As the Green Bay Packers prepare to mark the 100th anniversary of the franchise's founding on Sunday, Jason Wilde ranks the five most important coaches in Packers history.
5. Mike Sherman
Because Sherman’s tenure ended with a 4-12 thud in 2005, after an awkward season following team president Bob Harlan’s decision to strip Sherman of his general manager duties and give them to new GM Ted Thompson, it’s easy to forget just how successful the Packers were for much of his six-year tenure.
In his first five regular seasons, the Packers went 53-27 for a winning percentage of .663 — the fourth-best in franchise history at the time, behind only co-founder Earl “Curly” Lambeau (.668), Super Bowl XXXI-winning coach Mike Holmgren (.670) and icon Vince Lombardi (.753). Even with that disastrous 2005 season, Sherman finished with a .594 winning percentage, just behind his successor, Mike McCarthy (.618).
Taking over after Ray Rhodes’ one-and-done year, Sherman had limited NFL experience — he had been the Packers’ tight ends coach under Holmgren in 1997 and ’98 and had been Holmgren’s offensive coordinator with the Seattle Seahawks in 1999 before getting the Packers job. But in his first year, he led the Packers to a four-game winning streak to end the 2000 season for a 9-7 finish. (A one-game improvement over the 8-8 record they’d had under Rhodes a year earlier.)
After that season, GM Ron Wolf retired, as he’d told Harlan earlier in the year he might do. Not wanting to bring in another GM and lose Sherman as coach, Harlan consolidated the coach and GM job into one — despite having felt that structure was a mistake in the past.
“I think it was the worst decision I made, quite honestly,” Harlan confessed years later. “We did have momentum going into the next year. I had talked to Brett Favre, he said it was the best chemistry he had seen in the locker room in all the years he had been here. He’d been through a couple of Super Bowls by that time. And I was concerned that if a new man came in from the outside, Mike might have trouble getting along with him, (or) the new man might want to come in and want to totally change the scouting staff, which I thought was a capable young scouting staff. And so I decided to do something that I don’t like to do — give one man both jobs.”
The next four years, the Packers went 12-4, 12-4, 10-6 and 10-6. (“He did a great job of coaching,” Harlan acknowledged.) But Sherman’s GM shortcomings and some gut-wrenching postseason losses piled up. In the 2002 NFC wild card round, the Packers lost at home to the Atlanta Falcons — the franchise’s first postseason loss at Lambeau Field. Then, in the 2003 NFC divisional round, they blew a 14-0 lead and lost in the infamous “Fourth-and-26” game at Philadelphia. And the 2004 season finished with the Minnesota Vikings and fake-mooning Randy Moss winning at Lambeau in the NFC wild card round.
A year later, Sherman was out of a job.
“I think the hardest thing going through it as the head coach of the Packers is knowing you had the best job in sports,” Sherman said during an interview with ESPN Wisconsin last December. “No matter how you cut it, no matter if you’re right or wrong, you feel like you let people down.
“When you lose that job, there might be a little bit of relief in the sense that the pressure is off, but at the end of the day, it’s a job you would have always wanted to have kept if you’re a football coach.”
4. Mike McCarthy
When Thompson decided to move on from Sherman, he interviewed six candidates for the job. In the end, he made what he called “an East Texas gut call” and chose McCarthy, who delivered the team’s fourth Super Bowl title when he led the 2010 Packers to a 31-25 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, the team McCarthy grew up cheering for as a kid growing up in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Greenfield.
Before interviewing McCarthy, who’d spent the 1999 season as the Packers’ quarterbacks coach under Ray Rhodes, Thompson had interviewed Dallas Cowboys assistant head coach/passing game coordinator Sean Payton, Cleveland Browns offensive coordinator Maurice Carthon and Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Ron Rivera. After McCarthy, Thompson interviewed San Diego Chargers defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, New York Giants defensive coordinator Tim Lewis and Packers defensive coordinator Jim Bates, who’d worked under Sherman the previous year.
When he hired McCarthy, Thompson cited McCarthy’s work ethic and toughness — “Pittsburgh macho,” Thompson called it — as being what appealed to him about his new coach. Before McCarthy’s first season began, and before the Packers had won a single game with him in charge, Thompson was asked why he’d settled on McCarthy.
