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Mike Vandermause column: Wolf tree spreads success from Green Bay throughout NFL

Jan. 25, 2014
 
Packers Rookie Orientation_Practice
Former Green Bay Packers general manager Ron Wolf, right, watches a 2012 rookie orientation practice with his protege, current GM Ted Thompson, at the Don Hutson Center. H. Marc Larson/Press-Gazette Media

It’s been 13 years since Ron Wolf retired as Green Bay Packers general manager, but his legacy remains strong in today’s NFL.

Five members of Wolf’s personnel department in Green Bay during the mid-1990s have gone on to become NFL general managers, including De Pere native John Schneider, who has helped guide the Seattle Seahawks to a Super Bowl berth this season.

Wolf’s staff in Green Bay might go down as the greatest collection of personnel evaluation talent in one place in league history.

“When you talk about a scouting tree, I think Ron’s is right up at the top of the league,” said retired Packers President Bob Harlan, who hired Wolf in 1991 and watched him build the Packers into a Super Bowl champion within five years.

“A lot of people who’ve grown up under Ron have done extremely well and are playing prominent roles in the NFL.”

Schneider is the latest Wolf understudy to make a name for himself and is vying to become the second to claim a Super Bowl title.

Packers general manager Ted Thompson, who was hired in 1992 and worked under Wolf for seven years, was the first of his students to capture a championship when the Packers won the Super Bowl three years ago.

The Wolf tree has also produced Kansas City general manager John Dorsey, who was named NFL executive of the year earlier this month after his first season with the Chiefs; Oakland GM Reggie McKenzie; and former San Francisco GM Scot McCloughan, who helped build the team into a playoff contender but left before the 49ers made it to the Super Bowl last season. McCloughan now works for Schneider in Seattle as a senior personnel executive.

“I’m very proud of that fact,” said Wolf of the long list of his former staffers that have excelled in the NFL. “Let’s take into consideration now, these are exceptional individuals at what they do.”

In the case of Thompson and Schneider, Wolf hired them with no prior NFL personnel experience and saw them grow into some of the best in the business. Wolf credits the system that was put in place in Green Bay, which helped identify who could judge NFL talent and who couldn’t.

“When you are trying to get an understanding of a particular player, the ability to take that player off the screen (from the film room) and put it on paper is a rare talent, and these guys all possess that,” said Wolf.

Other traits of successful personnel executives, according to Wolf, include a deep love for football and the ability to admit mistakes, ignore criticism and put aside individual acclaim.

“Every one of these guys we’re talking about has such a passion for the game,” said Wolf. “The whole thing we tried to stress when I was in Green Bay, this is about the Packers. It’s not about one particular individual. When we pick a player, when we decide a player deserves to be in strong consideration to be selected by the Packers, that is our player. Not my player, it’s not John Schneider, not John Dorsey, it’s our player. It’s a teamwork type of situation. I stressed that over and over again and they must have bought into it.”

Harlan said Wolf was demanding with his scouting staff, but that brought out their best.

“They learn from the master,” said Harlan. “You’re driven to succeed. You’re held accountable for everything you do. I think if you’re going to be good, Ron was going to find it out in a short period of time and keep you, or he’s not going to keep you.”

Job candidates were typically given the names of six players on the Packers roster to evaluate. They were put in a room, handed film or videotape of each player and asked to write reports. That was followed by a one-on-one session with Wolf to talk about the findings.

“Obviously we knew the player because he was our player,” said Wolf. “You could tell right away whether the guy had the ability to evaluate or not. … You could tell pretty easily whether a guy really sat and studied the player, or sat in there and had popcorn and coke.”

With such a wealth of scouting talent in Green Bay, some wonder why Harlan chose Mike Sherman as the general manager when Wolf retired in 2001. Sherman was already the head coach but had little or no personnel experience.

Harlan said the timing wasn’t right to hire one of Wolf’s scouting protégés.

Thompson and McCloughan had already departed for Seattle to work for Mike Holmgren, and Schneider was still young and developing his skills during stints in Kansas City, Seattle and Washington after leaving the Packers for the first time in 1996.

“When I was debating what to do when Ron left, one of the things that really concerned me about bringing somebody new in from outside is they would destroy our scouting staff and bring in their own scouting staff,” explained Harlan.

“I didn’t think we had anybody quite honestly that was ready at that point to be the GM, but they were certainly talented young people with bright futures and I didn’t want to lose them from Green Bay. That was one of the reasons I kept Mike Sherman because I knew if somebody from the outside came in he might bring in his whole new scouting staff and let everybody go.”

Thompson replaced Sherman as Packers GM in 2005 and with help from Schneider, Dorsey and McKenzie, built a team that won a championship five years later.

Harlan said Wolf always allowed his employees to better themselves, even if it meant leaving the Packers.

“The thing I always admire about Ron is when somebody had great ability and they had a chance to go someplace else, not once did he try to talk them into staying in Green Bay,” said Harlan. “I used to question him about that, but he thought they deserved that chance and let them go. I admired that in him but I hated to see us lose good people.”

When Harlan retired in 2008 he began watching Packers home games in a scouting booth at Lambeau Field with Schneider, Dorsey and McKenzie, three future NFL GMs.

“It’s a fascinating place to sit,” said Harlan. “I always just sat and listened, to hear their comments, not only about our team but the opponent. I just enjoyed the back and forth that they have.”

Harlan also would hear them, along with Thompson, talk reverently about their mentor.

“They all go back to what they learned under Ron,” Harlan said. “Ted admits to this day that he still operates the way (Ron taught him). It may not be as daring as Ron, but a lot of things he does, it’s very comparable. When I watch them in the draft room, the way they operate, they’re very similar.”

Wolf’s fingerprints remain embedded all over the Packers organization. When he was hired the Packers had endured nearly a quarter-century of losing football. The tables have dramatically turned and it’s been almost 25 years of consistent success since.

“I saw scouting change so much through the years,” said Harlan. “Not that we didn’t have good people in the past, but I never saw the kind of people we had once Ron came in here and he built his staff. It just seemed to jump up several levels in capability and it’s reflected on the field.”

mvandermause@greenbaypressgazette.com and follow him on Twitter @MikeVandermause

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