being interviewed by
all the writers before he is even registered in school.
"It was unbelievable.''
What happened over the next four years hurt Holmgren deeply and made his father furious: USC
kept its offense on the ground, as Rowen and others had predicted, and Holmgren's passing
fancy never mattered.
had the mobility his offense demanded. And who could blame him? McKay's USC teams were
35-6-3 with Mike Holmgren imitating opposing quarterbacks during practice.
At 6-4 and 220 pounds, Holmgren simply didn't fit.
"But Mike was incredible," says former USC backup Butch Nungesser, who was one year ahead
of Holmgren. "He would just have everybody in awe of the long spirals he could throw in those
Receiver Earl McCullouch was a member of USC's world-record 440-yard relay team, but he
couldn't outrun Holmgren.
"Earl was a tough guy to drop back and hit on a bomb because he ran like a 4.3-second 40, which
was just unheard of," Nungesser says. "We'd drop back and nobody could hit McCullouch -
nobody except for Mike."
Of course, being the best quarterback in practice only brought more anguish. It didn't help that
McKay, the so-called Little General, always seemed to bark out 'Holgrum' instead of
"It was very difficult for him because guys of lesser ability were playing," Khasigian says. "He
was obviously more talented than all of them. But it was the O.J. Simpson offense. What could
"He was bitter inside, but he never showed that externally. He was always very proper and
supportive to the team."
The year was 1968 and the first weekend of October was a big one. USC was playing Miami on
Saturday, followed the next day by the Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers - both games
at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
"Those were some interesting times when the guys from San Francisco would come down and
visit," says Skip Farina, a Bay Area native who didn't come to know Holmgren until he walked
on as a redshirt offensive lineman at USC. "We'd had a few beers, I think, and we were kind of
chanting for Mike to get in the game.
"Ultimately, SC got far enough ahead that it was time to let Mike play, and a couple of rows
down in front of us, people stood up and started booing, or saying, 'Who is this guy? He stinks.'
So of course we had to defend his honor."
That's where Holmgren's impromptu neighborhood posse - led by Barry Cooper, a free spirit if
there ever was one - rode to the rescue.
"So Mike gets in, it's like third down and 20 to go," Cooper explains. "Geez, I wonder what he's
going to do; I guess he's going to pass. No kidding. So the big rush is on. He gets dumped. And
the next thing you know, these guys say something derogatory to my friend. Next thing you
know, guess what, we're in a fight.
"The biggest crowd ever down there at the Coliseum and Mr. Cooper, Mike's good buddy, is in a
beef. So I'm punching guys out and finally, the cops come out. And I got out of there."
The story gets better.
"We get out to the airport Sunday and Barry walks up to the counter and says, 'I'd like a ticket to
San Francisco,'" Farina recalls. "And the guy behind the counter says, 'I'm sorry, sir, I can't sell
you a ticket. You're too inebriated.' This is after the 49er-Rams game. So Barry leans across the
counter, looks him right in the eye and goes, 'Listen, I don't want to fly the damn thing. I just
want to ride in it.'
"So the guy starts laughing, sells him a ticket. As they walk out to the plane, Barry makes a hard,
right-hand turn and walks up an empty stairway leading to nowhere, waving as he's going.
"It was a fun group of guys."
Holmgren's talent was validated when St. Louis selected him with an eighth-round draft choice in
1970, but he didn't last long with the Cardinals and was subsequently released by the New York
"I always thought he was going to be an All-Pro quarterback throwing a deep post," cousin Tony
Bugge says. "But sometimes fate has a different way of looking at things. Had he been a great
ballplayer, maybe he wouldn't have become a great coach."
That Holmgren became a prominent coach at all was something of an upset. It wasn't until 1982,
when Holmgren landed a job at BYU, that the possibility occurred to him.
"I didn't have a plan," he says.
He certainly didn't plan on losing 22 consecutive games during his first two seasons as an
assistant coach at Sacred Heart, a parochial high school in San Francisco.
"I think in his mind's eye he wanted to be a player," Cooper says. "He lucked out being a coach.
I don't think he ever saw this coming. He was at Sacred Heart and what were they, 0-22 or
The career prospects improved in 1975 when Holmgren moved on to San Jose, where he served
as offensive coordinator at Oak Grove High School. But Oak Grove was a long way from the
NFL. Finally, after six highly successful seasons, Holmgren started getting antsy.
Rowen had an opening at San Francisco State, but Holmgren knew the risks. With four
daughters to support, some considered him crazy to even consider leaving the security of high
school coaching and teaching for a tenuous job at an NCAA Division II program.
The dilemma took center stage at Alde's, a nearby coffee shop and greasy spoon. That's where
Holmgren asked Bob La-Monte, a teacher and former chair of the history department at Oak
Grove, for an honest assessment.
"To put this in perspective, it's virtually unprecedented for a man at age 32 or 33 to consider
leaving a high school job as an assistant, where you've never been a head coach, to go on to
become an assistant college coach," says LaMonte, who had also been a football assistant atOak
Grove. "It's very scary. So I told him, without a doubt, he was the best mind I had ever seen.
"And this is true. He was brilliant, absolutely brilliant. And I said, 'You've got to do it now. If
you wait, it will never come.'"
But LaMonte wasn't finished. He had a question of his own - namely, whether Holmgren
thought LaMonte might have a future as an agent.
"Mind you, I'm a high school and junior college history instructor," LaMonte says. "That's not
done. And Mike goes, 'You'd be a great sports agent.'
"All of a sudden, 10 years later, I'm introducing him on ESPN as the head coach of the Green
Bay Packers and I've done a quarter-billion dollars in sports contracts."
Four years after the summit at Alde's, Holmgren was riding the wave of a national championship
at BYU when the hometown 49ers called. He was proud to have interviewed for an opening on
Bill Walsh's staff, but Holmgren wasn't optimistic about his chances.
He was out jogging when word came that Walsh had left a message.
"Mikegoes, 'Oh yeah, right,'" recounts Phil Stearns, former head coach at Oak Grove. "And the
guy says, 'Hey, I mean it.' So Mike went in and called him and Walsh just said, 'Would you like
to work with the 49ers?'
"As the story goes, Mike kind of said, 'Just a second, coach,' and covered the phone and
screamed and then said, 'Uh, sure, I'd be interested.'
"Then the rest is kind of history."