"I talked to a lot of people, and the more I talked, the more I found that you're hiring a person," Thompson said. "It's not really the coach, it's not really the X's and O's, it's not really the plan or the strategy or the schedule. It's not any of that. It's the person you're looking for, and Mike was the person I was looking for.
"Every day, more and more, I feel more confident it was the right call. I don't know why. I just think it's going to be OK."
It ended up being more than OK. In his nearly 13 seasons, before being fired with four games remaining in the 2018 season, McCarthy compiled an overall record of 135-85-2, including a 10-8 record in nine trips to the postseason. The only coach in Packers history with more victories? The guy the stadium is named for.
McCarthy took the Packers from 4-12 to 8-8 in his first season in 2006, then to 13-3 in 2007 and a berth in the NFC Championship Game, where they lost to the eventual champion New York Giants. The team transitioned from Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers at quarterback the next year, and Rodgers delivered a Lombardi Trophy two years after that.
“I love Mike McCarthy. He’s a great man,” Rodgers said in April. “I mean, he’s got a huge heart. He really cares about his players and he showed that to us. As far as a player to a coach, it’s just two alpha males who are hyper-competitive and love winning and are both a little stubborn.
“I think we need to honor Mike and respect him the right way. We had a hell of a run. We had 13 years, four NFC championships, one Super Bowl, eight straight playoffs, 19 straight wins. So, let’s remember the amazing times that we had together.”
3. Mike Holmgren
Holmgren has thought about what might have been — not often, but occasionally. Knowing that he left Green Bay in search of a dual coach/GM job — and the Packers gave Sherman, his former assistant, both jobs in 2001 — Holmgren has wondered what his Packers legacy might have looked like had he stuck around a couple more years, waiting for Wolf’s retirement.
“I've thought about it. Sure, I’ve thought about it,” Holmgren confessed. “I’ve gone back. I've been honored. I've gone into the (Packers) Hall of Fame. I spoke at Brett's Packers Hall of Fame induction. I think back at the times there that were very, very special, and quite honestly, had I known — had we all known — that Ron was probably not going to stay, going to retire, there's a good chance I would have stayed because I wanted to expand just a little bit and be the general manager. I'm sure he didn't know, and I didn't know. No one knew. You make a decision, and you don't look back on decisions.
"It will always be a special place to me and my family. Some of my kids grew up there, went to school there. It's special. But I don’t look back too often.”
It was special for the Packers, too. Hired by Wolf after serving as the San Francisco 49ers’ offensive coordinator, Holmgren coached in Green Bay for seven seasons, leading the team to an 84-42 overall record (75-37 regular season; 9-5 postseason), seven consecutive winning seasons, a then club-record six consecutive playoff berths, a 47-5 record (including playoffs) at Lambeau Field and the Super Bowl XXXI title — the Packers’ first in 29 years.
He also developed Favre into one of the league’s all-time greats and a three-time NFL MVP after he arrived in a February 1992 trade with Atlanta.
Holmgren departed following the 1998 season for Seattle, where the Seahawks gave him total control of their football operation. He wound up coaching more games in Seattle (170) than he did in Green Bay (126), leading his 2005 team to Super Bowl XL, which the Seahawks lost to the Steelers. He retired from coaching in 2008 and was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame in 2012.
“I’ve always said this and I really believe this: I was a high-school history teacher who got lucky. Ron Wolf decided to take a chance on a guy who hadn’t been in the league very long,” Holmgren said. “To be a part of and be mentioned in the same breath with the greats of the Green Bay Packers, that’s a special thing for anybody. It’s an honor and I’m humbled by it. I would hope that people, as far as legacy goes, that we came in there and we did a good job and we worked hard at it. We set the tone for the future, perhaps, and got people feeling really good about the football team again.”
2. Earl “Curly” Lambeau
Most who hear “Lambeau” mentioned during every television or radio broadcast of Packers games being played in the stadium that bears his name don’t think twice about the former player and coach — or his complicated history with the team he co-founded with Green Bay Press-Gazette editor George Whitney Calhoun on Aug. 11, 1919.
But for as beloved as the Green Bay native son might have been for going 226-132-22 and winning six world championships, he was also reviled by many of his players, and his irresponsibility might’ve ruined the fledgling franchise long before it became what it is today.
