It took nine years for Dennis Green to reach job security. It took 24 hours for it all to fall apart. In a 2001 season that has witnessed many significant losses, it seemed somehow fitting that Green would be the last and biggest casualty of them all.
Unlike the majority of the Minnesota media and the most vocal fans, I was a supporter of Green. He isolated himself from many of the fans and most of the local media, and that created controversy and Green's own doing. For his many positive attributes, ranging from his ability to motivate and develop talent to his tireless efforts with charity organizations, his primary negative attribute was his inability to relate to the media that covered him.
"If people want a coach that is going to tell them everything he's going to do and give away our game plan, they've got the wrong guy," Green told VU several years ago. "My job is to win games, not be the most popular guy in town. If that doesn't sit well with some people, so be it. I have a job to do and I do it to the best of my ability."
The best of his ability prior to this season was enviable. Although the Vikings never got to a Super Bowl, the Vikings were one of three teams (along with Miami and Green Bay) that never had a losing season in the last nine years. No team made more playoff appearances than Green's Vikings (eight) and no team in the NFC Central Division won more division titles.
Yet, whatever regular season success Green had, it never seemed to be enough. From the day he came to the team, he was the subject of controversy. His initial press conference began with an expletive-laced tirade from a veteran sports scribe who had reported the Vikings were going to sign Marc Trestman. In that press conference, Green gave the media some ammunition they would use against him in later years, proclaiming "there's a new sheriff in town." The sheriff would have to face his share of gunslingers as time went on.
When he took over in 1992, he gutted the franchise. He got rid of veterans Wade Wilson, Herschel Walker and Joey Browner. The team was expected to suffer through a double-digit loss season. Instead, it won 11 games and the Central Division title — only the second division crown in 11 years. Three more titles and seven more playoff appearances would follow, but that would be overshadowed by the perception of Green as a coach and the Vikings as a team.
During Green's tenure, almost every other successful team had one thing in common — a big-time starting quarterback. Most consistent winners during his nine years had top-flight QBs — Green Bay (Brett Favre), Miami (Dan Marino), Dallas (Troy Aikman), Buffalo (Jim Kelly) and Denver (John Elway). What made Green's achievement so remarkable was that he made eight playoff appearances with seven different starting quarterbacks — Sean Salisbury, Jim McMahon, Warren Moon, Brad Johnson, Randall Cunningham, Jeff George and Daunte Culpepper.
It was the drafting of Culpepper that may have defined Green's coaching philosophy. Having seen a revolving door at quarterback over seven years, Green used a draft pick to take Culpepper over defensive end Jevon Kearse, who practically everyone else wanted the Vikings to take. Green was vilified for the pick, but made his rationale quite clear for VU.
"If you're looking short-term, a defensive player might be the way to go. But you have to look at the bigger picture," Green told VU. "Every team that has sustained a level of success in the National Football League has always had a franchise quarterback. Daunte can be that man for the next 10 years or more for the Minnesota Vikings."
When asked if he feared that Culpepper might eventually thrive under another coach if the Vikings experienced a slide in the near future, Green shrugged and said, "At least he'll be here. My job is to get players here, whether I'm around at the end or not."
Green was no stranger to controversy inside and outside of Winter Park. In 1995, allegations of sexual harassment surfaced and the call came for his head. After making the playoffs four times only to lose all four games, Green had to win in the playoffs to keep his job. In the next four seasons, he won playoff games in three of them — advancing to two NFC title games. When it appeared Green would lose his job when the 10-member board of directors were split on its confidence in him, Green wrote a book that included a chapter about buying the team. That, many believe, got the owners to get off square one and sell the team to Red McCombs.
The stormy relationships Green developed, especially with the media, were the result of his philosophy of not sharing information just for the sake of telling all. When the media began piling on Green, accusations of racism came forward — although none came directly from Green. After his book came out, I asked Green about the contention that he himself may be viewed as racist. His response will stay with me forever.
Green showed me some "fan" letters he had received. Some included death threats, some included swastikas and many included prolific use of the word "nigger." While not an accurate depiction of most fans, there wasn't a lot of mail coming in saying, "Great job, coach. Keep it up." More were saying, "Die, nigger, die." That can affect one's point of view in a profound way, but Green never was public about that unsavory aspect of his job.
The reaction of players to the announcement Friday that Green was stepping down was almost unanimous — angry. Most of the players were drafted and developed by Green and many knew that Green saw something in them that other coaches may not have. Green saw Culpepper as a premier NFL quarterback. He saw Robert Smith as a first-round running back when nobody else did. He knew Randy Moss had too much ability to pass up — something 19 other teams in the first 20 picks didn't see. He wasa players' coach and had their respect. With that, he didn't need the respect of the media or the fans — who didn't see success for Green as anything short of a Super Bowl.
If Green had a downfall, it was likely his loyalty to the wrong people. His kid gloves approach to Randy Moss left several organizational black eyes and his loyalty to longtime friend Richard Solomon almost resulted in his dismissal earlier this year. However, Green was one who stuck to his convictions. It made him a great coach and may have eventually led to his demise.
In Minnesota, Bud Grant is revered with a Paul Bunyan status. In an era when one team dominated each division, Grant led the Vikings to the playoffs in 12 of his 18 seasons. In six of those 12 years, his teams lost their first playoff games. Yet, that was forgiven or forgotten.
It wasn't with Green.
He was never revered and, despite free agency and NFC dynasty teams in Dallas, San Francisco and Green Bay, Green's failure to get to a Super Bowl with less talent top to bottom than the Vikings teams of the 1970s somehow became Green's cross to bear.
For the next coach of the Vikings, hopefully his relationship with the media will be smoother than Green's — it would be hard to imagine it being any worse. But, like so many other players and coaches, the full appreciation for what they accomplished isn't to be realized until after they're gone. Whoever replaces Green will have formidable shoes to fill and, while I hope he does an adequate job, it will be much more difficult than the local media or bar interviewees will have you believe.
The Dennis Green era with the Vikings will be remembered by history, perhaps not locally but by NFL historians, as among the most successful of his era. There is joy among Green detractors now, but, while he was sheriff, it was a good ride for Vikings fans who wanted wins and playoff appearances. VU
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