The news of the passing of former Minnesota Vikings coach Dennis Green Friday morning came as a shock to many and, almost immediately, the parade of tributes, eulogies and reminiscences of the colorful and at times combative head coach started pouring in.
Green was a unique coach who put his stamp on the history of Vikings football like no coach other than Bud Grant has in the 55-year history of the franchise.
He was a dichotomy unto himself. He was loved by his players, but was never fully embraced by the majority of fans and was often vilified and made the butt of jokes by the media.
From the moment he set foot in Winter Park in 1992, things were never dull when Green was around. On the day of his hiring, a veteran newspaper columnist had a banner headline proclaiming the Vikings were hiring Pete Carroll. When de facto General Manager Roger Headrick came walking with Green into the interview room, the columnist got right in Headrick’s face and started screaming, liberally mixing in curse words to his rant. Green later recalled to Viking Update, “I didn’t know what to think about that. I remember asking myself, ‘What was I stepping into here?’”
The same press conference introduced Vikings fans to Green’s auctioneer-style speaking cadence and included the infamous line that there was “a new sheriff in town” and that business as usual wasn’t going to be usual anymore.
While widely regarded as a coach who truly cared about his players, Green had many of the no-nonsense traits that most hard-nosed coaches tend to have and impose. One of his first decisions was to clean house of several veteran players, including starting quarterback Wade Wilson, defensive tackle Keith Millard and draft-pick gutting running back Herschel Walker – at the time three of the faces of the franchise. Many thought this housecleaning would set the Vikings back a couple of years.
It didn’t. In his first season with the Vikings, his team went 11-5 and made the playoffs. It wouldn’t be the last time.
In his 10 seasons in Minnesota, the Vikings made the playoffs eight times. What made that an amazing feat that will likely be a record that will never be touched in the modern era of the NFL, Green’s eight playoff appearances came with seven different starting quarterbacks – Sean Salisbury, Jim McMahon, Warren Moon, Brad Johnson, Randall Cunningham, Jeff George and Daunte Culpepper.
Green claimed – and history proved him right – that his offense was such that it didn’t matter who the quarterback was. His system could make that quarterback better. With a mix of unproven QBs, like Salisbury, Johnson and Culpepper, and veterans other teams had given up on, like McMahon, Moon, Cunningham and George, all of them enjoyed success on his watch – no small achievement given the importance of the QB position and revolving door the Vikings had in the Green era. The only player he ever drafted to be "his guy" (Culpepper) wasn't afforded the time to develop under Green.
While Green had a keen eye for drafting offensive talent, the Vikings consistently hit and missed on restocking the shelves on defense through the draft. Without a first-, second- and third-round pick – the final penance in the Walker trade that crippled the Vikings and turned Dallas into a dynasty – in his first season as head coach, Green had to make due with a roster that didn’t have much in the way of depth and was undergoing an overhaul at a time when the organization had closed the door on the Bud Grant/Jerry Burns era.
As far as the regular season went, few coaches were Green’s peer. Full-out, realistic free agency was changing the landscape of the NFL, but Green was one of the few coaches to consistently put together teams that were successful year after year after year. The postseason? That was another matter altogether and became the sore spot of contention between Green, the media and Vikings fans.
In four of his first five seasons, the Vikings had made the playoffs only to exit in the first round. Green became a running joke with the local media, which competed with one another to come up with better, more creative insults as to why Green was a failure as a coach.
Back in the days prior to the Internet (Al Gore hadn’t invented it yet) and social media dominating discussion, newspapers, TV and radio turned perception into reality. Green was on the hot seat with the Gang of Ten ownership group despite taking his team to the playoffs in four of his first five years. Just getting to the playoffs was no longer enough to provide job security. He had to win once he got there to keep his job. He was being held to a higher standard that most coaches. It was put up or shut up time and Green didn't like to be told to shut up.
He preached to his players that it was them against the world and the players guzzled the Kool Aid he was serving up. In 1997, with his job on the line, Green got that first playoff win – an improbable late rally at the Meadowlands to beat the Giants. Even in victory, his detractors had a field day with his perceived arrogance.
The most vitriolic of Green-haters were forced to sit back and shut up in 1998 when he made the claim that Marshall wide receiver Randy Moss falling all the way to the Vikings with the 21st pick was a gift from heaven. Not everyone immediately bought into the idea. He had said similar things many times before about draft picks. But Moss would be different and the record-setting 1998 season would be one that Vikings fans (and anyone alive at the time) will never forget.
In two of the next three seasons, Green brought the Vikings to the NFC Championship Game, only to be denied a trip to the Super Bowl on both occasions – the heartbreaking overtime home loss to Atlanta and the humiliating 41-donut thrashing at the hands of the Giants.
