End Of An Era: Q&A With Bob Harlan


*As this week winds down, so does the 19th and final year of Bob Harlan's tenure as Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the Green Bay Packers.

On Monday, Harlan officially becomes chairman emeritus as Mark Murphy takes over as President and CEO. Murphy has been on-the-job as President- and CEO-elect since Jan. 2, with the understanding that Harlan would remain Chairman until one week after the end of the football season.

Unfortunately, that ending came two weeks before Harlan and the organization had hoped with last Sunday's loss in the NFC Championship. As the franchise moves into a new leadership era, Harlan took a few minutes to reflect on the conclusion of his tenure with packers.com.

The following is a transcript of that conversation.*

What was this final season like for you and what will you remember most about it?

It was a great delight. I think the thing I'll remember most is the surprise. Coming off an 8-8 year, and if somebody had said to me in July, 'You're going to go 13-3, win the division and have two playoff games at home,' I'd say let's go to it right now. It's over. I'll take it. I had told people last summer that if we could go 9-7, 10-6, take that next step, it probably would have put us in contention for a wild card, and I would have been pleased with it. I just wanted to see us keep making progress. Even 10-6 at times I thought might be a stretch. But 13-3, nobody saw that coming. It's a great compliment to Ted Thompson for the way he put the team together and a great compliment to Mike McCarthy for the way he and his staff coached it and make this young team mature and get better as the season went along. Great football leadership we have right now.

Your last major decision was the hiring of Ted Thompson as GM in 2005. There was substantial criticism of that move for the first couple of years, but how confident do you feel now in the football operations being under his direction?

I think right now with Ted and Mike we've got the strongest football leadership we've had since '92 when we had Ron Wolf and Mike Holmgren. I really feel that way. I got a lot of letters and a lot of phone calls from the fans the first couple of years who were upset with the hiring of Ted, and upset that he had all this money under the cap and wouldn't spend it, and upset that he wanted to work through the draft. And then they didn't like it this winter. They kept saying, 'You're not giving Brett any weapons. He's in the twilight of his career.' Some fans even said, 'I hope Brett asks to be traded.'

I would talk to these people and I'd just say to them that I watched Ted for eight years under Ron Wolf, and he came in extremely green. He was promoted twice, became Ron's right-hand man, played a prominent role in helping build the team here, went to Seattle, built a team that went to the Super Bowl. I said he's got a system, I believe in his system, I'm sure he's the right man for Green Bay. All I'm asking is don't judge him right away. Have some patience in him. Give him a chance to do what he's going to do. He's going to take the best player available on the board. I know how he's going to operate that. And he'll spend some free agent money, but he's not going to go crazy. As he's told me, I'm not going to spend a lot of money in April because the fans are screaming and then regret it in November when the guy is sitting on the bench and not contributing. And the fans would say, 'OK, OK.'

Now, I have had a couple of fans who have actually written me in the last month or so saying, 'I ripped you two years ago when you hired the guy and said it was a mistake. I'm calling to say I was the one that was wrong. Thank you.' I give those people a lot of credit for admitting that. I just thought if we give Ted time, and don't just expect something to happen overnight. It's not going to happen overnight. But his system is sound and I've seen it work, and I knew it would work here, and I think he's a perfect fit for Green Bay.

On the business side, how would you describe the state of this franchise as you exit?

Well, we're strong. We're probably as strong financially as we've ever been, because our preservation fund is growing constantly. But we're going to need it, too. It can never get too large because you never know what you're going to face in the future. We've got the stadium in place, which we had to have, and this is enormous - we're going to have to keep looking for new ways to use the stadium and so forth to make it work. We're in good shape financially, good with the stadium, very sound football leadership, and a young football team that I think has a very promising future. Part of my obligation I've always felt is to take care of this franchise while I was here and to make sure that it's on strong ground when I leave it, and I feel that it is.

