Skip to main content

A View From the Top: Harlan Restructured Packers Organization Into NFL's Finest In 1996


*As part of the Green Bay Packers' celebration of the 10th anniversary season of the Super Bowl XXXI Championship, is running a series of stories about the people responsible for bringing the Vince Lombardi trophy back home to Titletown.

Bob Harlan had heard it all before.

After all, he'd been in Green Bay's front office since 1971 and the Packers' success, or rather lack thereof, sprung many doubts upon the organization's proud franchise.

Since Vince Lombardi last roamed the Packers' sidelines in 1967, the team had only four winning seasons and two playoff appearances, one of which came in the strike-shortened season of 1982.

Needless to say, fans were deprived of the dynasties Lombardi built, and critics were multiplying with every loss.

That's when Harlan, who was elected President and CEO of the Packers on June 5, 1989, decided things had to change. Upon his promotion he wasn't shy about his goals for the team, saying, "I want to move this franchise ahead in every area.

"We've got to be successful from top to bottom to succeed. And," he promised, "we're going to succeed."

It didn't take long for Harlan to fulfill his promise, either. He was tired of seeing the Packers go through the down times and knew it was time for a change on many fronts. And the changes he made fit together like a magnificently designed puzzle.

He hired Ron Wolf as General Manager. Then Wolf hired Mike Holmgren and traded for Brett Favre. Not long after, Reggie White signed on, and just like that, Harlan -- who it should be noted that in his humble nature would never take credit for his involvement in the team's success -- had managed to turn back the clock and make the Packers winners again.

All of this, as well as the Super Bowl XXXI victory over the Patriots in January 1997, came after Harlan heard that it wasn't going to be possible for the Packers to return to the glory days they were once used to.

"I always heard during the '70s and '80s that it's never going to happen in Green Bay again," Harlan said. "'The Lombardi era was the last great time we're ever going to have. It's just not going to work for us again. That was our day, it's passed, you know, we'll move on.'

"And to see what Ron Wolf, Mike Holmgren, Reggie White and Brett Favre did -- I always say that's the foundation of what did it for us, because those four people restored us to elite status in this league and gave dignity back to the Packers on the football field."

Harlan, who won a World Series ring in 1967 with baseball's St Louis Cardinals as a member of the public relations department, knew just how special winning a championship was.

In fact, the Iowa native often told people in the Packers' offices that winning a title in Green Bay would be beyond anything they've ever experienced.

And when the Packers brought the Lombardi Trophy back to its rightful owner after the '96 season, Harlan was right: the Super Bowl victory was like tasting a piece of heaven.

Harlan's accomplishments with the organization are too numerous to list, but some of them included spearheading the stadium redevelopment, hiring Wolf, and launching the team's fourth stock sale in 1997.

However, he lists the Super Bowl win as his proudest moment.

"It really was because it re-established Green Bay as an elite team in the National Football League," Harlan explained. "To win the Super Bowl, that was a gift from God. It really was. And I think it sent a message to everybody that, 'Hey, they're back, they're not going to suffer because of free agency and the salary cap.' That was another story that went around when free agency started in the early '90s.

"All the national writers said the franchise that's going to suffer is Green Bay. It's too small, it's too cold and nobody wants to go there. Then Reggie White comes here for Pete sakes. He's still the most glamorous free agent ever in my mind. I remember a week after the Super Bowl, my wife (Madeline) and I were going out for fish on a Friday night and I said, 'Can you imagine this little town right now is No. 1 in the National Football League? It's the champion of the National Football League.' That's a great feeling."

While the Super Bowl may have been Harlan's proudest achievement, the game that preceded it was his favorite moment in his 35 years with the team.

"I don't want to diminish the Super Bowl victory, but my favorite moment was the day we beat Carolina here in the NFC Championship Game in January," Harlan admitted. "To be on that field, Ron Wolf and I were in the north end zone the last couple minutes of the game and then we were due to go out on the stage to receive the trophy.

"And to stand on that field and see the happiness that was in the stadium is a scene I'll never forget. People were hugging and kissing and high-fiving. And everywhere you looked, people were crying. And you looked up at the private boxes and club seats and people were waving towels and jumping up and down."

Harlan, who will retire after the upcoming season, knows that the Packers couldn't have reached this level without the help of the fans.

"I've never seen such total happiness in my whole life," Harlan acknowledged. "And I always thought, 'Who deserves it more than these fans?' I mean, during the '70s and '80s we had four winning seasons and they stuck with us. To see them rewarded the way they were with that victory, that will be with me as long as I live.