The problem Green faced in 2001 was that he had teams capable of winning a Super Bowl, but they had failed in their attempts to bring the elusive Lombardi Trophy to Minnesota. The new embattled cry: At least Bud got us to the Super Bowl before tapping out. Green's longstanding success led to him being elevated to the role of general manager. He didn't have the title, but he was involved in all roster decisions and it was clear he was no longer just the coach, he was front office management. In the eyes of some players, he was no longer “one of us” in the “us vs. the world” scenario. He was one of “them.” When the 2001 season imploded, it ended without Green – he walked away days before the regular season finale to be spared being fired a week later.
Green’s legacy as a coach with the Vikings was one of numerous successes and high-profile failures. He was one of the winningest coaches of his era and was a master motivator of players, but he never reached the top heights of his profession while with the organization.
His legacy as a human being is much more profound. He was a thoughtful man who would take time to help out young reporters covering the Vikings while having a certain level of disdain for the more established media types in the Twin Cities who routinely took shots at everything from his playoff record to his weight. In a national interview prior to the 1997 playoff win over the Giants, Green leveled charges that the two main newspapers in the Twin Cities were conspiring in a cross-river cabal to get him fired. At first, most thought Green was suffering delusional paranoia, but to see what was being said and written at the time – such as a “complimentary” column of his coaching survival instincts comparing Green to a cockroach – an outsider could see some validity to his argument.
To those people, Green had little time. For the rest of Vikings Country, he did. He became, as Minnesotans are wont to say, "one of us" over time -- if he wasn't at Winter Park, odds are you would find him fishing on a Minnesota lake. Perhaps exposed to "Minnesota nice," Denny became a coaching rarity. He taught local beat reporters the nuances of “Coach Speak.” He wouldn’t come out and directly lie to the media about his plans for the coming game -- although that was the prevailing wisdom of the day. You have to remember that concussions were't talked about back then. At the same time, Green wouldn’t be overly forthcoming, either. Instead, he had a propensity to speak in riddles that stated his intentions and could only be solved if one knew the key phrases that could help decipher the coded language with which he spoke. It was brilliant.
Once someone got to know Green beyond the surface level, they discovered a very different side from his public persona. If you were trusted, he would show you the horrible folder of racist hate mail he had received while coach of the Vikings -- a frightening collection of letters complete with N-words, swastikas and death threats. After a reporter opened up the first Moss press conference by asking a pointed question about whether Moss would have a probation agent in West Virginia or Minnesota – which abruptly ended the press conference – Green granted one desperate young reporter needing quotes an exclusive interview with Moss in Green’s office for a sit-down nobody else would get until minicamp a month later. That was a kindness that would never be forgotten. It would be hard to imagine a similar situation happening with a coach and a Tier-2 beat writer in the current NFL landscape.
To many of his players, Green was a father figure when they needed him. That role took on added significance at the start of his final season in 2001 when offensive tackle Korey Stringer died during training camp. For many players, it was the first death of someone truly close to them that they had experienced, much less in such a quick and tragic way. Green was the shoulder that many of them cried on – a role he took on willingly to help his players get through those dark days and help them in their growth as young men, not just football players.
Whether fans loved Green, hated Green or fell somewhere in between the poles of that spectrum, he was a man who commanded and deserved respect. Very few coaches have ever enjoyed the consistent success for as long as Green did in his tenure in Minnesota … or ever will.
Hired in an era when African American head coaches were still viewed as an experiment by the woefully behind-the-times NFL of the 1990s – Green was just the second black head coach in league history, following Art Shell. His coaching tree has grown into one of the most prolific in recent coaching history, one possessing long branches that have crossed two generations of the NFL. The tree in which Green is the trunk and the root system is impressive indeed.
Two of his coordinators went on to win Super Bowls – defensive coordinator Tony Dungy with an offense-dominated Colts team and offensive coordinator Brian Billick with a defense-dominated Ravens team. He gave many coaches, including several African American coaches who had previously been denied NFL opportunities, the chance to advance in their profession and prove what they were capable of at the NFL level. He was a mentor who passed along the knowledge he learned at the feet of coaching master Bill Walsh. He paid it forward as much as any coach of his era.
His is a legacy that won’t soon diminish or fade over time. For all of his successes coaching at the college and pro level, his best years were spent leading the Minnesota Vikings to a rate of success that could only be rivaled by the glory years of Grant, when the lack of free agency tended to keep teams good or bad for decades at a time.
Even after several years in the league, Green seemingly always had to continue proving himself, a pressure-cooker challenge he accepted with passion and an undercurrent of anger. It resonated with his players. They would go through a wall for him if he asked them to. For many of those players, losing Green Friday was like losing a family member, because, in many key respects at that time of their lives, he was a father figure to many of them that didn't have one in their early 20s.
R.I.P. Coach. You’re gone, but, in Minnesota, you will never be forgotten and your legacy of success – as both a coach and a person – is written in stone.