While many look at current NBC “Football Night in America” studio analyst Tony Dungy as the standard for African American head coaches in NFL history in terms of wins, right behind him was the man that he worked for who set that standard. This individual learned from one of the best offensive minds in pro football in Hall of Famer Bill Walsh. He took those same teachings as a collegiate coach and from Walsh and turned it into his own and in the “Twin Cities” became the grandfather of one of the best passing games in NFL history. That great offensive mind said goodbye over the weekend.
Former NFL head coach Dennis Green, who coached for 13 NFL seasons with the Minnesota Vikings (1992-2001) and the Arizona Cardinals (2004-2006) passed away this past Thursday from cardiac arrest. He was 67 years old. He is survived by his wife Marie and their four children Patti, Jeremy, Zach and Vanessa who were by his side when he passed.
In 13 seasons as the head coach first with the Vikings and then with the Cardinals he amassed 113 wins, garnering a 113-94 record and went 4-8 in the postseason. Only a former member of his coaching staff, current NBC “Football Night in America” analyst Tony Dungy has more wins by an NFL head coach that is African American with 139.
Green led the Vikings to the postseason eight times in his 10 seasons reaching the National Football Conference Championship (NFC) Game in 1998 and 2000. Only Hall of Famer Bud Grant coached more games, garnered more wins and has a better winning percentage in Vikings history.
Before his rise in the NFL, Green cut his teeth in the game of football as a running back for three seasons with the Iowa Hawkeyes. He had brief pro career for the British Columbian Lions of the Canadian Football League (CFL) in 1971.
His coaching journey began as a graduate assistant for Dayton Flyers in 1973 as their running backs coach and wide receivers coach. From 1974-76 was the running backs coach at his alma mater Iowa. He moved on to Stanford University coaching the running backs as well for two seasons before his first tour of duty with the 49ers in 1979. Green then served as the offensive coordinator back at Stanford and then was the head coach for four years (1981-85) at Northwestern University. He came back to the 49ers in 1986 and was the wide receivers coach for two seasons, including on their Super Bowl XXIII, his only ring as either an assistant or head coach in the NFL.
“He was my wide receiver coach for so many years and we stayed friends over the years also. So I’m really saddened by it,” Hall of Fame wideout multiple Super Bowl champion Jerry Rice said last week.
“He really did a lot for my career, because he was one of those coaches that never let me get complacent and he never let me felt like I had arrived. … He was the type of coach that really influenced me throughout my career. … He was more than a coach. He was almost, like, you know, my best friend. Someone I could always depend on, someone—even I was having some difficult times—he had something positive to say to get me going.”
He returned to Stanford to be their head coach from 1989 to 1991 before becoming the fifth head coach in Vikings history and just the second African American head coach after Hall of Famer Art Shell and just the third after Frederick “Fritz” Pollard.
Green used what he learned from Walsh and his legendary West Coast Offense to put together one of the most prolific high-octane offenses in NFL history in 1998 as the 15-1 Vikings led by quarterback Randall Cunningham, wide receivers Randy Moss and Hall of Famer Cris Carter set an NFL record for most points scored by a team in a season, which was eventually surpassed by the 2007 New England Patriots led by Tom Brady and Moss and surpassed six years later by the Denver Broncos of soon to be Hall of Fame signal caller and two-time Super Bowl winner Peyton Manning.
“Denny made his mark in ways far beyond being an outstanding football coach,” the Vikings said in a statement last week. “He mentored countless players and served as a father figure for the men he coached. Denny founded the Vikings Community Tuesday Program, a critical initiative that is now implemented across the entire NFL. He took great pride in helping assistant coaches advance their careers. His tenure as one of the first African-American head coaches in both college and the NFL was also transformative.
One of those assistants was Mike Tice, who succeeded Green as head coach in 2001 called Green a “great motivator of men.”
“Great teacher of coaches. Excellent eye for talent,” Tice said. “I hadn’t seen Denny in years, but I find myself quoting him: ‘Plan your work and work your plan.’ He taught me a lot.”
Another former assistant and Super Bowl champion head coach with the Ravens back in 2000 Brian Billick said that Green was the best coach he was ever around in regards to having a great eye for talent.
