While Wolf made the moves that restored the Packers to prominence after Harlan hired him as general manager in November 1991 — firing coach Lindy Infante and replacing him with Mike Holmgren; trading a 1992 first-round draft pick for quarterback Brett Favre; signing transformative free-agent defensive end Reggie White in 1993 — what’s even more remarkable is that the Packers had a chance to hire Wolf four years earlier.
And blew it.
Yes, in 1987, Wolf interviewed for the Packers’ GM job. For that interview, Harlan had picked Wolf up at the airport the night before. But the Packers and team president Robert Parins made such a bad impression on Wolf that he pulled his name out of consideration afterward. When he stopped by Harlan’s office after the interview and Harlan, then the assistant to Parins, offered to take him out to lunch, Wolf wasn’t interested.
“He said, ‘No, take me to the airport,’” Harlan recalled. “Ron couldn’t wait to get out of town.”
The Packers ended up hiring Tom Braatz instead, and while Braatz was a smart football man and a quality talent evaluator, Parins inexplicably hired Infante to replace Forrest Gregg as coach a year later and gave Infante and Braatz a bizarre 50-50 split of authority on football decisions.
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After Harlan assumed the presidency on June 5, 1989, he came to believe the structure was flawed. He fired Braatz late in the 1991 season and immediately went after Wolf, who of course went on to build the roster that won Super Bowl XXXI, the Packers’ first championship after a 29-year drought. Wolf was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2015.
“I knew what he would want to hear if we wanted to get him. And I was not letting him get away again. I said, ‘I’m going to talk to you until you say yes.’ I’d made up my mind,” Harlan said. “We were coming off 24 years of mediocre football, and I felt we had reached the point where we had to change the way we were doing business. The executive committee, they were all fine businessmen but they weren’t football people. I thought we needed a change and bring in a strong football person and guarantee him there would be no interference from the board. The way we were doing it, it wasn’t working.
“I knew what Ron needed: He needed full authority. I knew if we didn’t give him that, he wouldn’t leave the job he had. Once we gave him that, the negotiation was very short.”
Jason Wilde covers the Packers for ESPN Wisconsin. Listen to him with former Packers and Badgers offensive lineman Mark Tauscher weekdays from 9 a.m. until noon on “Wilde & Tausch” on 100.5 FM ESPN Madison.