Holmgren overcame 22-game skid

  By Mike Sando

  The News Tribune

  Aug. 1, 1999

  KIRKLAND - A year-and-a-half into Mike Holmgren's first real coaching job and his team was leading in a game for the first time. But what about the extra point?

  "We couldn't get enough guys on the field for the PAT team," confesses Steve Ellison, the head coach of those Sacred Heart High School teams. "We had to take a timeout and we still didn't get enough guys.

  "I mean, it was comical."

  Holmgren and Ellison lost 22 consecutive games together from 1972 to 1974. Holmgren had spent the 1971 season coaching at his alma mater, Lincoln High School, but he counts the Sacred Heart experience as his first legitimate coaching job.

  And it wasn't easy.

  Their first victory together was a 13-10 squeaker over Piedmont Hills, a game in which the Sacred Heart punter took two late safeties and the defense needed a goal-line stand in the final minute.

  Of such travails are lasting friendships made.

  "I don't wish a 22-game losing streak on anybody," Ellison says, "but I think both of us learned at a very young stage in our coaching careers not to take ourselves too seriously."

  Some 25 years later, Holmgren ranks among the most successful coaches in the NFL. And Ellison, now the head coach at Petaluma (Calif.) High School, hasn't missed the playoffs in a decade.

  Subsequent successes have been many, but their breakthrough victory in 1974 will always rank among the most satisfying experiences. In fact, before Holmgren won a Super Bowl with the Green Bay Packers two years ago, he counted the victory over Piedmont HIlls as the biggest of his career.

  It almost didn't happen.

  "We came out and played great, much to our surprise," Ellison says. "We got ahead and were really in the driver's seat, but then we panicked a little bit - players and coaches.

  "On the last safety, the punter ran backwards about 20 yards just to kill the clock because we were convinced we were going to get the punt blocked and lose the game."

  Steve Barulich and Frank Lee were linebackers on that team. Mike Hallinan was a receiver. Holmgren coached quarterbacks and ran the defense - a so-called "Tennessee 5-2" that Lee remembers well.

  "It was like a 3-4 now, but the noseguard stood up," Lee says. "Barulich was right in the middle, head up on the nose. He was such a good player, he could control both 'A' gaps and stand up and read."

  Barulich now owns and operates a successful food distributorship south of San Francisco.

  Lee coordinates the fitness program at the Police Academy in San Francisco; he also became a coach, ultimately leading Sacred Heart to an 8-3 record during the 1994 season.

  Hallinan became a police officer across the Bay in Oakland.

  They remember the '74 season in vivid detail, though Barulich, the best player on the team, doesn't talk about it much.

  "It's kind of crummy when this is your claim to fame, that you finally won a game," he says.

  If Barulich is reluctant to bask in old glories, however limited, others have imposed no such preclusions.

  "It was a great thing for the kids," Ellison says. "I mean, kids were crying. They were so excited. I remember Mike and I hugging each other and our wives were crying. He and I did a little celebrating, to say the least, that night.

  "The following Monday, the principal had a big rally to honor us, which was embarrassing AND nice, depending on how you want to look at it. They called off school for the rest of the day.  It was a major monkey off our backs."

  The game had been moved from Piedmont Hills to a neutral site because both teams were under travel restrictions brought on by the energy crisis, and Sacred Heart would have exceeded its travel allotment had it driven the entire 50 miles.

  "For some reason, we didn't really have a locker room at this place," recalls Lee. "They had like an old barn gym with a big boxing ring in the middle."

  The better to celebrate with.

  "Guys were playing wrestling in there, bouncing off the turnbuckles," Lee says.

  "It was incredible," Hallinan says. "I believe the room we changed in was right next to an outdoor swimming pool, and dudes were just running and jumping into the pool in their jocks and all this.

  "And you could just see how happy the coaches were. From what I understand, they were very happy that night, too, if you get my drift."

  Holmgren and Ellison may not remember much from that night, but they'll never forget Sacred Heart.

  "We worked so hard but didn't win many games," Holmgren says. "I remember saying to Steve at one point, `I'm not sure this coaching thing is really for me. Maybe I'll just sell real estate or something.' "

  Their were mitigating circumstances, of course.

  Sacred Heart didn't have a football field, for one, meaning they were forced to make the five-mile drive to Golden Gate Park just to practice.

  And it didn't help that Sacred Heart played in what was perhaps San Francisco's most treacherous league at the time - a league that included Dan Fouts and Lynn Swann, Holmgren notes.

  "I can remember the losses as much as the first couple of wins," Barulich says. "But it was fun."