GREEN BAY – Bob Harlan didn’t hesitate when asked Tuesday what his biggest regret is from an otherwise wildly successful run as the Green Bay Packers president and CEO: His decision to give coach Mike Sherman the dual role of coach/general manager in 2001, when Ron Wolf decided to retire.
“I think it was the worst decision I made, quite honestly,” Harlan said on Green & Gold Today Tuesday morning.
Harlan, who took over as team president in 1989 and ran the team’s business side through the end of 2007, always believed it was best to separate the coach and GM duties among two people, but when Wolf insisted on retiring after Sherman’s first season as coach in 2000, Harlan didn’t have any candidates he liked enough to hire as a replacement.
“I was convinced when I became president that what we needed to do was change the way we selected head coaches. It had always been done through our executive committee, and you really had non-football people making football decisions,” Harlan said. “So when I took over in 1989, I really made my priority, ‘Let’s find a way to win, and get this franchise back up where it belongs among the elite teams.’ And I felt the only way to do that was get a very strong football person, give him total authority, get out of his way and let him do his job. And Ron Wolf did a magnificent job.
“Now, when Ron Wolf left, there were a number of things that bothered me about picking his successor. First of all, in his first season Mike went 9-7, won his last four games. We did have momentum going into the next year. I had talked to (quarterback) Brett Favre; he said it was the best chemistry he had seen in the locker room in all the years he had been here. And he’d been through a couple of Super Bowls by that time.
“I was concerned that if a new man came in from the outside, Mike might have trouble getting along with him, (or) the new man might want to come in and want to totally change the scouting staff, which I thought was a capable young scouting staff. And so I decided to do something that I don’t like to do – give one man both jobs. And he didn’t hurt us on the field – we went 12-4, 12-4, 10-6, 10-6. (Sherman) did a great job of coaching. But it got to the point when we started having problems with players that he almost seemed to be ignoring the team.”
Harlan cited the oft-used example of holdout cornerback Mike McKenzie, whose contract dispute ate at Sherman to the point of distraction, Harlan said. When Harlan stripped Sherman of his GM duties in January 2005 and hired Ted Thompson, he cited the McKenzie affair as the turning point in his mind on Sherman’s tenure.
“He didn’t want to bring McKenzie to camp and he was having trouble trading him and he seemed so preoccupied. We had a game with the (New York) Giants early in the season, and I had three or four meetings with Mike that week, and he never talked about the team. All he talked about was McKenzie. And we went out and played a very flat game and lost,” Harlan said. “That following Tuesday, we had our regular monthly meeting of the executive committee and I asked the committee for permission at the end of the season – this was in early October – if I could take the general manager duties away from Mike Sherman and hire Ted Thompson. And they gave me permission to do that, and I sat on that for four months.
“Once the season ended, when I was pretty sure I could get Ted, I went down to see Mike before I made the offer to Ted, and I told him what I was going to do and why I was going to do it. I said, ‘I can see it affecting your health, I think it affects your family, we’re not going to take one penny away from your contract, but we’re going to bring you some help.’ And he said, ‘I don’t think Ted will ever come here.’ And I said, ‘Well, maybe he won’t, but I’m going to offer him the job and let’s see what happens.’ And Mike wasn’t very happy.
“The last year Mike was here, one of those things I feared – that he wouldn’t get along with someone from the outside, it happened. I’d go to practice, and I’d watch Ted and Mike on the field – I didn’t even watch the team, I wanted to watch those two gentlemen – Ted would be talking to Mike and Mike would be looking off in the distance, like he didn’t even listen to him. It was a very cold relationship. And Ted came into me at the end of the year and said, ‘I’ve got to make a coaching change. I can’t go on like this.’ And we made the change.
“Mike became a different person. I talked to people on the third floor where the football operation (is), and they said he’d walk down the hall and not even talk to anybody. It affected his health, it changed his personality, and unfortunately, we have never been close since that day. But I felt the move had to be made. I didn’t want to do it in the first place, and when I thought I could get somebody like Ted Thompson, I had to do it.”
In a recent interview with the Boston Globe, Sherman, now the offensive coordinator for the Miami Dolphins after serving as Texas A&M's head coach, acknowledged he became consumed with doing both jobs but said his regrets are more about the parent he was during that time than the GM he was.
“I feel very good about my work ethic, and I have more regrets about being a father at that time than I do as a coach,” Sherman told Greg Bedard. “I was absent and I needed to be home more and I was totally invested in my job and the Packers. My regrets are more personal then professional.
“I always wished I could have won a Super Bowl with the Packers. It’s an unbelievable place to coach and to be a part of that fabric, and the expectations are so high and you want to meet those every year. We had success. We won divisions but we never won a Super Bowl. I would have liked that opportunity. I loved every second of my coaching career there.
“I made some good decisions, I made some bad decisions as far as personnel goes. When they presented it to me, I didn’t shy away from the opportunity to do it because it was a challenge. At the time, maybe it was too much on my plate, but I didn’t think about it — that’s in retrospect. I thought at that time, ‘Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work.’ I don’t regret that they gave that to me. It was a great learning experience. I learned a lot about football.
“You learn a lot about mistakes you make, too. I think I’m a better coach for it.”
Many assumed Wolf’s longtime friend Ken Herock, whom Wolf had worked with in Oakland and in Green Bay, would take over as GM, but that didn’t happen. Harlan said he talked about his options with Wolf before deciding to hire Sherman, who in turn hired ex-Chicago Bears executive Mark Hatley to be his right-hand man on personnel as vice president of football operations in May 2001. Hatley died of a heart attack in July 2004 at age 54.
Asked about Herock’s candidacy, Harlan replied, “I had some talks with Ron Wolf when he was leaving, and I don’t want to get into individuals on this, but I did talk to him about individuals, and let’s just say I didn’t get the review that I wanted to get. And I even said to (Wolf), ‘You know, I’m tempted, rather than stir things up here, I’m almost tempted to do something I’m not fond of doing – I’m thinking about giving both jobs to Mike Sherman and see how he does with them.’ And Ron said, ‘Right now, I think that’s the best way to go.’ And I just kind of went with that. It didn’t affect us on the field, but there’s no doubt that the two jobs got to Mike and affected him tremendously.
“I just didn’t have anybody … a guy like Mark Hatley might’ve been the answer. I just didn’t have the answer. That’s the one thing I would do over.”
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