How Bob Harlan Stole Ted Thompson

How Bob Harlan Stole Ted Thompson

Packers president and CEO Bob Harlan needed to hire a new general manager. He reached into his drawer and pulled out his list:

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When Harlan got the chance to contact Ted Thompson in January 2005, he offered him the job on the spot without an interview.

Just how did Bob Harlan pry Thompson, a successful and highly regarded Seahawks executive, from the clutches of former Packers coach Mike Holmgren?

Here’s how it all happened.

1992-1999: Ted Thompson climbs the ranks under Ron Wolf

After playing 10 years for the Houston Oilers, Ted Thompson retired. He stayed in Houston and managed investment and retirement accounts for small businesses and individuals, but wanted to get back into football.

His former teammate and close friend, Mike Reinfeldt, was the Packers’ chief financial officer and recommended Thompson to general manager Ron Wolf. Shortly after, Thompson was hired as a pro personnel assistant.

One of Thompson’s first tasks was to scout a quarterback Wolf had his eye on.

“[Wolf] wanted to me watch him,” Thompson recalled. “He left me in a dark room, and I watched some of it and he comes back in and he goes, ‘Well, what do you think?’ And I said, ‘What do you think?’ And he goes, ‘I like him, I think I'm going to trade a No. 1 for him.’ I said, ‘I think you ought to do that.’”

A month later, Green Bay traded for Brett Favre.

Two years after arriving in Green Bay, Thompson was promoted to director of pro personnel. He spent three years in that role before being promoted to director of player personnel after Green Bay’s Super Bowl XXXI championship.

“Ted has a knack for evaluation and the ability to have a total concept from the overall personnel end - how to build a team, the needs at every position - that’s a rare ability,” Wolf told Bob McGinn when Thompson was promoted. “I enjoy being with him, around him, and I admire greatly his attention to detail and devotion to duty.”

January 8, 1999: Mike Holmgren hired as Seahawks head coach and general manager

As Thompson’s role within the Packers organization increased, head coach Mike Holmgren wanted full control over his football team.

After the success of back-to-back Super Bowl appearances, he did not want to defer to Wolf on personnel decisions or Reinfeldt on salary cap nuances – he wanted to make the final call.

With one year left on his contract, Holmgren had an out-clause if he could find a job as a general manager and head coach. The Packers gave Holmgren 21 days to find such a role after a season-ending playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

Five days later, Holmgren signed an eight-year, $40 million contract to be the general manager and head coach in Seattle.

Seahawks president Bob Whitsitt (right of Holmgren in the photo above) made the decision to bring Holmgren to Seattle.

Whitsitt was owner Paul Allen’s right hand man, and had been the main negotiator when Allen purchased the Seahawks in 1996. He also helped Allen develop Qwest Field (now CenturyLink Field) to replace the crumbling Kingdome.

Along with the Seahawks, Allen also owns the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers. Whitsitt was, at the time, Portland’s president and general manager alongside his role with the Seahawks.

Known as “Trader Bob” around the NBA, Whitsitt had completed 42 trades over 17 seasons as a general manager. He called himself a “basketball guy,” and had been mostly focused on the business side of the Seahawks as team president.

Now, only Whitsitt and Allen ranked higher than Holmgren on the Seahawks’ organizational chart.

January 29, 2000: Holmgren hires Ted Thompson away from the Packers

Along with Holmgren, many Green Bay assistants and front office staff moved cross-country, including Thompson’s former teammate and close friend Mike Reinfeldt.

Thompson would soon join him. Because of the NFL’s tampering rules, Holmgren had to request permission to interview Thompson.

The Packers approved the request, and he joined the Seahawks a day after Ron Wolf informed Thompson that Seattle had asked permission for an interview.

“Ted Thompson was a vital part of the personnel department in Green Bay during the Super Bowl years,” Holmgren said when Thompson was hired. “He learned from the best in Ron Wolf and is now ready to take the next step as vice president of football operations.”