For instance, early in the 1921 season, the Packers’ first in the league that would become the NFL, the Acme Packing Company went bankrupt. In a game at the end of the year, Lambeau was caught using college players who played under pseudonyms and the Packers were booted from the league. They were only reinstated when the league realized the team was too successful to leave out.
When more financial trouble followed in 1922 and the NFL took the franchise away in January 1923, Lambeau and Calhoun spearheaded the formation of the Green Bay Football Corporation along with two other local businessmen.
With his players, Lambeau had a reputation as a better disciplinarian than tactician, although his tough-minded approach often rubbed his players the wrong way. So, too, did his heavy-handed approach, which included exorbitant fines and reneging on promises during contract negotiations. He was also a womanizer whose indiscretions proved to be a distraction.
And, in 1947, Lambeau pushed the team’s co-founder, Calhoun, out of his role as the team’s publicity director.
"Calhoun, until the day he died in 1963, told people he wanted to outlive Lambeau so he could pee on his grave,” team historian Cliff Christl said.
After Calhoun led an attempt to oust Lambeau, Lambeau left the franchise on Feb. 1, 1950, to become head coach of the Chicago Cardinals. He coached four more years — two with the Cardinals and two with the Washington Redskins. On June 1, 1965, Lambeau died in Sturgeon Bay of a heart attack.
In an interview with Christl in 2001, Ward Cuff, a Marquette alum who finished his NFL career with the Packers in 1947 after playing nine years with the New York Giants and one with the Cardinals, minced no words when talking about Lambeau.
“He was a (SOB) in every way you can think of. He was kind of crude and a schemer and a womanizer. He was a real cheat. I don’t know how the hell he kept his job as long as he did,” Cuff told Christl. “A lot of the players didn’t like Curly and there was pretty good reason for it. He was taking their money, trying to date their wives. I’ll tell you, he was bad.”
1. Vince Lombardi
Lombardi’s legend was cemented long ago, before the NFL named its Super Bowl trophy in his honor following his death in 1970. He was part of six NFL championship teams — including coaching the Packers to five titles in seven years, including the first two Super Bowls — and when he came to Green Bay in 1959, everything changed with the downtrodden Packers.
“Coach Lombardi arrived and the world turned around,” Pro Football Hall of Fame guard Jerry Kramer said of his beloved coach. “First of all, he came in and said, ‘I’ve never been a loser, and I’m not about to start now. If you’re not willing to make the sacrifice, to pay the price, to do the things that you have to do to win, then get the hell out!’
“We kind of looked at him and said, ‘Can’t be that bad.’ He said, ‘There’s only three things in your life: your God, your family and the Green Bay Packers.’ He worked us harder than we had ever worked in our lives. We had guys losing consciousness every practice. He started with preparation. Then, he would talk about commitment. And discipline. ‘You don’t do things right once in a while, you do them right all the time.’ So, we got into discipline, consistency, pride, tenacity, belief in your team and believe in yourself. It was an incredible experience.”
And it led to incredible success. Lombardi’s teams went 105–35–6 (including playoffs), and he never suffered a losing season. He led the Packers to their first two titles under him in 1961 and 1962, then to three straight NFL titles in 1965, 1966 and 1967 — something only one other coach had done in NFL history: Lambeau, in 1929, 1930 and 1931.
Lombardi stopped coaching after the 1967 title and served as the team’s general manager only in 1968, ceding his coaching responsibilities to assistant Phil Bengtson. Lombardi moved on to coach the Washington Redskins in 1969, leading them to their first winning season in 14 years (7-5-1) before succumbing to cancer on Sept. 3, 1970, at age 57.
Among Lombardi’s best-known quotes — almost as famous as “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” — was this one: “Winning is a habit. Watch your thoughts, they become your beliefs. Watch your beliefs, they become your words. Watch your words, they become your actions. Watch your actions, they become your habits. Watch your habits, they become your character.”
Jason Wilde covers the Packers for ESPN Wisconsin. Listen to him with former Packers and Badgers offensive lineman Mark Tauscher weekdays from 9 a.m. until noon on “Wilde & Tausch” on 100.5 FM ESPN Madison.