The green and (Notre Dame-ish) gold

In my days in the business magazine world, I got to interview former Packers general manager Ron Wolf once.

In my one dealing with him, Wolf was a bit brusque, but certainly quotable, which is why the media always liked talking to him. He was always blunt and full of candor on whatever subject he wanted to talk about. He was so depressed, for instance, after losing Super Bowl XXXII that he described his own team as “a fart in the wind.”

Now that Wolf is most deservedly in the NFL Hall of Fame, Wolf displayed a little more self-deprecation, as the great Bob McGinn reported:

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.”

Pause for the Packers Uniforms page to demonstrate:

The Packers went between navy blue and green several times until Lombardi got to Green Bay. It appears that in the late ’50s, the Packers may have tried to split the difference, with a bluish/green jersey that includes definitely Michigan-like yellow:

The gold numbers from the early ’50s jerseys would require some sort of outline to make them pop more, perhaps like one of the 437 uniforms the Oregon Ducks football team has worn (kindly ignore the font and the crap on the shoulders):

Alternatively, since Notre Dame was where Lambeau was a student for all of one year, the Fighting Irish wearing of the green may also have come to mind:

There is one issue with the early ’50s uniforms. They represent an era in Packer history that no one wants to remember. The period after Lambeau and before Vince Lombardi is remembered as fondly as the period after Lombardi and before Wolf. That is why since 1994 and the first throwbacks, the Packers have never used a green throwback from the pre-Lombardi days, because they would look too much like their current uniforms.

This is supposedly a prototype of the helmet:

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Packers Uniforms believes this is what Wolf had in mind:

Back to our story:

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.”

And they have barely changed since then, even in areas that could have been improvements. I still like the green pants look with the white jersey, because there is not much green in that Green Bay Packers look:

Packers green pants

Not even a Bears fan can deny that the Packers’ current colors represent fall, and are perhaps the most iconic look in professional sports given how little they have changed since the late 1950s. But as Packers Uniforms points out:

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.

Given what Oregon has done with its green and gold (to incorporate black and silver, apparently to attract the sense-challenged late teens set), maybe it’s better to not guess.

 

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