Behind the scenes, Harlan led Packers' resurgence Print
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Thursday, 24 May 2007 16:34
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 GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) -Green Bay Packers fans will remember Bob Harlan as the humble executive who presided over the team's resurgence and sealed the franchise's future by turning Lambeau Field into a treasure chest.
They'll brag about the times they wrote Harlan a letter and he actually called them back.
But Harlan snickers about his lesser-known claim to fame: Well before he became a big cheese among cheeseheads, he still found ways to get into Packers games without ever having to pay for a ticket.
``Not to this day - I still haven't,'' Harlan said. ``And they're going to give me a couple tickets when I leave.''
Harlan joined the Packers as an assistant general manager in 1971 and has spent the past 18 seasons as the top executive of the NFL's only publicly owned franchise. Next Wednesday, he'll hand the helm to his hand-picked successor, former NFL management council negotiator John Jones.
On Harlan's watch, the Packers won a Super Bowl with general manager Ron Wolf, coach Mike Holmgren, quarterback Brett Favre and defensive lineman Reggie White.
``Bob Harlan has meant as much to the Packers as anyone in the history of the franchise,'' Favre said in a statement. ``He's indirectly responsible for bringing me here because he signed Ron Wolf, and I can't thank him enough for that. Bob's a humble, brilliant guy who has done an incredible amount of good not just for the Packers, but also for the community. He's a perfect representation of what a president of an organization should be.''
Harlan's most lasting achievement came in 2000, when he worked himself to the brink of exhaustion to convince voters to narrowly pass a referendum contributing $169.1 million in public money toward the $295 million renovation of Lambeau Field.
Today, the stadium's dazzling atrium area attracts visitors throughout the offseason, boosting the small-market Packers to seventh among NFL teams in revenue.
As Harlan prepares for retirement, he still vividly remembers cheering for the Packers as a student at Marquette in the mid-1950s.
Harlan and his buddies used to hitchhike out to Milwaukee's County Stadium and slip through a hole in the fence to watch the Packers play. Then there was his first road trip to Green Bay: He razzed a classmate all the way up about whether the remote city had indoor plumbing and electricity. Then he weaseled his way into old City Stadium without paying.
``I just kind of got in the middle of the crowd and I just kept walking,'' Harlan said. ``Nobody ever said, 'You got a ticket?' Then I went and I stood on the track and watched the whole ballgame, right behind the benches. It was amazing.''
In an age when NFL team owners often hover over their general manager's shoulder, strut for attention on the sideline or sit shielded from the commoners in a luxury suite, Harlan retains the folksy charm, humility and sincerity that made him a perfect fit in Green Bay.
Harlan is proud of his hands-off approach to football decisions, taking none of the credit for the 1997 Super Bowl victory engineered by Wolf and Holmgren and carried out by the players.
``They're the ones who did it,'' Harlan said.
Harlan always figured it was best to hire good people and let them do their jobs.
``That doesn't sound like a whole lot, but it is hugely important in this day (and) age for football organizations,'' Holmgren said. ``I think any time you talk about that time (with) the Green Bay Packers and what has happened over the years, and certainly it continued to happen after I left, you have to point to the guy that is at the top, and that was Bob Harlan.''
And though Harlan knows it's out of the ordinary for a team executive to answer his own office phone and talk to fans, it never seemed like a big deal to him.
He'd get regular calls from Mario the barber in New York and advice on player signings from Louie in Boston. Nuns wrote in to say they were praying for the Packers every Sunday. Someone sent Harlan a rosary with green and gold beads.
One Wisconsin couple even wrote a poetic tribute to Harlan and had it engraved on a plaque. It's sitting on a shelf in his office.
``I hope I've made friends by calling people back, because I hope they know that it's a genuine call,'' Harlan said. ``And it is. I'm not doing it to say, 'Hey, I call fans back' or 'Hey, I answer my own phone.' I'm doing it because I want to.''
Harlan put his connection with the fans to the test during the stadium referendum in 2000. Unlike other sports teams seeking public money, the Packers couldn't threaten to leave town. Their unique ownership structure prohibits it; besides, threats aren't Harlan's style.
Instead, Harlan had to make the case that without revenue from a renovated Lambeau, the franchise would fade into irrelevance. Polls showed a dead heat a few days before the vote.
``It did wear me down,'' Harlan said. ``I'd drive home a lot of nights thinking, 'We're not going to win this thing.'''
It passed: 53 percent for, 47 percent against.
``If we had lost it, we would be sitting at the bottom of the league in revenue, with absolutely no future,'' Harlan said.
Today, the franchise has more than $100 million in reserve, called its ``preservation fund.''
Although Harlan has reached 70, a mandatory retirement age under team bylaws, he said he's ready to step aside anyway. He'll become the Packers' chairman emeritus and remain involved in community relations. But he'll keep a low profile so people don't think he's spying on his successor.
His advice to Jones: Keep listening to the fans.
``I get a lot of letters from fans who say, 'It's a class organization,''' Harlan said. ``Retain that class. It's been very important to me.''
Asked to sum up his tenure, Harlan briefly choked up and stammered through his emotions.
``It was more than ... it was not a job,'' he said, pausing to apologize for losing his composure. ``It was a great honor. It was a great honor. And I will miss it a little bit, yeah. I really will. But I'm going to be fine.''
 

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