Commentary: Harlan takes place among greats

NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue tried to give praise to the Green Bay Packers during Saturday night's Hall of Fame ceremony at Lambeau Field.

He may need to work on his analogy, but the point was well-taken in honoring Packers president Bob Harlan, the year's sole enshrinee.

"(Harlan's) influence right now is what I call the Lemming Influence in the NFL. If you do something really well, a lot of people will copy what you're doing, and the Packers are doing well in terms of football, business and most of all serving the fans."

Lemmings, for those of you who aren't subscribers to National Geographic, are rodentlike animals who, as defined in Webster's New World Dictionary, "undertake spectacular mass migrations at peaks of population growth, ultimately drowning while trying to cross the sea."

The Packers were the ones who nearly drowned. The team lost a half-million bucks just four years after winning the Super Bowl. The price of competing in the NFL was getting too expensive for a franchise based in a community of about 100,000 people.

Harlan, the most quiet of sports executives, stepped out of the background and spent his every waking hour pushing the $295 million Lambeau Field renovation, which in large part would be paid for with a half-percent sales tax on Brown County residents totaling some $160 million.

County residents approved by a 53 percent to 47 percent margin the referendum. The rest, as they say is history. And the rest of the NFL's teams are trying their best to follow Harlan's master plan.

"It's been frequently said in the NFL that as soon as someone does something to show you how you can win, everyone else will do the same thing," Tagliabue said during a news conference before Saturday night's ceremony. "When Bill Wash won with a West Coast offense, everyone started to figure out how to have a West Coast offense. When Joe Gibbs won with a double tight end set, everyone tried to do that.

"Everyone is looking at the Packers and seeing a really long string of success. The last time I looked, the Packers were the most successful team in the league in terms of winning since we started a salary cap."

"So, people are looking at Green Bay and saying, ‘What's the formula they're using over there?' And now with the new stadium, with the fan service they have, I know for a fact that when teams come to play here, the owners go back home saying, ‘Why can't we have a facility like they have at Lambeau Field? Why can't we have fan service like at Lambeau Field? Why can't we have a Hall of Fame that is of the same quality? Why can't we have as many fans at our stadium seven days a week like they do?'"

That seven-day-a-week iron and brick cash register Harlan fought for is merely the salvation of the franchise. The Packers went from dire straits to 10th in the league in revenue last season. The team turned an after-tax profit of $20.8 million last fiscal year, not bad considering Lambeau and all of its amenities in the atrium were fully open only for the final eight months of the fiscal year.

The Lambeau Field renovation project, of course, isn't the only time Harlan saved the Packers.

While the stadium renovations saved the team from being fiscally irrelevant, his hiring of Ron Wolf in 1991 saved the team from simply being irrelevant.

Harlan is about as modest and unassuming as they come, and the hiring of Wolf showed it. How often do people in power willingly give up power? Never. Well, almost never. Harlan handed the keys to the football side of operations to Wolf and got out of the way. That less-is-more approach gave Wolf the freedom to hire Mike Holmgren and make a trade for some unknown quarterback by the name of Brett Favre. Wolf and Holmgren, in turn, lured Reggie White. White, in turn, helped lure Sean Jones and Keith Jackson and others.

Suddenly, the Packers were not irrelevant anymore. They were Super Bowl champions, and it all started with Harlan being humble enough and astute enough to recognize the fact the team needed a football man leading the football operation.

About a year ago, Harlan was honored by the team with the naming of the Robert Harlan Plaza outside the stadium's atrium. Located in the plaza are statues of the immortal Vince Lombardi and Curly Lambeau. Harlan was proud but a little uncomfortable with all the attention.

"Do I have an ego? No, I don't think so," Harlan told me at the time. "And it doesn't bother me. I want to do things that are best for this franchise and give the fans what they deserve. And they deserve a great deal because the history of this franchise is the fans have always been there to step forward and help the franchise when it's been in trouble. I want to make sure we give the fans a great stadium, a great football team and a great experience when they come."

Harlan has provided that. Hiring Wolf returned the football team — a league-best 117-59 since 1993 — to prominence, and the new and practically flawless Lambeau Field will keep the team there for decades. Which, of course, makes Harlan the easiest Hall of Fame choice since the induction of Lombardi.

"I'm very excited," Harlan, 67, said Saturday night. "The chance to be a permanent part of a hall and join a group of men who have raised this franchise to the heights it's reached means a great deal to me. I tell people all the time this is the best story in sports and I was thrilled to death when I came here in 1971 and that thrill has grown every single year. And this is the ultimate."

Huber writes for Contact him via e-mail at

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