Requiem for the originator: Dennis Green valued brute strength, set expectations high and created a preview of what Stanford enjoys today
He lived to see Stanford football become a national power, but not long enough to receive proper credit for it.
The influence of Dennis Green lives on when someone associates Stanford with power football. His presence is felt every time the Cardinal graduates a senior class undefeated against Cal or wins at Notre Dame. The Farm witnessed Green accomplish unprecedented things, moments he should have spent the last few years reliving and sharing.
Herbie, how fitting is it to have Dennis Green with us in the booth to watch Toby Gerhart run over the Fighting Irish? Folks, I can tell you, nobody associated Stanford with smash-mouth football until this man came here.
Green’s death last month inspired tributes to his trailblazing NFL legacy, not a college resume compiled mostly under a low profile. Seeing his San Francisco Chronicle obituary devote one measly sentence to his Stanford accomplishments left me disappointed, not surprised. The Cardinal’s fan following runs more cult than mainstream. Only cult followers could revere a head coach who left Stanford with a losing record (and never beat San Jose State).
But while someone else built Stanford in his own image best, Dennis Green did it first. His labor amounted to a smaller-scale preview of what Jim Harbaugh did here.
He reversed years of misfortune and raised expectations at a most pivotal time. The Stanford he departed stood in dramatically better shape than the program he inherited. He hired assistants who became successful head coaches. He used his intensity to install a foundation of toughness and prove a revolutionary point: Stanford could physically manhandle its opponent.
“It’s Coach Green who personifies this style,” Tommy Vardell said after his 39-carry, 182-yard sledgehammer act in the 1991 Big Game. “He’s wanted to play this way for three years.”
Harbaugh ushered Stanford to remarkable heights. David Shaw has provided unmatched staying power. Denny was the first Cardinal coach in today’s world of college football – the era of scholarship limits, sophisticated passing offenses and heavy TV network influence – to earn meaningful success on a national stage.
Before shocking No. 1 Notre Dame in South Bend in 1990, Stanford had gone three years without a road win. The 38-21 triumph over No. 6 Cal the following season capped a seven-game winning streak, the program’s longest since 1951. The Cardinal won ten conference games between 1990 and 1991. Stanford hadn’t enjoyed success that constant since Bill Walsh’s first tenure, when Green coached running backs.
A Kodak moment no longer refers to something worth savoring. In today’s business terms, it’s a warning to avoid becoming a casualty of changing times. Stanford football faced such a reckoning early in 1989 as it again, for the fourth time in 10 years, sought a new head coach.
After a 3-6-2 finish in 1988, Cardinal had finished seventh or lower in conference play six times since 1981. Admission standards on the Farm had grown higher. Opponents no longer feared Stanford’s passing-minded brand. The final game before Green arrived as head coach revealed a team’s refusal to win.
The 91st Big Game’s 19-19 tie produced a mutual score and shared humiliation. Bruce Snyder and Jack Elway couldn’t hide their embarrassment (now that’s a Kodak moment) after their teams combined for eight field goals, one offensive touchdown and numerous mistakes. The outcome cost Elway his job.
I first started going to games regularly as a six-year-old in 1985, meaning Denny was the first coach whose entire term I followed. Even then, I sensed how the distance between Section E’s upper reaches and the action below was both literal – 72 rows of wooden bleachers and an oval track – and figurative.
Consistent losing took its toll, especially on those sitting around me with memories of Rose Bowl wins and 14 straight seasons (1967-1980) without a losing record. With Denny, Stanford finally had a coach whose abilities and expectations reflected what the hardcore fans wanted.
“The kind of guys we’re going for are the guys that Notre Dame, Michigan, UCLA and USC want,” he said in his introductory press conference. It took weeks for the new boss to make good on his word. Stanford’s 1989 recruiting class featured a massive left tackle who seriously considered both the Fighting Irish and the Wolverines.
“I wasn’t even considering Stanford until Denny Green became the head coach,” Bob Whitfield said prior to his freshman season.
Green’s staff not only groomed talented players, they found new places for them. John Lynch moved from prized quarterback recruit to hard-hitting safety. He’ll be the next former Stanford player inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Darrien Gordon switched from receiver to cornerback, where he played 10 NFL seasons (two Super Bowl wins and four All-Pro teams among them).
“It's easy to see why his players would run through a brick wall for him,” said Scott Reiss, the Cardinal’s radio play-by-play voice who, as a Stanford student, rushed the field after the 1990 Big Game win. “I remember the toughness of Green's teams, both physically and mentally. “
Consider Stanford football if Dennis Green doesn’t become head coach in 1989. The job isn’t desirable enough to lure Bill Walsh out of retirement, meaning no New Year’s bowl win or Top Ten finish occurs in 1992. Without Dennis Green, Tyrone Willingham doesn’t arrive and begin a successful path.
”Twenty-five years from now, they'll still be talking about the Now Boys and Tommy Vardell,” Denny said in 1991. “And I'll tell you something: They probably should.”
We should. We will. We just wish we had company.