"And Ron and I talk about it all the time. In fact, when we were standing in the end zone, I said, 'I could cry,' and he said, 'So could I.' It was just very emotional. It was almost too bad the Super Bowl couldn't have been played here because it was just so special. You wish everybody in sports could go through it; it's just very special."

Besides having a great deal of help from Wolf, Harlan also had the aid of Mike Reinfeldt, who was the vice president of administration/chief financial officer with the Packers at the time and now holds a similar position with the Seattle Seahawks.

Current General Manager Ted Thompson also was on board in Green Bay during the Packers' Super Bowl run as the director of player personnel, while Mike Holmgren was leading the charge on the field.

Still, perhaps it was Harlan's relationship with Wolf, at least as far as personnel decisions are concerned, that served as the catalyst for the Packers' turnaround in the '90s.

When Wolf was hired in the middle of the 1991 season, Harlan assured him that he would have complete control over the football operation. According to Harlan, there would be no questions from him, the executive committee or the board of directors.

Wolf recently said, "Everybody wants to give it to me. I'll always have some of it, but those guys -- Bob Harlan, the executive committee -- believed in what I was doing. And we were able to pull it off."

In listening to Harlan, the respect and admiration was mutual.

"The whole key was Ron Wolf," Harlan insisted. "There's no doubt about it.

"We had a marvelous relationship," Harlan added. "And you know, when the Brett thing took place -- I take my own phone calls because I've always taken the approach that hey, the fans own the team, if they want to talk to somebody, they ought to be able to talk to somebody -- and my gosh, the calls I got were, 'My God, is Ron out of his mind?'

"They just thought he had gone berserk. And I said, 'Listen, this franchise has sat back a long time and not gotten anything accomplished. This time I'm putting full trust in this gentleman, and we're going to support him.' And I told Ron, 'What you want to do, you do.' And he was just a godsend."

Harlan also praised Holmgren's efforts along the way, particularly the manner in which he handled the young gunslinger from Southern Mississippi.

"I think Mike brought in a toughness to us and obviously a great offensive mind, but I'm not sure anyone other than Mike could have handled a young Brett Favre because you know, Brett would go wild on things and take off," Harlan said. "And Mike would bring him over to the sidelines and say, you know, snap out of it. 'We can't do those things.'

And I'm sure Brett would give Mike all kinds of credit for the quarterback he is today. He and Ron were both very powerful, strong football individuals. Fortunately, they combined their knowledge to make this thing work."

Clearly, the Packers made a lot of things work in the '90s, particularly in 1996. Though the success didn't surprise Harlan, the speed of it did.

And despite the team's magnificent performance in the Super Bowl, even Harlan was anxious on occasion.

"I can remember at halftime, we had a good lead, we were up a couple touchdowns and I can remember going through the halftime ceremonies and I was just very nervous," Harlan said. "I wanted it to end. And the league security told us they would come and get Ron and myself with five or six minutes to go in the game. And so when the time came, two or three security people came and Ron and I got on the elevator with them.

"Ironically, the only other people on the elevator were a couple other security people and Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and his wife, Chan. And as I got on the elevator, Chan reached over, grabbed my arm and said, 'Congratulations.' And Paul elbowed her and said, 'No, it's not over. We don't say anything until it's over.' And she didn't say anything the rest of the time and neither did I. I turned and faced the door and just thought I better not say anything until we get out of here."

Harlan laughs about that incident but when he would see the commissioner later, it was no joking matter.

In fact, the conversation Tagliabue had with the executive committee shortly after the team won the Super Bowl summed up just how far Harlan and the Packers had come since the Lombardi years.

"He told us that the Packers winning the Super Bowl was the best thing to happen to sports in years because he said it's small-town America, it's blue-collar America and it's owned by the fans," Harlan recalled.

Even Harlan marvels at what the Green Bay Packers represent.

"It's the closest thing in the National Football League to a college atmosphere," Harlan continued. "The RVs start rolling into the parking lot on Friday afternoon and they don't go home until Monday afternoon.

"It's an event. It's not a one-day game, it's an event. And other players who come here say it's amazing. They're driving by all these houses and all of a sudden, there sits the stadium. It's just a marvelous story and the fact that it still exists is great. There is nothing like it."

And the team's success, not only in years past but what is sure to occur in the future as well, has Harlan's fingerprints all over it.

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.