McGinn Wrap, Part 12: Presidents, GMs, Coaches, the best who led the Green Bay Packers 1979-2021
Our Bob McGinn ranks those who led the Packers through his 43 years covering the team. The greatness of Ron Wolf, Mike Holmgren, Bob Harlan and all assistants is put into historical perspective.
We’ve spent the past three months looking back at the best players and the best teams over the past 43 years of Green Bay Packers football.
The 12-part series concludes with rankings and listings of the leading executives, general managers, head coaches, assistant coaches, scouts, negotiators, PR people, doctors, ambassadors and some of the anonymous individuals that did such good work at 1265 Lombardi Ave. from my years (1979-’21) writing about the team.
For the 22nd and last category, I went back to my youth and ranked my 10 favorite players from the 1960s when the franchise captured the NFL championship five times in seven years.
Granted, some of these judgments represent a slippery slope. Unlike the players, who can be seen at work, almost all of those listed here did the lion’s share of their jobs behind closed doors. That’s the main reason I resisted the frequent calls to include “coaching” in my weekly “Ratings the Packers” series from 1987-’21. As I often explained, I couldn’t rate what I couldn’t see.
That isn’t to say I wasn’t paying attention to every phase of the organization for all those years. My assignment enabled me to have literally hundreds of interviews and conversations with many of the names that are ranked. In addition, I covered several thousand practices, and during that time I was privy to the ways in which coaches functioned and interacted with players. I also covered every game the Packers played, including exhibition, from 1984-’16, and many other games in the five seasons before that. I also made it a point of emphasis to seek opinions of people employed by the Packers from personnel working for other NFL teams.
My day-to-day and game coverage of the Packers ended with my retirement from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in May 2017. I never covered coach Matt LaFleur and his teams, so with the exception of three assistants from the previous regime the current coaching staff wasn’t included in these rankings. Coaches with just one year of service during my span of coverage were omitted from the rankings as well.
Here we go with the random rankings.
First Team: Bob Harlan, 1989-’08.
Second Team: Dominic Olejniczak, 1958-’82.
Third Team: Mark Murphy, 2008-’21.
Others: 4. Robert Parins, 1982-’89.
Overview: Harlan inherited a forlorn franchise that the great Frank Deford of Sports Illustrated in the late 1980s suggested would never win big again. The Packers had major financial problems, a two-pronged stadium dilemma and a diminished, increasingly disheartened fan base. Checking his ego, Harlan hired the right general manager (Ron Wolf) and gave him full control of football decisions, a departure from years of a coach-dominated structure. In 1994, he gracefully handled the potentially problematic exit from Milwaukee County Stadium with a smart, inclusive ticket plan that has stood the test of time. And, in 2000, he went one-on-one with voters for months to help the $295 million Lambeau Field redevelopment project pass in Brown County by a 53-47 margin. Staying true to his Iowa roots, Harlan continued to answer his office phone without screening … The mayor of Green Bay from 1945-’55, Olejniczak headed the coaching search that brought Vince Lombardi to Green Bay in 1959, thus beginning the corporation’s most successful years. He also played a major role in the failed regimes of Lombardi’s three successors: Phil Bengtson, Dan Devine and Bart Starr … Murphy, a former starting safety for Washington, presided over additions to Lambeau Field and other facilities before creating the Titletown District. The Packers achieved record revenue in the 2010s … Parins, a Brown County Judge, replaced Olejniczak and soon had the thankless task of firing Starr after his nine-year tenure. He broke the news to Starr at 8 o’clock sharp the morning after a loss in Chicago cost them a playoff berth. Five days later, Parins turned around and handed total control to another Lombardi disciple, Forrest Gregg. In February 1988, following Gregg’s decision to accept the coaching post at Southern Methodist, Parins created a largely unworkable 50-50 arrangement of power between Lindy Infante and VP Tom Braatz. During his administration, Parins called one day to quibble over my use of the word “many” in a story rather than what he insisted should have been “some.” His point, which was well-received and often remembered, was that it’s difficult to use many with any degree of certainty. Some, he argued, frequently is the safer and more accurate alternative.
First Team: Ron Wolf, 1992-’01.
Second Team: Ted Thompson, 2005-’17.
Third Team: Brian Gutekunst, 2018-’21.
