Ron Wolf learned one key lesson from his three-year stint as vice president of operations of the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“I kind of laid a huge egg in Tampa,” Wolf said on Tuesday in a conference call promoting his upcoming induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “I knew what I did improperly, what I did wrong and I vowed if I ever got that opportunity again that would never happen. We were going to do it my way.”
Wolf did it his way in perhaps the most important decision he’d make with the Green Bay Packers. In 1992, Wolf decided to send one of the team’s two first-round draft picks to Atlanta to acquire Brett Favre.
Arguably the best trade in NFL history almost never happened. Favre failed his physical because of his hip.
“The doctor and the trainer came up and told me he couldn’t pass the physical and we’d have to send him back to Atlanta,” Wolf recalled. “I had to find out what the problem was. I called our orthopedist and he explained to me the situation. For whatever reason, he did not examine Brett but he knew the story inside and out. I found out exactly what the deal was and I went down and told the guys we were going to take Brett Favre because of what the (orthopedist) had told me. The rest, as they say, is history.”
Glorious history for the Packers and Wolf, alike. Under Wolf, the Buccaneers went 7-37 — including the infamous 0-26 start. With Wolf and the quarterback he just had to have, the Packers went 92-52, made the playoffs in six of the nine seasons and won one Super Bowl.
“I made a deal for Brett Favre and turned the whole thing around up here,” Wolf said. “It’s no different than anyone else. You have a quarterback in professional football, you’re going to be successful.”
Favre made the Packers successful but the Packers needed a version of Favre on defense to get to the top of the mountain for the first time in three decades. That man would be Reggie White. It was a franchise-changing transaction, and not just because of White’s indomitable presence on the field.
“What we were fighting was the perception that Green Bay was a terrible place to play,” Wolf said. “This was a stigma that we did our best to attempt to erase. It came down to just having the belief that we could be represented again here in Green Bay, Wis., as a professional football franchise and power. To have an opportunity to get a player the caliber of Reggie White — once every 25 years a player of his caliber comes through. We had great recruiting done by our people within our framework of our organization. As everyone probably knows now, we paid more money than everybody else. I think the money might have won that.”
Trading a first-round pick for a third-string quarterback. Courting one of the best defensive players of all-time to come to little Green Bay. It was Wolf doing things his way. Wolf was just 24 when he was hired to be a scout for the Raiders and merely 36 when he got his shot with the fledgling Buccaneers. As sand slipped through the hourglass and Wolf’s 50th birthday came and went, he figured he’d never get another shot to run the club. But then Bob Harlan gave Wolf, with his 53rd birthday approaching, complete control over the Packers’ football operations.
“I just wanted to get my foot in the door,” Wolf said. “I didn’t care where it was. I just wanted to have an opportunity to prove that I can carry the load. I learned an awful lot from (the Raiders’) Al Davis. My year-and-a-half with Dick Steinberg with the Jets after I left the Raiders was so impactful for me because he showed me so many different ways of doing the same thing. I was able to take what he gave me, tweak it a little bit and bring it in here.
“I was also very fortunate to hire some outstanding young talent, five of whom are out there right now as general managers in the NFL. Twenty-nine general managers, five guys started with me up in Green Bay (Ted Thompson, Kansas City’s John Dorsey, Washington’s Scot McCloughan, Oakland’s Reggie McKenzie and Seattle’s John Schneider). I know I’m long-winded here, but I didn’t care about the position. I just wanted the opportunity and I was given the opportunity. Fortunately, I was able to get Brett Favre in a trade and that changed everything.”
It changed the fate of a franchise and the fate of one of the best personnel men in NFL history. On Aug. 8, Wolf will be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His son, Eliot, will be his presenter. At halftime of the Nov. 15 game against Detroit, Wolf’s name will be added to the list of Hall of Famers inside Lambeau Field.
If Wolf had earned his Hall of Fame credentials in Tampa Bay, that would have been great. But as a historian and student of the game, doing it in Green Bay makes it more meaningful.
“I was very fortunate to end my career with the Packers,” he said. “When I took the job, I did not realize exactly what I was walking into. Every time you’d turn around in Green Bay, you were bumping into the history of the National Football League. My opinion, this and $8 dollars gets you Starbucks, it’s probably where the Hall of Fame should be because of what it represents and what it means. But you walk into Lambeau Field, for example, and you look up at that ring that surrounds Lambeau Field and you see those names, you see greatness on the gridiron, greatness in the profession. For me to be just a small part of that, I’m just tickled pink.”
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.