With his impending retirement, it is fitting to analyze the impact that Bob Harlan has had on the Packer organization. His moves since he climbed to his current position in 1989 have had a lasting effect on this team. Let us take a look at his high points and low points.
Hired Ron Wolf – Wolf hired Mike Holmgren and traded for Brett Favre. He signed many of the free agents, like Reggie White, and drafted the team that went to two Super Bowls and won the first. Wolf, with Harlan's backing, built a championship team that contended for close to a decade. They brought the title back to Titletown. Unlike many owners and decision makers is they do not hire football people and let them do what they do best. Harlan did that with Wolf.
The Renovated Lambeau Field – Harlan worked tirelessly to sell the financing of the renovated stadium that guaranteed that the team would be financially secure and could stay in town. Green Bay is my home and I love living here, but without the Packers it is Fargo, N.D. No offense intended to Fargo, but it does not get national coverage on a daily basis. The renovation vaulted the team into the top half of NFL teams in terms of revenue and makes it possible for them to compete on and off the field.
Ray Rhodes – His one year was a disaster.
Mike Sherman as General Manager – I will not quibble with the hiring of Mike Sherman as head coach any more than I will with the hiring of any unknown coach, but elevating him to GM was a mistake. Ron Wolf was partly responsible for this, but Harlan has said that his gut was against it, but he did it anyway. He should have trusted his gut. The current team is nearly devoid of talent from Sherman's years as GM and will continue to struggle because of it. It is my belief that the Head Coach and GM positions have to be separated. Those are in virtually all instances contradictory positions.
Coaches feel they must win today; GM's have to weigh today with tomorrow. They are in some instances contradictory positions. One man, unless he is secure in himself and has the power and leverage, cannot do both. Mike Sherman had no history or experience in player evaluation. It showed in both his drafts and his drafting method. Too many times he traded up to get a player that most folks would have considered a reach.
On the whole, a newly renovated stadium and a Super Bowl Championship on your resume ensures you a lasting place in team history. The Ray Rhodes/Mike Sherman decisions do not distract from that legacy. As things look currently, Bob Harlan goes down in Packer history as one of the giants.
It may seem premature to anoint him so, being that some of his most important decisions have yet to play out. We will have to wait to see if Ted Thompson, Mike McCarthy and John Jones live up to the faith Harlan has in them. If they do not, then his legacy of hiring quality people will bear out. If they stumble, it will be tarnished significantly.
The team president is judged by the people you hire in the pivotal positions, and that generally is the general manager and head coach. If the Packers end up with only one good coach (Holmgren) out of the four that were hired on his watch, criticism would come his way. The same is true if only one of the three general managers he has hired has a positive track record.
The people Harlan has hired will have run this team since 1989. Assuming Thompson and McCarthy play out their current contracts, Harlan will have directly and indirectly led this team for almost 20 years. If you go back 20 years before Harlan's ascendance to the top, the Packers did not win anything and were woeful to say the least. Harlan to his credit has overseen the franchise's resurgence in that time and guaranteed its health for a long time.
Yet, if in that time, the Packers have but one World Championship, it would not be satisfactory in anyone's eyes. Unless Thompson and McCarthy get them back to winning, then his legacy will be muddled at best.
This may seem harsh and cruel, but that is the nature of the business. Harlan has fired men for less. Pro football is a results driven business and the big salaries and big titles are the reward for results. But with greatness comes responsibility to paraphrase Winston Churchill. And with responsibility comes accountability. And ultimately accountability rests on the shoulders of the man at the top.
Editor's note: John Lombardi is the grandson of legendary coach Vince Lombardi. His football experience includes stints with two teams in the World League (now NFL Europe); in the scouting departments of the Cleveland Browns and Tennessee Titans; and graduate assistant coach and director of football operations at Vanderbilt. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.