“Whether it was the draft, whether it was free agency, whether it was getting the most out of the players that you had,” Billick, who now works as an analyst for the NFL Network said.
Former Vikings running back and current college football analyst for FOX Sports on Twitter said of Green’s passing, “I lost my mother in April, I feel like I just lost father.”
One of the last people to speak with Green before he passed was sportswriter Larry Fitzgerald, Sr., the father of Cardinals All-Pro wideout Larry Fitzgerald told ESPN’s Josina Anderson.
“Denny was my guy,” Fitzgerald, who son served as a ball boy on the Vikings sideline in his youth said. “He gave me an opportunity to host and produce his radio show eight years ago.”
As mentioned earlier, the Vikings went 15-1 in 1998 winning the then NFC Central Division, but lost in the NFC title game 30-27 to the Atlanta Falcons at home on Jan. 17, 1999 when Falcons’ place kicker Morten Anderson made the game-winning field goal in overtime.
The Vikings made it back to the playoffs the next year going 10-6, but lost in the NFC Divisional Round to the eventual Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams.
The Vikings won their second NFC Central crown in three seasons going 11-5 and made it back to the NFC Championship Game. They were on the short end again losing at the New York Giants 41-0 back on Jan. 14, 2001.
The next season the Vikings finished 5-11, their first losing season in Green’s tenure. He was bought out of his contract on Jan. 4, 2002 and Tice led the team in their regular season finale on Monday night, a 19-3 loss at the Baltimore Ravens.
After two seasons working as an NFL analyst for ESPN, Green was hired by the Cardinals on Jan. 7, 2004.
Unlike the success he achieved in Minnesota, where his opening salvo to the press on Jan. 10, 1992 when he replaced the retiring Jerry Burns that there was a “new sheriff in town,” the Cardinals went 6-10 in season one under Green and 5-11 in the next two seasons before he was given the boot on Jan. 1, 2007 with one year left on his contract.
The worst loss during Green’s time as Cardinals’ head coach came on Oct. 16, 2006 on “Monday Night Football,” when his team blew a 20-point lead in less than 20 minutes and lost versus the eventual NFC Champion Chicago Bears 24-23.
After the game, Green delivered a press conference lash out heard around the NFL world by saying, “The Bears are who we thought they were. They’re what we thought they were. We played them in preseason….We played them in the third game-everybody played three quarters-the Bears are who we THOUGHT they were! That’s why we took the damn field! Now if you want to crown them, then [hitting his right hand on the side of the podium] crown their ass! But they are who we thought they were! And we let’em off the hook!
While the team did rally to win four of their next seven games that season, many pundits felt that loss versus the Bears and the unforgettable tirade that followed sealed Green’s fate which it did.
That explosive press conference is still used today, more as a form of comic relief as a description of certain flaws. In fact the beer company Coors used that outburst in a television commercial.
That presser though was a snap shot of the kind of gritty, high energy and straight to the point personality that Green had.
“All of us at the Cardinals are incredibly saddened by the news of Dennis Green’s passing,” team president Michael Bidwell said in a statement last week. “Coach Green will rightly be remembered as a true innovator, leader and pioneer among football coaches. We express our deepest sympathy to his family and his many friends.”
In collegiate game and the game of pro football Dennis Green had an impact in developing players like aforementioned Cunningham, Carter, Moss, Daunte Culpepper, Kurt Warner, Warren Moon, Emmitt Smith, Edgerrin James, Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin into Pro Bowlers and All-Pros on the field and making them better men off of it. He learned from the best in Bill Walsh and developed a plethora of coaches on his staff that went on to become head coaches, which includes Dungy, Green’s former defensive coordinator from 1992-1995. He was a barrier breaker and a gamer changer all in one. A coach that was beloved and left a major mark in the National Football League.
Information and quotations are courtesy of7/22/16 nfl.com article “Dennis Green, ex-Vikings, Cardinals coach, dies at 67,” by Around the NFL writer Marc Sessler; 7/22/16 espn.com article, “Dennis Green Dies at age 67;” 7/23/16 9 a.m. ESPN Bottom Line news crawl during “Sportscenter;” http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dennis_Green; http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tony_Dungy; http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Francisco_49ers.