When the Packers dedicated their redeveloped Lambeau Field in 2003, they placed enormous statues of the two most important men in the franchise’s history out front of their glistening atrium — Curly Lambeau, who co-founded the team and was one of its greatest coaches and players, and Vince Lombardi, who coached his 1960s teams to the club’s greatest on-field era.
But those two monuments are situated on Bob Harlan Plaza, an area dedicated to the former president/CEO who helped restore the franchise to its Lombardi-era glory by changing how the team did business and hiring the right man — Pro Football Hall of Fame general manager Ron Wolf — in 1991 after so many years of disappointment. Harlan’s wife, Madeline, said that at the time, her husband wasn’t sure he deserved such an honor.
So let’s be clear: He did, even if Harlan himself still isn’t so sure.
“I'm out there in the shadows of those two statues, two men who are the biggest names in the history of this franchise. One founded it and won six world championships, the other one saved it and won five championships,” Harlan said. “To be in an area with them, it means a great deal to me. I'm monumentally honored. That's what I am.”
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But even when pressed to put his accomplishments in perspective — from hiring Wolf to rebuild the football program, to getting the stadium referendum passed in 2000, to making tough decisions like pulling the team out of Milwaukee County Stadium in 1994 to play all of its home games at Lambeau — Harlan struggles to take credit for any of it.
“I've always thought that one thing I was able to do was hire good people, know good people, and then stay out of their way. Be available to them, but don't interfere with them,” he said. “I would hope that I have common sense. Sometimes we get into big debates, and I'll say, ‘Well, isn't this what we should do?’ Like the Milwaukee thing, it was common sense, so we adopted the idea that we were abandoning the stadium, but not abandoning our fans. I said, ‘We've got to bring those people up here.’ That, to me, was just a common sense thing.
“I pride myself on, I don't know if it's a quality or not, but that I will look at something that seems complicated and find a very simple solution. Don't make it more difficult than it should be.”
And as Wolf will attest, Harlan never made it difficult for him to get his job done.
“I don't think any employee could have asked for anything more than he gave me. He gave me that opportunity, and I'm deeply indebted to him,'' Wolf said. "It was in my hands to sink or swim, and we swam quite a distance.”