In his new role, Thompson was heavily involved in the draft and advised Holmgren on personnel decisions. Ultimately, Holmgren had the final say as the general manager, but Thompson oversaw  all football operations.

“Everyone in my position likes to get to a point where the next job has more responsibilities and is a greater challenge,” Thompson said at the time. “And I think that applies in this case.”

February 1, 2001: Sherman named general manager as Wolf retires

Ron Wolf’s retirement came out of left field. The 62-year-old announced he would leave the team after the conclusion of the 2001 NFL Draft.

Then, the more shocking news came down.

Instead of promoting one of the many budding stars like Reggie McKenzie, John Dorsey or John Schneider in Green Bay’s front office, head coach Mike Sherman would take the reins as both head coach and general manager.

Sherman was entering his second year as the Packers’ head coach after a single season with Holmgren in Seattle.

It had been just over two years since Holmgren had left Green Bay for the exact situation Sherman was in now: complete control of the organization.

December 31, 2002: Holmgren stripped of Seahawks general manager job

Almost two years later, Holmgren’s grand experiment in Seattle to coach and manage personnel came to an end.

“We wanted to free up Mike to do more coaching,” Whitsitt said. “I just think there’s so much to do; there’s only so many hours in a day.”

Holmgren was 31-33 since arriving in Seattle, reaching the postseason in only his first season with the team. His track record as a general manager, even with talented executives like Thompson and John Dorsey in his front office, was mixed.

Holmgren was criticized for the holdout and eventual departure of wide receiver Joey Galloway in 1999, and cut All-Pro linebacker Levon Kirkland over concerns about his weight only to see him sign and succeed with the Eagles.

Days after the announcement, Mike Sando of The News Tribune reported Thompson was the ranking football person until a general manager is hired, and that he was a candidate for the permanent post.

February 2003: Seahawks hire Ferguson, not Thompson, as general manager

Seahawks president Bob Whitsitt needed to remake the front office, and he had in his mind a triangle for how it would run. At the bottom of the triangle would be Holmgren and the new general manager, with himself at the top.

“We’re going to fit a general manager in that I think fits best within the organization we have,” Whitsitt said after Holmgren’s demotion.

Thompson interviewed for the position along with former Seattle general manager Randy Mueller, Jaguars vice president of player personnel James Harris, Kansas City executive Bill Kukarich, and former Cardinals general manager Bob Ferguson.

Ferguson, an outspoken and bombastic Seattle native, won the job.

May 2003: Bob Whitsitt leaves Trail Blazers to focus on Seahawks

Whitsitt held two high-profile roles in both of Paul Allen’s sports teams – president and general manager of the NBA’s Trail Blazers and president of the NFL’s Seahawks.

The Trail Blazers led the league in payroll, but had earned a reputation as the “Jail Blazers” because of the team’s off-the-court troubles.

After 20 suspensions, 15 arrests and early playoff exits over the past three years, Whitsitt resigned his post as president and general manager.

Whitsitt called himself a “basketball guy,” and had been mostly focused on the business side of the Seahawks as team president.

With only the Seahawks job to occupy his attention, Whitsitt grew restless and desired to be as involved in personnel matters as he had with the Trail Blazers.

October 2004: Harlan wants to hire a new general manager

On a Monday night, the hapless Tennessee Titans destroyed the Packers in Lambeau Field.

Steve McNair threw two touchdown passes, Chris Brown rushed for 148 yards and two scores and the Titans easily won 48-27. It was the most points scored by an opposing team in Lambeau Field’s history.

The loss dropped the Packers to 1-4. While they’d finish the season winning nine of their final eleven games to go 10-6, cracks were starting to show on the roster.

That offseason, Sherman had traded his third- and fourth-round picks to move up 14 spots in the third round to select Clemson defensive tackle Donnell Washington, who never played in an NFL game.

Fifteen picks later, Sherman drafted punter B.J. Sander. It had been nine years since a punter was drafted that high, and Sander was massively disappointing. Bryan Barker punted instead, leaving Sander as an unprecedented backup punter.