The future is so uncertain. If I took you back 10, 12 years since I've been in this chair, it's remarkable the things that happened that I never thought would happen. I never thought, for example, that we'd have to leave Milwaukee. I wasn't sure we could go to two Super Bowls and win one. I didn't think we'd have a stock sale that would add 106,000 shareholders and raise $24 million. And I never dreamed we'd have to re-do this stadium to keep up with the other 31 teams. Well, those same kinds or different kinds of challenges are going to be out there in the future. You don't know what's going to be there the next 5, 10, 15, 20 years. So we've got to keep building that preservation fund and make sure that we're ready to tangle with whatever comes up and hits us.

You've said before the toughest thing you did in your tenure was to pull the team out of Milwaukee. In that context, how difficult was the John Jones situation to handle?

It was difficult, but yet it was clear what we had to do. The surgery had been a major surgery, and John admitted he had lost the energy to handle the job again, and I recognized that. Staff members came to me, recognizing that. So when we went to the executive committee, they said to me, 'Would you stay around until we find someone?' And I said absolutely I would. It was an important time for us. We're trying to get this young football team to start growing and everything, and I said I'll stay as long as I have to stay. It was a little bit like the Milwaukee situation where I knew what we had to do. But I think both sides have moved on from the John Jones situation. It was a compatible departure. They went their way, we went ours, and it was handled with dignity by the organization.

How did you feel about how the search process went for a new successor?

I thought it was very good. I thought it was very good from both the search committee itself, I thought it was very diligent work, they worked very hard on it. And the search firm did a nice job in giving us candidates and taking us through meetings where we discussed candidates. Many of the candidates I knew, and I found it interesting how on-beam the firm was with its description of candidates on their strengths and weaknesses and so forth. We looked at 62 people overall, and we got down to the point at the end where I thought maybe some of the candidates didn't have enough football knowledge to fit in and do a good job for us. And I was also concerned about the personality of some people.

When you come here, this is a different situation. I've always described it as the caretaker. You're not the owner, you're the caretaker, and recognize that fact. That the people that you're talking to and the people that you're playing before, they're the owners. I don't think you can have an arrogance in this job. You've got to understand the ownership, the board, the executive committee, the shareholders. It's a very different job from every other owner in the National Football League, and I'm not sure some of our candidates recognized that. When I asked them certain questions about Green Bay and so forth, I just didn't hear what I felt we needed to hear. Mark Murphy understands that. Jason Wied was a strong contender for it, and he understands it perfectly. It's a great job, it really is. It's an honor to be in this job. But you've got to know what you're there for. The responsibility of the president is to take care of it for the shareholders while you're in charge of it, hopefully make it stronger, and leave it strong for the person following you, and that's what I hope I've done for Mark.

What are the best attributes Mark Murphy brings to this organization, and what do you see as the biggest challenges he'll face in his first few years?

Where I think Mark was strong was I liked the leadership he had to show as the athletic director at Colgate and Northwestern. He's had to hire people, fire people, put staffs together. He played in the National Football League. He dealt with the players' union and the owners and the collective bargaining talks. He knows what the collective bargaining agreement is. He knows the importance of revenue sharing. And if you asked him questions like how would you hire a new general manager, he had an answer. I think he understands how the president fits in Green Bay -- that you are a part of the element here. These fans who are calling you, they're the owners of the team, and they'll tell you they're the owners of the team. And his personality I think will fit in Green Bay. I think that was important. There were certain people we looked at, I did not think they'd fit in Green Bay, quite honestly.

As far as the challenges, my biggest concern - and I might have said the same thing if you asked me the same question 10 years ago - my biggest concern is that the system always stays in place, that we always have revenue sharing, that we always have a salary cap. We've got the best system in sports. The other sports would love to have what we have. This coming fall, the fall of 2008, either side, either the union or the owners, can open the collective bargaining agreement if they're unhappy. I just hope if it's opened that the changes that are made are minor.

