Mike Holmgren had been coach of the Green Bay Packers for all of two months when he and his wife, Kathy, realized the clout his new position carried. In mid-March they were attending the NFL meetings in Phoenix, where Kathy ran into a delegation of Wisconsin officials who were in town to entice more NFL teams to move their training sites to the Badger State. She asked one member of the group if he knew of a veterinarian in the state who could perform delicate ligament surgery on the Holmgren family dog, Tiger. The next day Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson sought out Mike at the meetings and introduced himself. "Listen," the governor said, "we're going to get your dog fixed up. I don't want you to worry about a thing." Sure enough, Tiger no longer walks with a limp.
Now it's up to Holmgren to return the favor. All he has to do is cure the once-mighty Packers, who have been limping along for a quarter century. The most loyal football fans the NFL has known are standing by, waiting for a miracle to happen. And they know it will—someday.
The home of the Pack is still dominated by Vince Lombardi. In the team's offices, which are located on Lombardi Avenue, his portrait looms in the lobby, where one of the two Super Bowl trophies he won is on display. Across the street in the team's Hall of Fame, his voice can be heard on tape in a special exhibit. Coaches who have come after him say they feel his presence when they walk out onto Lambeau Field. "There are ghosts of Christmases past in here," says Ron Wolf, who in November left his post as director of player personnel with the New York Jets to become Green Bay's executive vice-president and general manager. "I feel them. They're in here, everywhere you go."
Now if only some of His Vinceness would rub off on this new and excited and hope-filled regime. As the Packers began yet another rebuilding job in the NFL draft on Sunday, Wolf and Holmgren demonstrated an uncharacteristic assurance for men in their positions.
For the first time since Lombardi left Green Bay, after the 1967 season, the Packer executive committee has given one man, Wolf, a former top aide to L.A. Raider boss Al Davis, full authority to run the organization. Wolf, in turn, has handed all coaching authority to Holmgren, the bright former offensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers. Working in tandem, Wolf, 53, and Holmgren, 43, have more power than any of the previous five Packer administrations, all of which were subject to the authority of the seven-member executive committee. With Green Bay having reached the playoffs only twice since Lombardi left—the Packers made early exits both times—maybe it was time to get back to the basics.
But on Sunday, Packer fans weren't interested in basics. They wanted some flair. The headline atop the Green Bay Press-Gazette shouted: GIVE US DESMOND HOWARD, PACKER FANS SAY. Five hundred Packer devotees streamed into Lambeau Field skyboxes for a draft party. Thirteen newspapers, 14 radio stations and seven TV stations from all over Wisconsin were covering the draft from Packer headquarters.
The draft room itself was crammed with 33 men—coaches, scouts, members of the board. Green Bay had the fifth pick, and when defensive tackle Steve Emtman, linebacker Quentin Coryatt and defensive end Scan Gilbert went 1-2-3, Wolf wanted to get his hands on Florida State cornerback Terrell Buckley. Holmgren was leaning toward Michigan wide receiver Desmond Howard, the Heisman Trophy winner. In fact, the staff members were split about 50-50, but they all had agreed after weeks of discussion that they would be happy to get cither guy.
Wolf thought Green Bay would end up with Howard, because two people he trusted in the league had assured him that the Cincinnati Bengals, who were the next team to draft, would deal the No. 4 pick to either the Dallas Cowboys or the Atlanta Falcons, both of whom coveted Buckley. But that's not what happened. The Bengals made a trade all right, but with the Super Bowl-champion Washington Redskins, who leapfrogged the Packers from the No. 6 slot and selected Howard.
Washington general manager Charley Casserly later said he was convinced he had to make the Bengal deal when he learned that earlier in the week Wolf had told Howard's agent, Leigh Steinberg (page 70), that the Packers would pick Howard if he was available. "But I was convinced Buckley wouldn't be there," Wolf said later, "and in that case we would have taken Desmond Howard."
Wolf and Holmgren happily selected Buckley. "He's an offensive defensive player," Holmgren said. "I can't wait to coach him."