This Date in Cardinal Football: 1-03-89
More than 40 years ago, one of Stanford's all-time greats was forced to shelve personal pride in favor of reality during his time on The Farm, agreeing to move from quarterback to wide receiver.
"It was the only way I could get a job in the pros," said former Stanford All-American flanker Gene Washington, a student body president and star quarterback at integrated Long Beach Poly High School, who today serves as the NFL's Director of Football Operations.
And while the San Francisco 49er legend was once forced to compromise in order to overcome racial barriers, it was a Super Bowl-winning 49er assistant coach finally broke the barrier on this date in 1989. Today, January 3, 2009, marks the 20th anniversary of Stanford University's announcement that 49-year-old Dennis Green would become the Pac-10's first African-American head football coach.
For the second time in nine years, "Denny" was the right man for a head coaching job. The finalists to replace the fired Jack Elway at Stanford also included Dallas Cowboys assistant Paul Hackett, UC Davis coach Jim Sochor, and Bob Stull of UTEP.
Dennis Erickson, who soon bolted from Washington State to Miami, was a rumored candidate. Among the dozen or so who interviewed for the position was a relatively unknown 37-year-old assistant with the Minnesota Vikings. Pete Carroll stayed in the NFL [Unfortunately for us, not permanently]
"I offer a guy who's honest, hard-working and dedicated to the student first," said Green, the Niners' wide receivers coach at the time of his hire. "If they're looking for anything else, then they're not looking at the right guy. If they want a 'banker' image, they should get one."
Stanford thought its former star and alumnus Paul Wiggin was the right pick back in 1980, when Green was passed over for the head-coaching job after being strongly considered. He instead became Wiggin's offensive coordinator, directing many of the players, Ken Margerum and Darrin Nelson included, that he had recruited to The Farm as a Bill Walsh assistant several years earlier. It had been Northwestern, not Stanford, that had made Green, an Iowa graduate, the first black head coach in Div. I-A college football in 1981.
Green lasted five seasons with the Wildcats. After serving as an NFL assistant from 1986-1988, he returned to coach the Cardinal for three seasons. He took his lumps at both stops. An inaugural 0-11 season with Northwestern in 1981 continued what was the longest losing streak ever suffered by a major college team.
His first season at Stanford started slowly at 1-7. When it came time to leave the team hotel for the season opener at Arizona in Tuscon, the bus was an hour late. During the game, running back Scott Eschelman took in a swing pass before a vicious hit separated him from the ball. The pigskin bounced backward about 15 yards.
But Denny moved Stanford forward in short order. Winning a stunner at No. 1 Notre Dame in 1990 marked a huge milestone for the Cardinal program. Green brought in a number of capable assistants (Brian Billick, Tyrone Willingham among them). Three years after Stanford managed to win only three games for the second straight season, the Cardinal won seven in a row to go 8-3 and garner a berth in the 1991 Aloha Bowl. It would be Green's only winning campaign in eight seasons as a college head coach, but in all fairness, the man had taken on significant challenges at two schools better known for their academic reputations than for their winning traditions.
Despite losing to Georgia Tech in the Aloha Bowl, Green finished strong at Stanford and his legacy would last long after he departed in 1992 to coach the Vikings, where he would win four NFC Central titles in 10 years. Jack Elway never won anything without Wiggin's players. Both Walsh and Willingham won with heavy contributions from Denny's recruits: Dave Garnett, Darrien Gordon, Mark Butterfield, John Lynch, Justin Armour, Kwame Ellis.
Other progressive football news of this January day in 1989 included the following: Notre Dame, which had beaten West Virginia in the 1989 Fiesta Bowl was enjoying its first full day as national champion. Tony Rice had piloted the Irish. He was of five African-American quarterbacks, joining Demetrius Brown of Michigan, West Virginia's Major Harris, USC's Cardinal-crusher Rodney Peete and Auburn's Reggie Slack, that started in the major New Year's Day bowl games of 1989..
On that same January 3, Tony Dungy stepped down as the Steelers' defensive coordinator, the job he had held since 1983, to take an assistant post with the Chiefs. Later, Dungy's tenure as Green's defensive coordinator in Minnesota would vault him to his current status among the NFL's elite head coaches.
New Mexico State's recent hiring of UCLA assistant DeWayne Walker makes it five out of 116 current head coaches in major college football who are black. Twenty years ago, Green was the fourth such coach (out of 106 Division I-A programs).
"Dennis' blackness is positive," Stanford athletic director Andy Geiger said back then. "We have to look at the whole person, and it's impossible not to notice he's black. You tiptoe around these things. That's silly. It's an issue in the world. There are not a lot of black coaches. It's something we all pay attention to. It's naive to say it's not a factor in our thinking. Dennis is an intelligent, quality football coach. He'd be a strong candidate anyplace. That includes here."
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