The key is to have 32 competitive teams, so that everybody goes to training camp with a feeling we can win, we can make the playoffs, it can happen. A great example -- we're 4-12 two years ago, now 13-3. Look at the Bears last year, and how they've fallen. It's an up-and-down thing. But we've got a great advantage. We only play once a week, 16 times a year. Every game has playoff implications. It's tough to go to a baseball game in May and say, boy, 'This is going to be big in October.' Or it's tough to go to an NBA game in November and say, 'This is going to be huge in June when they go to the playoffs.' But every football game is a playoff atmosphere. That's why the stadiums are full, that's why the advertisers love us, the fans love us. So we have to protect that system and that's what saved the Green Bay Packers, revenue sharing and the fact that we do have a salary cap. Because we knew free agency was coming in the '90s, and our fear was if there was free agency with no salary cap, Green Bay's in trouble. There's no doubt about it. But Pete Rozelle gets credit for the first, Paul Tagliabue and Gene Upshaw get credit for the second, and I just hope the system stays in place.

I was lucky. During the 19 years I was CEO, we never had major labor problems. Pete Rozelle, at the end of his career, had huge labor problems, and it probably drove him out of the job. But Paul did an excellent job of maintaining peace. The fans don't want to hear about labor problems. They don't want to hear that a millionaire ballplayer is unhappy with his working conditions. I'm just not sure how many more big labor problems any league can take, because the fans are not going to put up with it.

What role will you have with the organization moving forward, and with Mark?

The only thing I really told Mark I would do is, particularly in this first year as we're trying to get over certain humps, is I'll just be at his beck-and-call whenever he wants me. Whether he wants to call me on the phone or wants me to come in for a meeting or what have you. I'm going to go to the league's annual meeting in March to help him meet other owners and general managers and coaches and things like that. And the organization has been kind enough to give me an office here, which I really do appreciate. I'd hate to just walk out the door and have that be it. But yet, I have to pick my times. I have to be very choosy when I'm going to use the office. I can't walk the hallways every day and be at that desk every day. It sends the wrong message to the staff. So I'll be a weekend guy. I'll coming in Saturday afternoon, Sunday afternoon when nobody is here, and that's when I'll be here.

But I am going to do some goodwill things for the organization. I'm booked for some speaking appearances. I'm going to take part in Fan Fest. I've told the community relations department if they want me to take the bus tour with them when we go out this spring, I'll be glad to do that again. I'll do anything I can. For some of these weekend events, I'll just stand outside the door and greet people if that's what they want me to do, because I'd like to keep a connection with the fans, frankly. And secondly, I'm still on the board of directors of the Packers Hall of Fame, and I feel if I've got the connection with the Packers, the connection with the Hall of Fame, that's good enough. I hope I can still contribute in some way. I've got a great love for this franchise, a great love for this stadium, and I'd love to stay part of it.

What are you most looking forward to about retirement, and how will you spend your newfound free time?

I think first of all I owe my wife a lot of things. Raising three boys ... I was in a job in baseball before I came here where I just traveled all the time or was at the baseball park all the time. You're always playing night games, it's a horrendous schedule. And then when I came here, I had a lot of traveling, a lot of league meetings and things to do. So I owe her some time where we may just do something as simple as hop in the car and take a cross-country trip and stop whenever we want to stop and go wherever we want to go. It will be unusual for me not to have a schedule, and I think that will be a strange thing for me because I feel like I've been on a schedule my whole life. If I wake up at 5:30 in the morning now, I have to get up. But I might wake up at 5:30 and turn over and go back to sleep. I don't have to worry about it now.

Something as simple as on a weekend when the team is on the road - I've traveled for 37 years with the team - I'd like to get up on a beautiful fall Saturday, maybe go out for a nice walk, come back, watch some college football, drive down to Madison, see the Badgers play. Things like that. They're simple things, but I really haven't done them. We've got a place in Door County, right on the water and everything. We've owned it for nine years, and I have yet to spend a full week there. I'm there two or three days and I start worrying and think I'd better get back to 1265 and see what's going on. I don't have to do that anymore. Not that I won't miss a lot of it, or not that this is easy, but yet there are things I think I will enjoy, the fact that I don't have to be at the airport at this time or be at this meeting at this time and so forth. Some of that will be kind of a pleasant change for me, because I've lived that way for, well, I've worked here 37 years, I was with the Cardinals for five and at Marquette for six. That's a long time to be at work every day and on a schedule every day.

