Green Bay Packers President Robert Harlan, left, General Manager Ron Wolf, and coach Mike Holmgren, right, receive the Lombardi Trophy after beating the New England Patriots 35-21 in Super Bowl XXXI Sunday, Jan. 26, 1997, in New Orleans. The Packers won 35-21. / File/AP
Life was not always this good for the Green Bay Packers, who are the reigning Super Bowl champions, boast a record-setting 13-game winning streak and at 7-0 this season are the only unbeaten team remaining in the National Football League.
Such remarkable success would have been unthinkable during the 1970s, 1980s and very early 1990s, when the Packers hit the skids and were at times an NFL laughingstock.
But 20 years ago next month, one significant decision changed the direction of the franchise, and the positive effects are still being felt today.
The hiring of Ron Wolf in November 1991 by then team president Bob Harlan was the start of a transformation that saw the Packers go from an NFL doormat to perennial championship contender.
The good times didn’t stop with Wolf’s retirement in 2001 though. In fact, the fingerprints of Harlan and Wolf are all over the Packers’ status today as an elite team.
It was Wolf who introduced Ted Thompson, the Packers’ current general manager, into the world of scouting and player personnel and groomed him for eight years in Green Bay during the 1990s. And it was Harlan who hired Thompson as general manager in 2005 and watched him, like Wolf before him, build the Packers into a Super Bowl champion.
It’s as if Harlan won the lottery not once with Wolf, but a second time with Thompson. And Packers fans everywhere should be grateful.
“All the credit goes to Ron Wolf and Ted Thompson,” said Harlan during a recent interview. “I mean, they just have to be two of the best general managers ever. And I just feel very fortunate that we were able to get them.”
To understand just how special Wolf and Thompson have been, it’s necessary to look back into the deep and dark Packers’ past.
In the 20 years prior to Wolf’s arrival, the Packers qualified for two playoff berths, posted four winning records and won just one post-season game. In the 20 years since, the Packers will have qualified for the playoffs 14 times, endured just two losing seasons, and won 16 post-season games.
The Packers’ turnaround is especially gratifying to Harlan, who was hired by the team in 1971 and endured two decades of losing before being promoted to team president in 1989.
How bad did things get? Harlan can count the ways.
“The ’70s and ’80s had just been so tough on us,” said Harlan. “We hired five coaches during that time and each coach had a lower winning percentage than his predecessor. I mean, we were just getting worse all the time.”
The post-Vince Lombardi years were agonizing, with Phil Bengtson (.488 winning percentage), Dan Devine (.481), Bart Starr (.408), Forrest Gregg (.405) and Lindy Infante (.375) failing as head coaches.
Harlan, meanwhile, had grown weary of the constant losing. He was tired of the jokes at the Packers’ expense, the fan complaints and the malaise that surrounded the team.
“I think one of the things that bothered me so much, in talking to our fans, the way our fan base had almost given up on us,” Harlan said. “They would just tell me, the league has passed us by. We’re never going to win again. They loved the team, but they were losing hope.”
Everywhere he turned, Harlan couldn’t escape the negativity.
“I still remember driving back from Milwaukee sometimes, listening to a Chicago radio station, and when we’d play Tampa Bay, the announcers in Chicago would make fun of it,” said Harlan. “This was when Tampa Bay was an expansion team. ‘Oh, the Battle of the Bays, Green Bay and Tampa Bay. Neither one of them is worth a damn.’ I just got tired of hearing things like that.”
After the Packers staggered to a 1-6 start in 1991, Harlan knew something drastic needed to happen. So he turned to Wolf, who had worked under Al Davis in Oakland, and promised to give him full authority over all football decisions.
“The executive committee had always picked the coaches for so many years,” said Harlan. “I just felt we needed to get a football person in here who could have that authority.”
Wolf had interviewed with the Packers in 1987, when Robert Parins was team president, for the top personnel job eventually filled by Tom Braatz. But Wolf took himself out of the running because full authority to make football decisions wasn’t part of the package.
“I realized that, at least in my view, I couldn’t fit in that type of operation,” said Wolf.
Four years later, Wolf jumped at the opportunity to rebuild the Packers because Harlan promised him complete control.
“When I got here, things were not good,” recalled Wolf. “It just seemed that there wasn’t any life around here.
“At my age (Wolf was 52 at the time), I didn’t have time to look back to find out why they did things wrong. I had to get it fixed and get it moving.”
It was apparent things were going to be different the first time Wolf observed one of Infante’s practices.
Harlan said: “He’s in my office within an hour and he says, ‘Got a problem on your practice field. It’s a country club atmosphere down there. This club is 4-10, they’re walking around like they’re 10-4. We’re going to make changes.’ I knew Lindy was gone.”
Wolf was bold and decisive. He landed Mike Holmgren as his head coach. He traded a first-round draft choice for Atlanta Falcons third-string quarterback Brett Favre. He became a major player in the free agent market and shocked the world by signing Reggie White. He wouldn’t accept the excuses that Green Bay was too cold and too small to succeed in the NFL.
“Ron was the difference maker,” said Harlan. “He was a tough football guy. He wasn’t afraid to make decisions, and if he made a decision that was wrong, he wasn’t afraid to correct it and admit he was wrong. He started winning right away. …He just put this thing together so quickly, and five years later we win the Super Bowl. So he was just the perfect guy for us to turn this thing around. It had to be turned around. We just had been inept for too long.”
In hiring Wolf, Harlan played a significant role in changing the face of the franchise. But who could have guessed he would catch lightning in a bottle a second time with Thompson?
The championship building blocks of Wolf, Holmgren, Favre and White in the 1990s have been duplicated by Thompson, Mike McCarthy, Aaron Rodgers and Charles Woodson.
“(Thompson) built the organization the very same way that Ron built his,” said Harlan. “It’s very, very identical.”
In 1992 Wolf hired Thompson, who had no prior personnel experience, on the recommendation of then Packers vice president of administration Mike Reinfeldt.
“I didn’t think about him being a general manager at that time,” said Wolf. “But I do know this, he had an innate sense of being able to evaluate players.”
Wolf played a big role in Thompson’s development as a personnel man.
“When Ted came in he was extremely green but he was intelligent enough, he was willing to listen to Ron, pay attention to what Ron did, how Ron scouted and what his thoughts were on scouting,” said Harlan. “And I saw Ted get promoted twice. In his years in the draft room, I saw him becoming more assertive and with more authority. You could just watch him grow.”
Thanks to Harlan’s ability to identify and hire a pair of top-flight general managers in Wolf and Thompson, the Packers have enjoyed two decades of prosperity.
“I couldn’t be prouder of both of them,” said Harlan. “They both mean a lot to me because of what they’ve done for this franchise.”
What a difference 20 years makes. Once the butt of jokes, the Packers have become the NFL’s model franchise.
— email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @MikeVandermause.