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Harlan leaves Lambeau with legacy of football, financial success

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Bob Harlan was huddled in a Lambeau Field equipment room with a select few members of the Green Bay Packers' inner circle on Sunday, awaiting the inevitable: a trophy presentation and a trip to the Super Bowl.

The New York Giants missed a field goal at the end of regulation, and the Packers had just won the overtime coin toss. "We've got 'em!" Bart Starr yelped.

What followed instead was silence. A Brett Favre interception and a 47-yard field goal that sent the Giants, not the Packers, to the Super Bowl.

And sent Harlan into retirement.

"No one said a word," Harlan said. "We all kind of picked up our coats. I had my grandson with me, we just walked down the hallway. Nobody said a word. Eerie."

The abrupt end to the Packers' season meant the end of the road for Harlan, who transformed the team into a force on the field and in the boardroom during his 19-year tenure as its top executive. Friday was Harlan's last day, and a big send-off was scheduled: He planned to meet some of the team's administrative staff downstairs for an ice cream cone.

New Packers president and CEO Mark Murphy, a former NFL player who most recently was the athletic director at Northwestern, takes over Monday morning. Harlan, 71, becomes chairman emeritus.

In an interview inside the Packers' Lambeau Field offices, Harlan said he was proud of his achievements but ready for a break from the daily pressures of running an NFL franchise. Harlan will be remembered as the humble executive who presided over the team's resurgence on the field and sealed the franchise's future by turning Lambeau into a treasure chest.

He isn't going away entirely, though.

"I'd find it tough for me to walk out the door tonight and hand my key in and say, 'That's it,"' Harlan said. "That really would be hard. I've been here 37 years. That would've been tough for me. I love the stadium as much as I love the team."

Harlan will keep a small office at Lambeau, working on community relations and the PackersHall of Fame. But he won't show his face in the hallowed hallways of 1265 Lombardi Ave. during normal business hours, because he doesn't want people to think he's hovering over Murphy's shoulder.

"I told somebody the other day I'm going to be like the 'Phantom of 1265,'" Harlan said. "I'll be behind the walls when nobody's here."

Harlan originally was supposed to retire in May 2007 and hand off to his hand-picked successor, John Jones. But Jones was deemed unfit to take over, Harlan stayed put and the Packers formed a search committee to find a new successor.

Harlan threw his support behind a rising young star, Packers vice president of administration and corporate counsel Jason Wied. But committee members chose Murphy because of his experience.

"Jason probably needs a few more years and he'll be ready someday, no doubt about it," Harlan said. "But Mark has run big athletic programs, he's had to put together a staff, hired people, fired people. Played in the National Football League, sat at the negotiating table through collective bargaining talks. Understood revenue sharing. So probably that experience carries some weight."

Harlan will hand Murphy a franchise that was struggling when Harlan took over in 1989, after joining the Packers as an assistant general manager in 1971 and working his way up. With Harlan at the helm, the Packers' football and financial fortunes both turned around dramatically.

They won a Super Bowl, of course. But 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.

Harlan calls his grass-roots efforts to convince voters to approve the referendum the worst eight months of his life, but is thankful it passed; with the rising cost of steel, the project would cost twice as much today -- and wouldn't stand a chance of passing.

And without the additional money the Packers earn from drawing tourists to Lambeau's atrium area throughout the year, Harlan figures the franchise would be among the league's least profitable.

Instead, the NFL's smallest-market franchise is among its richest.

Harlan's last major move was to sign general manager Ted Thompson to a contract extension, a move that laid the groundwork for a new deal that head coach Mike McCarthy is expected to sign soon. With the team's two major football figures in place, Harlan likes the Packers' long-term prospects.

It certainly didn't look that way two years ago, when former coach Mike Sherman had struggled to handle his additional duties as the team's general manager. Harlan stripped Sherman of his GM duties and hired Thompson, but the Packers slid to 4-12 in 2005.

"I felt before I left I had to get football in order, and it wasn't in order when Mike Sherman had both jobs," Harlan said. "I could see we had problems. We had to make a change."

Now Harlan can step away with a clear conscience to spend more time with his wife, Madeline. They've owned a vacation home in nearby Door County for 10 years, but Harlan has never spent a full week there.

The Harlans don't have a lot of big retirement plans, and that's sort of the point.

"I'd like a simple thing like on a nice fall Saturday, rather than running to the airport and going on the road and sitting in a hotel and stuff, maybe just take a nice walk, watch some college football," Harlan said. "Or run down to Madison for a Badgers game, which we're going to do. I've missed some of that stuff. Is it a big change? Oh, obviously. But it's probably time."

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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