It was around this time, with the Packers struggling and the youth on the roster inspiring little confidence, that Harlan determined Sherman could not handle both the general manager and head coaching duties.

Harlan called his former general manager Ron Wolf for advice.

“If you were going to hire a general manager to run a team, who would you hire?” Harlan asked.

“Ted Thompson,” Wolf replied.

December 2004: Hasselbeck’s contract causing rift in Seattle

Since Whitsitt left the Trail Blazers in May 2003, he had installed himself as the final say on all personnel decisions.

Holmgren, whose desire to run a team from top to bottom brought him from a perfect situation in Green Bay to the middling Seahawks, now had two executives and strong personalities superseding his decisions: general manager Bob Ferguson and Whitsitt.

A natural power struggle was emerging, and quarterback Matt Hasselbeck was in the crosshairs. Hasselbeck started his career under Holmgren in Green Bay as an understudy to Brett Favre, and was traded to the Seahawks in 2001.

Now, Hasselbeck was due for a new contract. Holmgren, then the general manager, had given up a considerable amount to acquire the quarterback, and knew the quarterback had a bright future despite an uneven two years as starter.

Whitsitt, on the other hand, preferred to let Hasselbeck leave in free agency.

Allen liked Hasselbeck, and wanted him to stay in Seattle. With the Trail Blazers in disarray and the league’s punching bag, Allen wanted at least one of his sports teams to be competitive.

As a result, Whitsitt and Allen’s relationship started to disintegrate. It appeared as if Whitsitt’s days with the organization were numbered.

January 9, 2005: Packers lose to Vikings at home in playoffs

In order for Harlan to interview and hire Thompson for the Packers’ general manager post, the Seahawks’ season needed to end.

Both Seattle and Green Bay had made the playoffs, and both were playing in the Wild Card round. As soon as the Seahawks lost, Harlan could request permission to interview Thompson for the job.

On Saturday night, the St. Louis Rams beat their division foe Seattle for the third time that season. The Seahawks were finished in the playoffs. The next day, the Packers season ended at the hands (and behinds) of their division foe Minnesota.

January 10, 2005: Harlan and Sherman meet

After the disappointing loss, Harlan and Sherman met three separate times to discuss Harlan’s desire to hire a general manager and Sherman’s future in Green Bay.

“I told him that I’m doing this because I feel it’s the best move for the future of the franchise,” Harlan said. “It’s going to free him up to spend more time coaching, not worrying about general manager obligations. It gives him one more accountable person to be there to help him make football decisions. And I think that’s important. I told Mike, ‘This move is being made not to criticize you. It’s being made to help you.’”

Harlan left on Monday to attend NFL meetings in New York, but by Wednesday he was back in his office inside Lambeau Field. As soon as he arrived, he faxed the Seahawks his request to contact Thompson.

January 12, 2005: Whitsitt allows Packers to contact Thompson and Harlan removes Sherman as general manager

20 minutes later, the familiar buzz of the fax machine brought news from Seattle.

Permission to contact Ted Thompson? Go for it, said Whitsitt.

The only thing more shocking than how fast the request was approved was that it was, in fact, approved.

Thompson had been a key hire by Holmgren, and allowing him to interview for a promotion with his former employer was extremely risky.

But Holmgren had no say in whether Thompson could be interviewed by the Packers. He was on vacation in Arizona with his family, and discovered the news only after the request had been approved.

The Packers sprung into action. Harlan reached Thompson in San Francisco, where he was scouting the East-West Shrine Game.

Harlan offered Thompson the job in that initial conversation without conducting a formal interview. He knew he had to act quickly before Holmgren caught wind of the Packers’ plan and could persuade Thompson to stay in Seattle.

"The reason I didn't need a face-to-face meeting with him was because I watched him here for eight years," Harlan said in a 2012 interview with Mike Vandermause of the Green Bay Press-Gazette. "I'd been around and I worked with him and I knew what I was getting when I went after him. And then I watched what he did when he went out to Seattle. I was as sure about him when I hired him as I was about Ron Wolf, quite honestly."

