Why former Packers GM Ron Wolf should be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame
This story appears in the January-February 2015 issue of Packerland Pride magazine. Subscribe to the magazine here.
When he was hired by the Green Bay Packers in November of 1991 Ron Wolf clearly came in with a plan to revitalize the downtrodden Packers, a franchise nostalgic for the Glory Years but stuck living in the gory ones.
But without execution, even the best-laid plans are just wishes.
Although most of his defining career moments came during what happened in the following decade in Titletown, Wolf wasn’t new to the pro game. He worked under Al Davis with the Oakland Raiders for close to 30 years. There, he was part of the drafting process that landed foundational Raiders players – the likes of Howie Long, Gene Upshaw, Ken Stabler, Jack Tatum, Marcus Allen – and by extension the three eventual Super Bowl championships that came as a result in 1976, ‘80, and ‘83. A lot of what Wolf touched in Oakland turned to championship silver. Working under Davis and, before Green Bay, for the New York Jets as director of player personnel, Wolf trusted his vision and work, then stuck to what he thought was the right way to go. In that intuitive way, Wolf knew what was needed, then went and got it.
Arriving in Green Bay, Wolf first needed the promise of complete control. The Packers, when interviewing him for the same position in 1987, didn’t offer that, so Wolf couldn’t accept. In ‘91 that changed, as team president Bob Harlan wisely promised Wolf that he’d have total authorship over whatever the Packers would become as a football team. Things were bad enough in Green Bay that new routes had to be taken, quickly.
The 1960s are beloved here because of what they were by themselves, but the Glory Years were also clung to so hard because, for the ‘70s and ‘80s and start of the ‘90s, no one thought it’d ever feel like that again. It’s nearly impossible now to imagine if you weren’t around for them, but the Packers were a joke in the NFL prior to the franchise’s revival under Wolf. The team had four winning seasons in 22 years before Wolf. It’s a story oft-told but still maybe not enough: How little was expected in Green Bay not just in the near future – after two decades of being pulverized by average-to-awful football getting worse – but ever again. The Packers have endured two losing seasons in 22 years since Wolf was hired.
“I think one of the things that bothered me so much, in talking to our fans, was the way our fan base had almost given up on us,” Bob Harlan said in an interview with Mike Vandermause of the Green Bay Press-Gazette in 2011. “They would just tell me, the league has passed us by. We’re never going to win again. They loved the team, but they were losing hope.”
Even the most born-into-success Packers fans who maybe know nothing but Aaron Rodgers and Jordy Nelson and the last years of Brett Favre probably understand that Wolf is the pivot from that darkness to the daylight, the constant contending, the model built for sustained success. And yet, you can’t really overstate what that change meant, can you? Not when it reiterates how good we all have it now. How so much of Green Bay’s standing today – as an organization, as a team on the field, as a world-class facility in Lambeau Field, as a model NFL city as a whole – funnels right back to Wolf. Think about it: When’s the last time your hopes for the Packers were anything less than lofty? When’s the last time you weren’t sure you had any left?
To bring the Packers back from the dead, Ron Wolf needed a few things to happen the way they ended up happening. Wolf needed a championship-winning offensive guru to turn into a successful first-time NFL head coach. Wolf needed a little known quarterback he’d been following since college, at the time buried on the Atlanta Falcons’ depth chart, to become a three-time league Most Valuable Player, a Super Bowl champion. For Brett Favre to end up as one of the greatest at the position ever. He needed a terrorizing defensive end in his 30s, a free agent in the unknown early dawn of free agency, to choose a big contract from the smallest city in the league. For Reggie White to begin a second act as the focal point of Green Bay’s punishing defenses of the 1990s.
Ron Wolf needed all those things to line up right. But White, Favre, Mike Holmgren, and, most of all, the Green Bay Packers, needed Wolf to first see, then carry out, these moves. Wolf’s vision, instincts, and honed skill to make franchise-altering a reality. If Green Bay was starving for hope, Wolf showed up with a whole buffet spread.
He needed things to shake out right along the way. Like Rick Mirer – then a highly sought-after quarterback at Notre Dame, one both Holmgren and Wolf were said to like as a prospect at the time – deciding he wouldn’t enter the 1992 draft. Thus making the shot on the Favre trade all the more worth taking. If Wolf needed a sign that maybe his plan was still heading down the right road, he got those, too. Then he put them in motion. He leveraged differences of opinion on Favre in the Atlanta braintrust and used careful, consistent negotiating to finally pry his franchise quarterback from the Falcons. Just like he’d always planned.
Actually, we know Wolf’s plan. With Paul Attner, Wolf wrote a book in 1998: “The Packer Way: Nine Stepping Stones to Building a Winning Organization.” In it, Wolf lays out those nine steps:
1. Identify what needs to be fixed.
2. Hire the best – before anyone else does.
3. Develop an obsession with winning today.
4. Play to your strengths.
5. Use the four C’s – Certain Devotion, Certain Dedication, Certain Work Ethic, Certain Results – to measure performance.
