To assess Mike Holmgren's sudden impact on the Seahawks, just look at the standings
This summer at their training site in Cheney, Wash., the Seahawks hung a huge banner that was filled mostly by Mike Holmgren's mug and announced the team's marketing slogan for the 1999 season: IT'S NOW TIME! Towering over the practice fields and covering the side of a five-story parking garage, the sign inspired a nickname for Seattle's new coach and general manager. "The Big Show," says Seattle defensive end Michael Sinclair. "That's what we called him. We looked over at the side of this building and saw this gigantic Mike, and it was like, Are we in Cuba? Is that Castro? It was like we had Fidel staring down at us."
The hold Holmgren has on the perennially underachieving Seahawks (they haven't made the playoffs since 1988) is downright Parcellsian—powerful and occasionally dictatorial. But who can argue with the results? An impressive 26-16 victory over the Bills on Sunday left Seattle 4-2 and tied for the AFC West lead with the Chargers and the Chiefs entering this week's showdown with the Packers, the team Holmgren twice took to the Super Bowl.
"I'm loving this job," Holmgren said last Saturday in his suburban Seattle office. "I love the [general manager's] decision-making process, even when it's frustrating. I love working with new players. But we still have so many things to do. Now I'm going into a meeting with all the scouts we've called in off the road because I need to stress to them the kind of player I want here. We need to get bigger. We need to get faster. Before the season, when we met, the scouts told me why each player was on the roster, and I listened. Now I've got to tell them why, in many cases, they're wrong."
After coaching for seven years under Green Bay general manager Ron Wolf, Holmgren wanted to run his own show. He got that opportunity last January when Seahawks owner and Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen gave him an eight-year, $32 million contract, and Holmgren has taken charge of all things big and small. Big: With the backing of Allen and club president Bob Whitsitt, he drew a line in the sand on negotiations with the team's best receiver, Joey Galloway, who in the last year of his contract wants a lucrative extension and was still holding out as of Monday. Small: After Sunday's win Holmgren announced he was ending the team mascot's practice of firing T-shirts into the crowd. "I'm dead serious," he said to giggles from some members of the media. "That guy shooting the T-shirts? He's done. I want our fans focused on the game."
Holmgren also works quietly behind the scenes, as when he recently sat in the office of defensive coordinator Jim Lind—who was promoted after Fritz Shurmur died of cancer on Aug. 30—and calmly but firmly advised him on how to deal with the disciplinary aspects of the job. Unbeknownst to the Seattle media, Holmgren called Galloway two weeks ago and tried to coax him back into the fold, suggesting to the wideout that he could be certain he'd get the guaranteed money he was holding out for by obtaining an injury-protection insurance policy. "That's what Sterling Sharpe did in Green Bay," Holmgren recalls telling Galloway. "Joey, I'm telling you, you'll get your money [if you get hurt]."
On the sideline Holmgren is the same alternately scathing and soothing coach. He chewed out his offensive linemen on Sunday ("That's bulls—," he screamed at them after they failed to convert a third-and-short in the first half), then worked on the psyche of Jon Kitna when he heard the young quarterback coming off the field spewing invective. "Hey," Holmgren said, calling Kitna over. "Ever hear the expression, 'Never let 'em see you sweat?' You have to be ice."
In the closing minutes of the game halfback Ricky Watters inexplicably ran out of bounds, stopping the clock and prompting a cascade of criticism from his team-mates. Watters, ever the diplomat, starting telling everyone where to go. "Ricky, calm down," Holmgren said, his left arm gathering Watters close. "Stand next to me. We're on national TV. Now, you're wrong, and you know you're wrong. Relax."
"Mike is still feeling his way," says Sinclair, "but the big thing around here now is accountability. The players who stay here are the ones he will trust. He's still finding out who's going to be in there through thick and thin. But don't worry. He'll find out."
One of Holmgren's most important tasks this year is determining whether the wet-behind-the-ears Kitna, 27, is his quarterback of the future. "Kit is the way Brett Favre was in '95, '96—going through some growing pains," says wideout Derrick Mayes, whom Holmgren acquired during training camp in a trade with the Packers. "But he's a damn good quarterback and getting better." On Sunday, Kitna completed 17 of 30 passes for 276 yards and a pair of touchdowns to Mayes, the second on a picture-perfect 43-yard strike.