CANTON, Ohio – Ron Wolf put on the “Gold Jacket” last night, and when the prepared video that announced Wolf to the stage at the Canton Civic Center trumpeted his name, it credited Wolf with the re-birth of the Green Bay Packers. It’s his identity. He resurrected the most storied franchise in professional football.
What if he hadn’t been hired? What if Bob Harlan had decided on another man to preside over the football fortunes of the franchise? What if the Packers hadn’t traded for Brett Favre and hadn’t signed Reggie White in free agency? What if another man had made the same mistakes the Packers had been making since Vince Lombardi left Green Bay for Washington?
“I believe he was the only serious candidate. Bob Harlan had some other names in mind. Bill Tobin was one,” Packers team historian Cliff Christl said.
Yeah, that Bill Tobin, the one of “Who the hell is Mel Kiper?” fame.
Sometimes you just need to get lucky. The Packers did. They got Wolf, and then they got Favre and White, and it’s not an exaggeration to say good fortune saved the franchise and landed Wolf in Canton as one of the first two Hall of Famers to be enshrined in the “contributors” category.
“I don’t think people grasped how interest had waned in the franchise,” Christl said. “The joke in town was I left two Packers tickets on my dashboard and when I came back there were four. That was closer to the truth than you think.
“They were the dregs of the NFL. I’m not just talking about ’91, I’m talking about for an extended period. It was the Packers, the Bucs and the Saints.”
In the final home game of the 1991 season, 43,881 Packers fans, chilled by 10-degree temperatures and what would finish as a 4-12 season, spread out over Lambeau Field’s bleacher seats. It was not a pretty sight. It was a lot of no-shows in an old stadium that had dipped beneath NFL standards, in a league that was about to begin a stadium-building boom.
There was danger in the air. Was this a franchise headed for Milwaukee?
“Frank Deford (of Sports Illustrated) floated the idea. I don’t think that would’ve been out of the realm of possibility,” Christl said. “It’s conceivable the NFL could have at some point rescinded the franchise. Can you imagine the Packers surviving in a bare-bones Lambeau Field?”
A new breed of owners was emerging, led by Jerry Jones and his penchant for excess. Nothing about Lambeau Field was excess. It was Spartan in every way.
“In 1996, one NFL owner expressed at a league meeting who cares if these farmers are in the league or not? Visiting owners we’re becoming flamboyant. The new owners didn’t appreciate the value of this franchise. They wouldn’t have known what they lost,” Christl said.
In marched Wolf, but what if he hadn’t? Would the Packers be sharing a Miller Field type of stadium with the Brewers in Milwaukee? As we celebrate Wolf’s enshrinement this weekend, consider those two questions.
“Wolf inherited a situation every bit as dire as Lombardi did – the Packers were stumbling toward a 4-12 finish and the losing had gone on for 24 years – and the NFL was about to experience another period of tremendous growth as a result of new stadium construction and around-the-clock media coverage,” Christl recently wrote in an article ranking the most important men in Packers history. Christl ranked Wolf No. 3 behind Curly Lambeau and Lombardi.
“Again, history tells us the Packers might not have been able to keep up if they hadn’t started winning. Under Wolf’s reign, the Packers tied for the second-best record in the NFL and went from being the butt of jokes – no more ‘Battle of the Bays’ vs. comparably hapless Tampa –to the envy of other owners,” Christl wrote.
Wolf replaced Tom Braatz as GM.
“Tom Braatz was a Wisconsin guy. He was a little conservative and that’s the rut this franchise was stuck in. They needed somebody to come in here and take some chances. That’s what Wolf did,” Christl said.
“What were you going to do, buy a Randy Wright or Brent Fulwood jersey? They had no stars. (The franchise) was becoming financially obsolete. They were a victim of their own inertia. They just couldn’t get out of their own rut. It was hard to put your finger on any one thing because it was everything.”
Wolf changed it all, and it began with one decision, to trade for Favre.
What if he hadn’t?