Seven months have passed since Packers President Bob Harlan announced plans to renovate 43-year-old Lambeau Field. After many long days and sleepless nights, the front office leader is bracing for the September 12 Brown County referendum, when the future of the historic stadium will be decided by the residents closest to the hometown team.
Should the referendum pass, thus funding the redevelopment through a 0.5% sales tax increase in Brown County, Wisconsin, the Packers will be playing in one of the most state-of-the-art facilities in the NFL by 2003.
Construction will begin after the conclusion of the 2000 season and continue through the following two seasons. The Packers will continue to play at Lambeau Field during that time, with construction taking place on the complex's exterior during football months.
In addition to addressing safety and convenience issues throughout the stadium's concourse, Harlan believes revenue from the new stadium would allow the team to stay competitive in an ever-changing NFL world of skyboxes and signing bonuses.
He also wants to insure that one of the oldest and most storied stadiums in all of sports will be seen by future generations.
"When we won the Super Bowl in 1996, Commissioner Paul Tagliabue was touring the state of Wisconsin going to the various training camps here," Harlan said. "He told our executive committee that the Packers winning the Super Bowl was the best thing that had happened in pro sports in years, because it's small town America - blue collar America. It's a team that's owned by the fans. He said it took everybody back to a simpler time. I thought that was a great description, because that's exactly what it did. "You've got 80 years of tradition here and 12 world championships. In this particular stadium, you've got the entire Lombardi era, and you've got everything Mike Holmgren and Ron Wolf accomplished. A major part of the greatest history in sports took place right out on this field. To give up this stadium, I think, would be a devastating situation."
Few NFL stadiums have hosted as many classic moments, and certainly no other venue has played such a significant role in the games themselves. On December 31, 1967, the world tuned in to Lambeau Field as the Packers played host to the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL Championship game. In what will forever be known as "The Ice Bowl," Green Bay prevailed on a last minute, one-yard Bart Starr quarterback sneak to defeat the Cowboys 21-17 amid 15-mile-per-hour winds and -13° temperatures.
Two years earlier, the Packers defeated the Browns 23-12 to win the league title on an icy, muddy Lambeau Field. Cleveland great Jim Brown was slowed to 50 yards rushing for the game, while the Packers' tandem of Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung felt at home, gaining 201 total yards on the ground.
More recently, the Packers celebrated their first title since the 1967 season when they defeated the Carolina Panthers 30-13 at Lambeau Field in the 1996 NFC Championship. What the game lacked in suspense, it made up for in significance: the victory sent the team to the Super Bowl for the first time in 29 years and marked the Packers' return to prominence among the NFL's elite.
"Certainly the Ice Bowl was huge, but in my time here, of all the great games here, without a doubt the most exciting moment for me was to stand in the North end zone for the last two minutes of the NFC Championship Game against Carolina," said Harlan. "When that game ended, to see the happiness at so many different levels in the stadium was amazing. The players were jumping up and down on the field like a bunch of kids at a playground, and up in the stands people were hugging each other and giving hi-fives. Then you look up into the private boxes and people are waving towels. The extreme happiness of waiting for something that I think a lot of people never thought would happen again - with free agency, people said the Packers would be the first team to crumble - here we were going to the Super Bowl. Even though winning the Super Bowl was the ultimate, I will never forget the happiness that people felt that day at Lambeau Field." All-time, the Pack is 124-76-4 within the confines of Lambeau Field, including a perfect, 10-0 postseason record.
It is a distinct home-field advantage that Harlan is convinced is worth saving.
"We haven't gone back to the fans since 1956 when we wanted to build this stadium," he said. "In the meantime, we've put over $50 million of our money to keep this up. The money that comes from the people will be used to refurbish a 43-year-old public facility. In my mind, even with all the great modern buildings in the league right now, nothing tops this, because you're able to save the intimacy and you're able to save the tradition. This stadium can't be built again, because with today's building codes everything is so much larger. We're saving tradition, and at the same time we're going to make it a modern NFL stadium. It's a great package to deliver to fans and the city."