Former Packer President and CEO Deserves Special Place in Packer Lore
Lambeau has a field. Lombardi has a trophy. What about Bob?
Lombardi Avenue. Holmgren Way. What about Bob?
Had Gutzon Borglum still been alive and asked to sculpt a Packers version of Mount Rushmore that included the most influential figures in Packers history, he would have most likely carved out Curly Lambeau, Vince Lombardi, Brett Favre, and Reggie White. Perhaps a combination that could also include Mike Holmgren, Ron Wolf, Bart Starr, or Don Hutson instead, you say? Sure, but what about Bob?
Of course I’m not speaking about Bill Murray’s character in the 1991 Frank Oz comedy. Rather, I’m referring to current Green Bay Packers Chairman Emeritus Bob Harlan. I would argue that no one person from the post-Lombardi era has been more important to the Green Bay Packers organization than Bob Harlan. And so I will.
When Bob Harlan came to the Packers organization as an Assistant General Manager in 1971, the Packers weren’t that far removed from the franchise’s glory days under Vince Lombardi. What no one knew at the time though, was that it would be over two decades before the Packers would again approach a semblance of the winning that was commonplace among Lombardi teams. While the Packers spiraled downward into mediocrity in the 70’s and 80’s, Harlan was quietly ascending within the organization and would soon be put in a position that would allow him to lead the Packers back to their pinnacle of greatness. In 1989, Harlan’s drive, work ethic, and unbridled passion to succeed led to his being named President and CEO of the Green Bay Packers.
After slowly beginning to reshape the structure and operations of the Packers organization during his first few years on the job, Harlan made two very important football decisions late in the 1991 season. Convinced the organization was stuck in neutral competitively, he relieved then executive vice president Tom Braatz of his responsibilities on Nov. 20, 1991. Then, one week later, he named Ron Wolf as executive vice president and general manager, giving him total authority over football operations. The rest as they say is history. Bob Harlan’s decisions over the next 16 years would come to fruition and put the team with the most championships in NFL history back on the football map.
- Wolf, who was handed the keys to the football program by Harlan, was chosen 'NFL Executive of the Year' by Sporting News following his first full season with the Packers, which saw him hire Mike Holmgren as head coach and acquire Pro Bowl quarterback Brett Favre in 1992 in one of pro football's most acclaimed trades ever. In 1993, he subsequently signed perennial Pro Bowl defensive end Reggie White, the game's most sought-after unrestricted free agent.
- Under Harlan's guidance, Green Bay posted the league's best overall record, 152-88, from 1993-2007, and returned the Lombardi Trophy to Green Bay with a victory in Super Bowl XXXI. The Packers returned again to the Super Bowl the following year in January of 1998. This period also included 13 straight .500-or-better seasons from1992-2004, the team's best stretch since the 1930s and '40s.
- In 2005, Harlan hired Ted Thompson as the team's general manager, and Thompson has built the Packers into one of the NFL's strongest young teams. The 2007 team, led by head coach Mike McCarthy, tied a team record for victories with 13 en route to the division title and an appearance in the NFC Championship.
- Thompson’s and McCarthy’s 2010 Packer team, largely built through the draft and led by superstars Aaron Rodgers (2005) and Clay Matthews (2009), overcame 15 players being lost for the year due to injury to win Super Bowl XLV.
So, you do the math. Ok, I will. Harlan had a direct hand in guiding the Packers to 3 Super Bowl appearances with 2 Super Bowl championships over the span of 14 years. Great leaders surround themselves with good people who can carry out their message and execute their philosophies. Harlan has led the Packers back atop the NFL as one of the most popular and successful organizations and restored the luster achieved in the Lombardi era.
It could be argued that Bob Harlan’s most important contribution during his Packer career came off the field. The crowning achievement of Harlan's tenure - the $295 million redevelopment of historic Lambeau Field - was unveiled at the beginning of the 2003 season and stands as the principal component for assuring the team's financial survival for the next generation.
Harlan retired Jan. 28, 2008, and became chairman emeritus after a 37-year career with the organization, including 19 years as principal executive.
Harlan fittingly was honored July 17, 2004 with his induction into the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame.
Yet compared to the accolades received by his Green Bay predecessors, Bob Harlan is deserving of so much more. A place in the Ring of Honor at Lambeau Field would be a first step in the right direction.
Scene from “What About Bob”1991
This writer won’t be quiet until Bob Harlan gets a larger piece of the credit he deserves for putting the “Title” back in Titletown and restoring respectability and longevity to a franchise that appeared to be sinking upon his promotion to president and CEO. And if all this isn’t enough, there isn’t a more class person than Bob Harlan. So, what about Bob? Everything.