Publisher’s note: This is an excerpt from “Building a Champion: 1996 Green Bay Packers,” by Ken Crippen, who is the executive director of the Professional Football Researchers Association. This excerpt is published courtesy of Crippen. To read all of this excellent piece, which includes an exclusive interview with Ron Wolf, CLICK HERE.
After Vince Lombardi resigned following the Green Bay Packers’ victory Super Bowl II, defensive coordinator Phil Bengtson assumed the head coaching duties. Over the next two-plus decades, the team struggled to find its way. With only two ten-win seasons (10-4 in 1972 and 10-6 in 1989), the championships of the past were a distant memory.
Enter Ron Wolf.
He started his professional career as a talent scout for the Oakland Raiders in 1963 and left after the 1974 season to take the job as general manager of the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The team lost their first 26 games before winning the final two of the 1976 season. The only team with a worse record was the 1942-1945 Chicago Cardinals, who lost 29 straight games. After his third year with the team, his contract was not renewed and Wolf was out of a job. The year after Wolf’s departure, the Buccaneers won their division with a 10-6 record and advanced to the conference championship game, but lost 9-0 to the Los Angeles Rams.
After leaving the Buccaneers, Wolf interviewed in Detroit. “Monte Clark wanted me up there and I went up for an interview. I was coming from Tampa to Detroit and I will never forget the ride up to Pontiac. I never saw over the snow banks the whole way up there and that had a big influence on what I was going to do.” Wolf did not take the job in Detroit, but instead returned to the Raiders.
He stayed with the Raiders until 1990, when he accepted a job to work under Dick Steinberg at the New York Jets. In November 1991, Wolf was hired to be the general manager of the Green Bay Packers.
According to Wolf, “I had worked with Mike Reinfeldt when we were with the Raiders and he left to go to the University of Southern California and he took a job with Green Bay as chief financial officer. They contacted me … asked permission to talk to me. Mike initiated the phone call. I talked with Bob Harlan. I came out to Green Bay and I took the job. There wasn’t any way that I wasn’t going to take the job because this time, due to my age, no one my age had ever been hired except for George Young. So I thought if I ever had a shot again, I am going to take it regardless of where it is and this was the shot.”
That was not the first time Wolf had interviewed in Green Bay. “I had interviewed when Forrest Gregg was the coach there. They were just a mess. There was no organization. I hate to speak, but it wasn’t organized and it wasn’t about football.”
When Wolf returned, he compared the state of the franchise then to 1991; “When I interviewed, the best player on the team was a tackle named Ken Ruettgers. When I came back five years later, the best player was Sterling Sharpe, but the second best player was Ken Ruettgers. So, they didn’t really do much to help that team.”
After Lindy Infante was let go as coach following the 1991 season, Wolf turned his sights toward San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Mike Holmgren. The highly sought-after coach had his choice of destinations, but picked Green Bay for his first head coaching job. Wolf recalled, “Fortunately, we were able to get him and once we got him, I think that it signaled that we were here.”
Holmgren and Wolf then turned their attention towards the quarterback position. According to Wolf, “I believe that the one thing you need to succeed in professional football, what you need most is a quarterback. If you don’t have a quarterback, you can’t win.”
Wolf remembered the 1991 NFL draft with the New York Jets and the quarterback they almost selected: a guy out of Southern Mississippi named Brett Favre. “He was the highest rated player on our board,” recalled Wolf. “Dick Steinberg had made a deal with the Cardinals to move up in front of Atlanta. The Jets would have taken Favre, but when the second round came around, the Cardinals said that the player they wanted was there and that they were not going to make the deal.” The Cardinals selected Mike D. Jones, a defensive end out of North Carolina State. The Falcons proceeded to take Brett Favre with the 33rd pick in the draft, followed by the Jets taking Louisville quarterback Browning Nagle.
Now that Wolf was in Green Bay, he still had his eyes on Favre. The first game the Packers played after Wolf was hired was against the Atlanta Falcons. According to Wolf, “One of my good friends was Ken Herock [vice-president of player personnel with the Falcons]. He told me when I was walking into the stadium that if I wanted to see Brett Favre throw, that I would have to look at him now, because when the team came out, they wouldn’t let him throw. Right away, I knew that I could get this quarterback.”
There was a problem, however. When Favre went for his physical examination before joining the Packers, the doctor detected avascular necrosis in his hip, a degenerative bone condition where cells within bones die due to a lack of blood supply. The doctor was going to fail Favre, but the Packers had another doctor on staff. According to Wolf, “At that particular time, our doctors were by committee. We had a doctor in Milwaukee and a doctor in Green Bay. After that, we just ended up with the doctor in Green Bay. That is a true story. He did fail the physical. The orthopedist in Green Bay had not examined him, but then he examined him and said that he could play a minimum of about four to five years. That is all I needed to hear.”
Wolf had his quarterback, and a few years later, Wolf, Holmgren and Favre led the Packers to their 12th championship — and first since 1967.
“Suddenly, you walk into that building and you are struck by it,” Wolf said of the tradition. “All of the championships. All of the names. You walk out into Lambeau Field and you see all of the names there. You think ‘Holy Smokes, look at this. This is incredible.’ The real people that made the game so tremendous. To me, Green Bay is the Citadel of pro football. That’s where it started, right there. Curly Lambeau, Johnny Blood, Arnie Herber. And then you carry it on with the six championship teams that Lambeau had. The really great players like Cal Hubbard. Cecil Isbell, who for some reason is not in the Hall of Fame, which is unbelievable.
“You have got all of these people, and then you take the Lombardi era and you look at those names up there. You hear those names and you automatically know who they are and what they were. They were Green Bay Packers. Hornung, Starr, Taylor. You can go on — Willie Davis, Ray Nitschke. My goodness. Suddenly, that hits you. When you walk in the halls at that time, they had the banners hanging for the championships. Wow. What I used to do, when I started interviewing coaches, I would get them at the airport and take them down to City Stadium, which is still there and still used for high school football. I would show them where it all started. Right there at City Stadium in downtown Green Bay. And then you come to present-day Lambeau Field, which they’ve redone. It’s still a magical place.”
Kenneth R. Crippen is the executive director of the Professional Football Researchers Association. He has been researching and writing about pro football history for over 20 years, publishing two books and numerous articles. He also is the editor of The Coffin Corner, the official magazine of the Professional Football Researchers Association.