Others: 4. Tom Braatz, 1987-’91; 5. Mike Sherman, 2001-’04; 6. Bart Starr, 1975-’80; 7. Forrest Gregg, 1984-’86.
Overview: Wolf grew up in the east, attended college in the south and southwest, and spent a quarter century scouting in the west. Given carte blanche by Bob Harlan, he proved to be an ideal fit in the upper midwest. After quickly dumping Lindy Infante, hiring Mike Holmgren and trading for Brett Favre, Wolf got Reggie White to sign as a free agent 16 months into his tenure. Thus began one of the NFL’s greatest reclamation efforts that has resulted in three decades of good football and almost non-stop winning. In 2000, he obtained Ahman Green, who would become the franchise’s all-time leading rusher, in a trade with Seattle’s Mike Holmgren for CB Fred Vinson and an exchange of late-round draft picks. Intelligent, driven and savvy, Wolf turned the franchise around. Each year, one of my eight team grades was entitled Personnel Moves. Essentially, it was the grade for the GM. Here were Wolf’s marks: B-plus in 1992, B-minus in ’93, C-plus in ’94, B in ’95, A in ’96, B-plus in ’97, B-plus in ’98, D-plus in ’99 and B-plus in ’00. Counting 12 points for A-plus, 11 for A, 10 for A-minus, etc., Wolf totaled 71 points in nine years. His average of 7.89 was equivalent to a B … Thompson apprenticed as a scout under Wolf, decamped to Seattle with Holmgren and then was brought back by Harlan as GM. His first draft choice, Aaron Rodgers, was his best. The taciturn Thompson resisted free agency, living and dying with a draft-and-develop philosophy … His grades were D-minus in 2005, B-plus in ’06, A-minus in ’07, C-minus in ’08, B in ’09, A in ’10, C-plus in ’11, B-plus in ’12, C in ’13, A-minus in ’14, C-minus in ’15, D in ’16 and F in ’17. Based on 79 points in 13 years, his average of 6.08 was equivalent to a C-plus … Ala Thompson, Gutekunst doesn’t make creative, blockbuster moves. Unlike Thompson, he has participated more in free agency. In fact, his work in free agency (Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, De’Vondre Campbell, Adrian Amos) has far outshone his drafting. His grades – D in 2018, B-plus in ’19, D in ’20 and B-plus in ’21 – total 22 points for an average of 5.5, halfway between a C and C-plus … Braatz had neither the title of GM nor full control of football decision-making. As executive vice president of football operations, he had to share personnel decisions with Infante. His solid record in the draft was undone by Tony Mandarich, although just about every other team would have taken him No. 2 in 1989 over Nos. 3-4-5 Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas and Deion Sanders. When Michigan State’s George Perles reneged 24 hours after agreeing to replace Forrest Gregg in January 1988, Braatz hired Infante over the coaches he told me were next in his rankings: George Seifert and Dennis Green. Later, Braatz told me Green’s short stature (5-7ish) made him doubt whether he could stand up in a roomful of players and lead … Sherman didn’t have the resume to serve as both GM and coach but Harlan/Wolf decided he was the best option. Largely because of Favre and Ahman Green, Sherman posted four straight double-digit win seasons. A day or two before the opening of one training camp, Sherman boasted to me that he and his group had the Packers running so efficiently that he was confident they could lead Ford Motor Co. His GM grades were C-minus in 2001, C-plus in ’02, B-minus in ’03 and F in ’04. His average of 4.25 (17 points in four years) was the equivalent of a C-minus. After being stripped of his GM duties in January 2005 by Harlan, Sherman couldn’t accept working with Thompson as his boss and was out 12 months later … Starr might had a chance if Dominic Olejniczak had just named him coach. As coach and GM, Starr was in way over his head. Plus, his tendency to side with his coaches over his scouts resulted in some disastrous draft-day decisions. He was stripped of his GM duties in early 1981 … Before interviewing Gregg in December 1984, Robert Parins told personnel director Dick Corrick the plan was to give him control of the draft and personnel. When Gregg demanded the dual role, Parins changed his tune and gave it all to him. Gregg’s decision to trade a first-round draft choice for Mossy Cade, and Cade’s subsequent conviction on charges of sexual assault, led to the hiring of Braatz in January 1987.