Will you still come to the home and/or road games?

I won't go to the road games. I will come to all the home games. I'm going to try to sit either with the scouts in their little booth, or maybe even with Ted in his booth. I would like to continue that. I've never sat in the executive committee booth all these years. I've always sat in the press box on the road and in a little booth at home. I'd like to continue to do that. But no, I won't go to the road games. I'd like to go to playoff games. Maybe if we get a chance and I'm invited to a playoff game, I might like to do that.

Aside from 1996, winning the NFC Championship at Lambeau Field and eventually the Super Bowl, what are some of your fondest memories throughout your Packers career?

I'll tell you what, before I got this job, I'd get three phone calls all the time. The first was, 'Bob, who's making the football decisions over there? Is it your board, is it your executive committee? You never win. Who's deciding to do these things?' Second call would be, 'You people don't care if you're 4-12 or 12-4. You're making money, you're sold out, you've got a waiting list. That's all you care about, making money.' And the third thing was, people would say, 'The Packers history is behind them. The Vince Lombardi era was the last great era this franchise is ever going to have.'

{sportsad300}So, I decided when I got the job that my No. 1 priority was I've got to find a way that we can win. And the key was to find this one person, at least this is the way I thought, who could come in here, take this thing by the neck and say, 'Bob, these are your problems. These are the things we need to correct.' And Ron Wolf had been in here in '87 for an interview for a job that eventually went to Tom Braatz, and I always thought, we've got to take a longer look at Ron Wolf if this opening ever occurs again, never thinking I'd be the one that would be faced with that question. But I was, and I didn't even have a second name on my list. I didn't have a second name on my list when I went after Ted. I knew what I wanted, I knew who I wanted, and he was the perfect guy. He came in here, hires Mike Holmgren, makes a trade for Brett Favre - and I caught a lot of heck on that too, because he was a brand new general manager, you know, 'Who's this guy dealing away our No. 1 pick?' - and he signed the most attractive free agent the National Football League may ever have in Reggie White. Those four were the foundation that brought us back.

So my first big thrill was a couple years later when we won the division. I couldn't believe we could win the division. I was thrilled to death that we won the division. And then all at once, we became consistent. We had 13 straight years of above .500 football, went to the playoffs 10 times, 11 times altogether. But in the 19 years I've been doing this, we've only had three losing seasons, went to the playoffs 11 years, won a Super Bowl. Just to see the football team grow and become important again was the greatest pleasure I got, outside of doing the stadium, because we had to do the stadium. But just to see that, you know, we can win again. And the whole key is your football leadership, and Ron Wolf and Mike Holmgren were just outstanding together. And Ted and Mike McCarthy I think are comparable to them. I think they're very strong.

The key hire for the president of the corporation is the general manager, and the bar has been raised now through what Ron Wolf and Mike Holmgren did here. And it should have been raised, the fans deserved better. But we've got to consistently find a way to win. I always tell everybody - the board, the staff - the most important thing we do is on Sunday afternoon. Everything else is great, but the reason we're here is to win football games. That's what your fans think. The fans love the stadium, they love the fact we're making money, but the most important thing to the fan is win - what are you going to do on Sunday? We got there again, and just that entire picture has given me great satisfaction, because after having four winning seasons in 20 years, we've had three losing seasons in 19 years. Thanks to Ron and Mike, they got it turned around for us.

Any last thoughts you'd like to share with the fans?

Just that this has been a real honor for me. This has been a real privilege for me to work for this organization. It's a great story. Best story in sports. And I've always considered it an honor. I hope people will just say that I made it better and left it in good shape for the person following me. I thought that was my responsibility, and I hope I've fulfilled that.

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