Thompson was interested in the job, but needed time to think about the offer. He flew back to Seattle from San Francisco at the end of the day.

The two hung up, but Harlan was sure he would strike a deal.

After hanging up with Thompson, Harlan walked down to Mike Sherman’s office. He informed Sherman that he would be relieved of his duties as general manager.

Harlan told Sherman that Ted Thompson was most likely going to fill the post.

“I like Ted very much,” Sherman said, according to Harlan. “I can work with him.”

January 13, 2005: Thompson weighs his options, including Green Bay

Thompson spent Thursday contemplating Harlan’s offer. His career was at a crossroads. His time to run a front office was coming sooner than later.

The previous summer, Thompson interviewed for the Dolphins’ general manager job after Ron Wolf declined to come out of retirement, but Miami promoted Rick Spielman instead. Now, the Dolphins had just hired LSU coach Nick Saban and Spielman’s days were numbered.

Back at home, a shake-up was imminent in the Seahawks front office. The current general manager Bob Ferguson was one of Whitsitt’s guys, and if Whitsitt was out, so too would Ferguson. Thompson was certainly next in line to run the Seahawks’ football operations.

Could one of those opportunities be a better fit than Green Bay?

Green Bay had the most attractive roster – Thompson thought highly of quarterback Brett Favre at the time, according to a 2011 profile of him before Super Bowl XLV – and he had spent his formative years as a front office executive there, learning under Wolf.

January 14, 2005: Thompson agrees to become Packers general manager

The next morning at 5:50 a.m. in Seattle, Thompson called Harlan’s office to accept the job. It was Friday, and Harlan wanted Thompson in Green Bay as soon as possible.

“I know Mike Holmgren,” Harlan said when Thompson was introduced to the media. “And I know Mike Holmgren’s very persuasive.”

Harlan picked up the phone and dialed Packers board member Ron Sadoff. He knew that Sadoff, the chairman and CEO of Badger Liquor Company, had a private plane. Could Harlan and the Packers use the plane to bring Thompson to Green Bay?

Sadoff graciously agreed, and Thompson was in Green Bay by Friday evening.

January 15, 2005: Ted Thompson introduced as Packers general manager

The Packers introduced Thompson to the media at 11 a.m. on Saturday morning.

Almost 13 years to the day after Ron Wolf gave Thompson his first job in an NFL front office, Thompson was now in charge of running that same organization.

Did Holmgren and the Seahawks try to keep Thompson?

"Yes,” Thompson said during his introductory press conference. “But I want to leave it at that."

Thompson’s new office in Green Bay had yet to be decorated, save for one picture hanging below his nameplate next to the door:

January 15, 2005: Seahawks fire Bob Whitsitt

Whitsitt’s role in Thompson’s reunion with the Packers was the final straw. The 49-year-old was relieved of all duties associated with the Seahawks and Allen’s other interests the same day Thompson was hired in Green Bay.

“I felt that the best approach, at this point, was to take a change of direction and bring in somebody with a deep background in football to run the football side of our organization,” Allen said in a rare meeting with the media. “That was a very significant decision. I didn’t take it lightly at all, but I think it is the right decision for the franchise.”

Allen dismissed the idea that Whitsitt’s departure was because of his relationship with Holmgren, but the words rang hollow.

Back in Green Bay, Harlan mentioned Whitsitt’s departure. "Somebody from Seattle said he was taking his last shot at Holmgren before he left,” he said.

The local papers wanted a comment from Whitsitt. He wasn’t answering his phone. Finally, he answered while he was watching his son play basketball, but he refused to comment. “I’ll talk about it with you guys when I’m ready.”

Mike Holmgren was still on vacation in Arizona.

“I would have never gotten (Thompson) out of there if (Holmgren) had been there,” Harlan recalled in 2012.

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