Monday, August 17, 2015

"This Ron Wolf Mistake"

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinal published an outstanding article yesterday about Ron Wolf's planned 1994 uniform change. We've heard much of this story before, but there are some fascinating new details:

Packers allowed this Ron Wolf mistake on the field just once
Associated Press
By Bob McGinn of the Journal Sentinel
Aug. 16, 2015

Green Bay — Last month, the Green Bay Packers rolled out the navy blue jersey with a faded gold yoke they will wear Oct. 18 against the San Diego Chargers and in other "throwback" games over the next five seasons.

It brought to mind the months of experimentation with uniform color and design commissioned by general manager Ron Wolf in 1993 that would have left the Packers looking much like Notre Dame in its green jerseys.

Nothing came of it, however, and the Packers continue to wear the same basic color combination and design that Vince Lombardi brought to Green Bay 56 years ago.

Hired by the Packers in November 1991, Wolf set about fumigating a franchise that had been a chronic loser for a generation.

"I wanted to change the uniforms just to get the stigma (of defeat) away," Wolf said in a recent interview. "Hey, I proposed a lot of things. It wasn't that big of a deal."

The attachment of the team's fan base then to the forest green jerseys and mustard yellow pants was nothing like it is now. From 1968-'91, the Packers made the playoffs twice.

As the Packers pondered dramatically altered uniforms, they were deluged with calls and letters from followers in the state and across the country.

At the time, Wolf said at least half of the contacts he had indicated considerable distaste for the existing uniform. Then-Packers president Bob Harlan, in better position to gauge public sentiment, said the majority of fans favored staying with what the Packers had.

When the Packers displayed enormous improvement in 1992, Wolf made his move.

"We got Mike Holmgren. Pretty good, huh?" said Wolf. "We get Brett Favre. We win nine games. Now I'm feeling pretty good about myself."

Long a student of football history, Wolf associated the Packers' pants with the maize of the University of Michigan. He didn't like that color.

Wolf wasn't enamored of the stripes on the Packers' helmets, jerseys or pants, either. He wanted a less cluttered look.

He pored over various shades of gold before selecting what Harlan remembered as a metallic gold for the pants.

"Ron was very excited about it," said Harlan. "He just thought the Notre Dame gold or the UCLA gold, whatever you wanted to call it, would be perfect."

The jersey that Wolf really liked had been worn by the Packers in the early 1950s.

"That gold (numbers) and green (body) one," he said. "But they wouldn't work today because you couldn't see the numbers."

At last, the Packers had a manufacturer produce three slightly different styles of uniforms.

Wolf needed someone he could trust to be the model. He summoned Ted Thompson, who was in his second year as an anonymous pro scout.

"I said to Ted, 'Would you mind doing it?'" Wolf said. "He said, 'Sure.' In those days, when you asked somebody to help you out, they did it, you know?"

Thompson, then 40, probably hadn't been in uniform since his 10-year career as an NFL linebacker ended in 1984. Attempts to reach Thompson through the Packers' publicity department for this story were unsuccessful.

It was a beautiful late fall day. Harlan, Wolf and some other club officials convened in Lambeau Field, taking seats fairly high up in the bowl.

"There were some other guys there," Wolf said. "(Lee) Remmel must have been there, or somebody from the public relations department. Maybe some of the executive committee guys were there."

From the tunnel emerged Thompson, who would become GM of the Packers in 2005.

He was attired in the dark green jersey, metallic gold pants, solid metallic gold helmet with the 'G' logo that had existed since 1961 and solid green socks. There were no stripes on the helmet, jersey or pants.

"He (Thompson) was on the field down there all by himself," recalled Wolf. "The guy ran up and down the field. I was thinking to myself, 'Holy (expletive), I must have been smoking dope.'"

Then Wolf looked at Harlan, and Harlan looked at Wolf.

"All it took was that one trip up and down the field for me to say, '(Expletive), that's terrible. No, no, no. There's no way we can do this,'" Wolf remembered. "We would have changed it, but after that I said, 'This is foolish.'"

Grateful for what Wolf had done in just two years on the job, Harlan wasn't going to deny his new GM if he wanted a new look for the Packers.

"We kind of made the decision on the spot," said Harlan, laughingly adding, "and it had nothing to do with the model.

"We were sitting out there in short-sleeve shirts in the sun waiting for Ted to come out of the tunnel. He kind of walked up and down the sidelines to let us see what it looked like.

"Dull is the only way I can describe it. It just looked blah out there. You see Notre Dame on TV and it looked like such a great uniform, but it just didn't look that way for us."

One of those two metallic gold 'G' helmets can be found displayed in the home of Pepper Burruss, the Packers' director of sports medicine.

Feigning ignorance of the entire initiative, Holmgren said at the time, "I was the last one to know. I like the way the uniforms are now."

Wolf never revisited uniforms.

"It was one of those things you say, 'Oh, just let that disappear,'" Wolf said with a shrug.

And it basically has.
Outstanding work as usual from Mr. McGinn.

Interestingly enough, Uni Watch columnist Paul Lukas was one of those who called Bob Harlan to express his concerns about the changes. The letter Harlan sent to him in response describes the proposed uniforms:

This is the mockup I made of that uniform several years ago, based on the reports we had at the time:

It still comports with the description in McGinn's piece. There's a lot I like about this uniform, especially the lack of sleeve stripes. Given that most football players don't wear sleeves anymore, the vestigial stripes are a problem in desperate need of a solution. I do have to say that it would have been criminal to lose the Braisher stripes from helmet and pants.

McGinn gives us valuable new insight into the process itself. I'm somewhat surprised that Wolf was able to look over old Packers uniforms, since they haven't always been the most accurate historians of their aesthetic past. Not that they haven't tried. This 2004 Media Guide cover attempts to create a link between the team's present and its glorious history:

Unfortunately, every single one of their reproductions is historically inaccurate. From the navy blue color on the Hutson jersey to serifs on the "Acme Packers" font, they got all the details wrong. That media guide was a major influence in my decision to move my Packers-uniform zine online. Perhaps Wolf was able to peruse the Hall of Fame's archives.

When Wolf mentions a an old Packers jersey he really liked, with gold numbers on green that "wouldn't work today because you couldn't see the numbers", I presume he means this bright number from 1953:

If you can look past the Kermit the Frog suits, the jerseys are quite nice.

It's also possible that he meant this darker version, as worn by Jim Ringo in 1957 or 1958:

I'm surprised to hear that Wolf felt gold-on-green wasn't legible. The Rams wear metallic gold numbers on their regular drab navy jerseys and athletic gold on their beautiful throwbacks:

They've worn those since the 1960s, and I'm not aware that legibility has ever been an issue.

Now "blah" I can see. The modern-day Rams are proof enough of that. Metallic gold can be drab and flat under anything but bright light, and I prefer the Packers' vivid athletic gold.

I'm also intrigued to learn that there were two prototype helmets made. I knew that there was one in a private collection, but this is the first I've heard that Pepper Burruss, the Packers' director of sports medicine, has one. I wonder if Mr. Burruss would be kind enough to give us a look.

It's interesting to think what might have happened had Wolf actually pulled the trigger way back then. The last twenty years of of Packers history, the new "Glory Days", would have looked very different. Wolf's uniforms would be synonymous with Holmgren and McCarthy and Favre and Rodgers, eleven divisional titles and two World Championships. We would have fans today for whom Lombardi's classic uniform is as much an historical curiosity as Lambeau's blue and gold. And we can all guess what the the Packers would have chosen for their throwback alternate uniforms.

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