When Seattle Seahawks Coach Mike Holmgren addressed his team in the locker room Sunday evening after it trounced the Carolina Panthers in the NFC title game and secured the first Super Bowl berth in franchise history, he made sure to thank the club's multibillionaire owner, Paul Allen, in front of the players for his patience in sticking by Holmgren.
He wasn't merely being polite or even kissing up to the boss. Just more than a year ago, Holmgren was the loser in a front-office power struggle and seemed to have one foot out the door with the Seahawks coming off a disappointing first-round playoff defeat to the St. Louis Rams.
“I thanked him in front of the players for being patient with me and allowing the coaches to build something,” Holmgren said. “In a volatile business, you don't always see it as much as you should.”
Such patience certainly is not the norm in the NFL, not with 10 teams having changed coaches this offseason. Holmgren now has a chance to become the first coach to win a Super Bowl with two different clubs, having directed the Green Bay Packers to a Super Bowl triumph over the New England Patriots after the 1996 season. He took the Packers back to the big game a year later but lost to the Denver Broncos, and he was the star of coaching stars when he arrived in Seattle in ’99 with the title of general manager as well as coach.
His star lost much of its luster over the next six seasons, however. He directed the Seahawks to four winning seasons in those first six years but was winless in three playoff games. That left the Seahawks still without a postseason triumph since December 1984. Holmgren had been forced to surrender his GM title and couldn't coexist with Bob Whitsitt, the team's president who had Allen's ear. When the Seahawks lost to the Rams, a club coming off an 8-8 regular season, Holmgren thought long and hard about walking away. His allies in the front office were leaving, and it seemed unlikely that Allen would side with him in a square-off with Whitsitt.
Then a funny thing happened. Allen fired Whitsitt and Holmgren began to bond with Tod Leiweke, the team's chief executive. He quickly found that he could work with the newly hired president of football operations, Tim Ruskell.
The Seahawks didn't know it at the time, but Allen's vote of confidence in Holmgren put the team on the path toward Sunday's jubilant scene in which Allen and Holmgren accepted the NFC championship trophy minutes after the team's 34-14 victory over the Panthers.
"I looked out into the full stadium, and it hasn't always been that way," Holmgren said. "We kind of got people around here excited about football again. If any little doubts kind of creep in as you go along in this business, which can happen, this kind of makes me think for sure that I can coach a little bit. I feel so good for the organization. Having Tim Ruskell and Tod Leiweke as the chief officers of our company, it really does make all the difference in the world when you get everybody pulling in the same direction."
Allen said he never had come particularly close to losing faith in Holmgren, even if others in town and around the NFL had.
"I'm just so happy for Mike," Allen said. "Obviously, he's been here for a number of years. We had some ups and downs, and exits in the first round of the playoffs. To be going to the Super Bowl after all that, where Mike's been before and has experience, that's just fantastic. . . . Mike is just a great coach. After you come up short a few years in a row . . . people start questioning where you can take a team. In my opinion, it was more about bringing in someone like Tim who could maybe bring in some complementary players to work in Mike's scheme."
The Microsoft co-founder is one of the world's wealthiest men, yet he was positively giddy Sunday night about the prospect of his team playing in the Super Bowl. "Come on," Allen said gleefully, "we're talking about the Super Bowl here."
It's a team that won because the Seahawks managed to keep tailback Shaun Alexander, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and left tackle Walter Jones from leaving as free agents last offseason, keeping intact an offense that is cohesive as well as talented. "It's taken five years to get this group together," Alexander said.
But it's a team that also won because the petty squabbles from previous seasons were absent from the locker room as well as the front office. Both Alexander and Holmgren said the players are more harmonious than they were last season. Holmgren said it was refreshing to coach in such an unusually tranquil atmosphere.
"I've been at this for a while now, and I think I needed to be around a group like that," Holmgren said. "Quite honestly, it helped me. It helped me recharge my batteries. At the end of every season, I think all of us that are in this business get pretty tired. It takes a fair amount out of you."