BEREA: Mike Holmgren came to Cleveland and found out who he was — and who he wasn’t.
He arrived as Browns president on Dec. 21, 2009, flush with excitement, sure he could make something of the moribund franchise. Fans were overjoyed, even though his four years in the dual role of coach/general manager of the Seahawks from 1999-2002 had not worked out well. He relinquished those duties and continued to coach in Seattle for six more years.
On Tuesday, Holmgren said goodbye to Northeast Ohio, still unsure whether he will finish out the season under the new regime of owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner, who arrives Thursday. The tone of Holmgren’s farewell was melancholy, and it was no wonder.
There is no doubt about his legacy now. He is a great coach, perhaps even a Hall of Fame coach, but he is a front-office failure. Departing owner Randy Lerner hired him to do the wrong job. And when Holmgren had the chance to make that right, he turned his back on another chance.
The biggest plus on his Browns’ ledger was his hiring of general manager Tom Heckert, whose draft picks may have laid the foundation for a successful future as he cleaned out the cobwebs of the past.
But beyond that, there is a litany of Holmgren’s missteps.
He kept coach Eric Mangini too long, even though he still sticks by that decision.
“Eric’s a good man. I felt it wasn’t fair to give a guy only one year,” Holmgren said.
He resisted the temptation to get back into coaching in 2011 — even polling staff members like Heckert — and instead hired coach Pat Shurmur, who seems over his head at this stage of his career.
He lost RG3, afraid of trading too many high draft picks to the St. Louis Rams for the right to select Robert Griffin III, the charismatic quarterback from Baylor.
He may not have found a quarterback, even more alarming for a quarterback guru who tutored Joe Montana, Steve Young and Brett Favre. The Browns tried Jake Delhomme, Seneca Wallace and Colt McCoy before drafting Brandon Weeden 22nd overall.
His lasting sound bite will be “Don’t come to me for extra tickets for a playoff game,” part of an outburst last Dec. 14. “You’re either with us or you’re not,” Holmgren said then.
Holmgren said he was angry after dealing with fallout over the Browns’ failure to diagnose McCoy’s concussion in Pittsburgh when he came to the news conference.
“I broke Holmgren’s rule No. 5,” he said. “I wasn’t angry at you guys. I was just angry at the situation we were in. I just met with the league, attorneys and doctors and all this stuff and I kind of saw where that whole thing was going. It wasn’t my proudest moment. I apologize to you. I shouldn’t have said it. I pride myself on having more poise than that and I didn’t. I snapped.”
Since he’d confessed, Holmgren asked the questioner if he could phone him for tickets “when the time comes.”
“You may, but I can’t promise we have the same connections,” the writer responded. Their exchange was one of the few light moments in a discussion dominated by disappointment.
Holmgren defended himself over a report that Haslam has arrived in Berea before Holmgren, even though Haslam is flying in on his private jet from Knoxville and Holmgren is driving from Bratenahl. Holmgren said he has stuck to his morning routine of exercise, coffee and a daily devotional with his wife Kathy ever since she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001.
I can’t question Holmgren’s devotion to his job, to the Browns or to Lerner. He is a good man, too. Even though I wished he had coached here, I won’t criticize a 64-year-old for trying to strike a balance between family and football. With their charity work, the Holmgrens tried to help the community. Just having Holmgren in town gave Lerner’s perennial losers more national attention than they deserved. The fact that Holmgren joined the parade of men who got rich off Lerner was Lerner’s fault, not his.
But Holmgren knew his 10-29 record over the last three seasons mattered most. He realized he had failed for the second time when he stepped out of his coaching comfort zone.
That may have been why when his news conference ended, Holmgren didn’t look up. He didn’t shake hands with reporters who came forward to retrieve their recorders who would have wished him well. He picked up his notes and his reading glasses and walked away, perhaps fighting to keep his emotions in check.
He’d just finished a 45-minute examination of his Browns’ legacy, and he didn’t like what he’d heard any more than we did.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.