Jul. 25, 2016
Dennis Green Was A Pioneer For Black Coaches
By Eric T. Pate, Columnist For The African-American Athlete
On Friday morning while sitting at a doctor’s appointment, I learned that my friend, Dennis Green _ a 13-year head coach with the National Football League’s Minnesota Vikings and Arizona Cardinals _ had passed away.
I was shocked. I was hurt. I shed a tear.
You see, Denny – whom he was affectionately known by many – was a friend. He was a man’s man, a child of the 1960s from Harrisburg, Pa., who attended the University of Iowa, who had an affection from playing the drums, and keeping his word.
That was Denny.
Back on January 10, 1992, he was hired by the Vikings; within the week, I had personally met Coach Green and struck up a friendship. Within days, he was speaking to young Black males associated with my fraternity’s (Kappa Alpha Psi) mentoring group in the Twin Cities.
That’s who Dennis Green was, a role model who accepted the challenge and responsibilities that came with his high-profile occupation.
Yes, Green was the second Black male NFL head coach (behind the then-Los Angeles Raiders’ Art Shell) in the modern era, but more than anything, he has was. Green also knew how important it was for him to be successful, so that others like him could get the same opportunity.
Green once told me, “I know everyone’s watching, not knowing what the Black guy’s going to do. But hey, at least they’re watching.’’
Wherever Denny was, he was worth watching.
As the head coach at Northwestern University in the early 1980s, Green made the Big Ten’s perennial doormat look like a football team. After a 0-11 finish in his first season in ‘81, he won 10 games over the last four seasons (’82-’85). After a brief stint on Bill Walsh’s staff with the San Francisco 49ers, Green was hired by Stanford in ’89 and made them relevant, too. In each of his three seasons, The Cardinals’ win total increased, culminating with an 8-4 mark in ’91.
After Stanford, Green was deemed NFL-ready.
With the Vikings, Green coached 171 total games in 10 seasons. He was 97-62 (.610 winning percentage) in the regular season, guiding the Vikings to eight playoff appearances, four division titles, two NFC Championship game appearances and a jaw-dropping 556 points (34.8) during the 1998 season. The season tally broke a record established by Washington in 1983, that was later topped.
Green is one of seven coaches to lead a team to 15 or more wins in one season, joining Walsh (1984), Mike Ditka (1985), Bill Cowher (2004), Bill Belichick (2007), Mike McCarthy (2011) and Ron Rivera (2015).
Once he was fired by the Vikings before the end of the 2001 season, Green worked for ESPN and the NFL Network.
And from 2004-06, Green received another shot as an NFL coach, this time with the Cardinals. In three seasons, they didn’t make the playoffs and Green was ultimately fired.
Though this opportunity proved his last shot in the NFL, Green left an indelible mark within pro football. While with the Vikings Green started ‘Viking’s Community Tuesday’, where players were required to spend time during their off-day speaking to people throughout the Twin Cities community. Thanks to Green’s ingenuity, the NFL has used that template to create a similar program that still exists.
And while Green was unapologetically Black, he wasn’t limited to our causes only: just ask Tom Moore and Brian Billick, both of whom are coaches who happen to be White, but whose respective NFL careers were boosted by Green’s support.
“I can’t imagine having had any successes in this league and being where I am now, if it weren’t for Denny Green,’’ Billick told NFL Network last week.
Make no mistake, Dennis Green had an unswerving commitment to helping Black coaches and executives succeed in the NFL.
Just ask Tony Dungy. Or Tyrone Willingham, who was on his Vikings staff before ascending to opportunities at Stanford and Notre Dame. And Vikings Kevin Warren, who was tipped off by Green that the franchise was being sold. Warren informed Zygi Wilf who purchased the franchise.
“Without that phone call from him that day, I don’t know if the Wilf family would own the team,” Warren told Vikings.com.
If ever a Mt. Rushmore for Black football coaches is erected, Green’s face must be etched in stone.
Certainly, he was a pioneer, taking jobs that even the most desperate of coaches wouldn’t have the guts to consider. Moreover, he was a friend and contributor to the lives of many.
Rest in peace, Denny.
(Eric T. Pate can be reached at [email protected])