6. Making it work.
7. Keeping it going.
8. Handling the unexpected.
9. Staying on top.
It has been 14 years since Wolf retired as general manager of the Packers. His presence here is undeniable today like it was when he hired Holmgren not even two full months into his new job, after Wolf saw one Lindy Infante-led practice. Harlan, in the same ‘11 interview with Vandermause, remembers his new general manager’s instant impression of a team about to be overhauled.
“He’s (Wolf) in my office within an hour and he says, ‘Got a problem on your practice field. It’s a country club atmosphere down there. This club is 4-10, they’re walking around like they’re 10-4. We’re going to make changes,’” Harlan said. “I knew Lindy was gone.”
Everything that’s happening today started with Wolf. He fixed what needed fixing; hired, traded for, or signed the best; electro-shocked winning and all-important hope and belief back into Green Bay’s ready-and-waiting bloodstream. He won a Super Bowl for the first time since Lombardi bellowed on the sidelines here and, despite his best efforts, couldn’t stop enlarged egos from cutting off a repeat against the underdog Denver Broncos the next season. Wolf’s most haunting ghost is that Super Bowl loss. His words bleed hurt through quotes about that game, but his famous line on it remains blunt as ever from the night it happened: “We’re a one-year wonder, just a fart in the wind.”
Indeed, if that’s Wolf’s lasting pang of regret, it’s safe to say the Packers haven’t been a one-year wonder by modern day measures. You don’t have to recover from getting that close to a championship and falling short. And parity in today’s league makes close calls like that all the more painful because of the degree of difficulty in getting another chance.
But it also makes the expectation, and glory of, winning a championship – while all the more perilously impossible to achieve – endlessly rewarding should it happen again. One of Wolf’s lasting impressions to this day in Green Bay is that the standard for disappointment was reset to its old higher level during the Lombardi years. In other words, you would not be disappointed today by what made up much of the ‘70s and ‘80s, because disappointment simply isn’t a strong enough word.
The other part of building up to the standard today started when Wolf hired a guy to the personnel department in 1992. Ted Thompson had no similar experience before that, but spent eight years learning and growing as a player evaluator under Wolf. When Holmgren left for Seattle he brought Thompson along with as vice president of football operations and began building his own team. It’s probably safe to guess that, in Thompson, Holmgren was hoping for Wolf’s clone. And it turns out Thompson’s personnel choices largely contributed to Holmgren’s best season in Seattle. With many key players that Thompson drafted, the Seahawks reached the Super Bowl in 2005, the same year Thompson returned to Green Bay.
Thompson has been up and down in the crucible of public opinion since then, but hardly ever in how he’s actually built the Packers into their current form. The 2010 Super Bowl championship team closely resembles another title team of the recent past in its pillars of strength: An offensive-minded head coach who happens to be a quarterback-teaching guru, a quarterback in the midst of writing his own legend in Green Bay, a team getting major contributions from draft picks all across the field, and one carefully selected and signed veteran defensive free agent, a player in Charles Woodson that meant as much off the field as he did on it. And if it’s volume you’re looking for, Wolf’s influence has also produced team builders in Seattle’s John Schneider, Kansas City’s John Dorsey, Reggie McKenzie in Oakland, and former 49ers, now Washington general manager Scot McCloughan.
On January 31 at a meeting of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee in Phoenix, Arizona, Ron Wolf needs 80 percent of the 46 committee members to vote him into the Hall as a contributor. Contributor reads like an understatement when considering Wolf’s worthy career but sure, if that’s what it takes, we’ll go with it.
Anyway, Wolf has always had a plan. Often they’ve worked out; sometimes, as is the case with Favre, White, and Holmgren – and even in a way, Thompson – the plan reached heights probably no one would have assumed possible at the plan’s start.
If the goal of a general manager is to first assemble the best team possible and hit on most draft picks, then give those players the best coaching available; all the support needed to foster a long-term winning environment. (In a place where that was once long-gone.) And then, theoretically, to maintain a standard of success with the consistent aim of winning an elusive championship at least staying in the middle of the target, well, we think Wolf has checked a few of those boxes, no?
After the Packers beat the Carolina Panthers in the 1996-’97 NFC Championship game, advancing to the Super Bowl that Wolf will always be remembered first by, he said in a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story, “I’ll be here. What I said from the get-go was the truth: That I’m not the important issue here. The important issue here is this season and this football team and once this is over with, they can take care of Ron Wolf.
“And the Green Bay Packers will have no problem with Ron Wolf.”
For all his planning, it’s hard to imagine Ron Wolf knowing how true that statement would still be 14 years since his retirement. He left the Packers full of life and changed Green Bay from the pre-Wolf decades to the resurgence it still enjoys now. A place where staying on top is a hope that feels an awful lot like an expectation.