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Dennis Green: 'Born at the Right Time'


An 11-year-old in Harrisburg, Pa., turned his focus to the Upper Midwest on a November Saturday in 1960.

Not yet knowing what his future would have in store, he watched an elite University of Minnesota team led by Sandy Stephens and a top-ranked University of Iowa team led by Wilburn Hollis.

The national broadcast of the game through the relatively new medium of television delivered images that were even a more novel concept.

Stephens and Hollis were African Americans.

Playing quarterback.

At major college programs.

In 1960.

"Can you imagine in 1960 two Big Ten programs having African American quarterbacks playing for the national championship? I think it left an impression on me for sure," Dennis Green said in a recent phone interview.

Green had followed Stephens since his prep days in Uniontown, Pa., through the time he arrived to play for Murray Warmath, a Tennessee native who played and coached for the Volunteers, coached for Army and coached for Mississippi State before he was hired by Minnesota in 1954, 13 years before Southeastern Conference football teams began integrating.

Stephens led the Gophers to victory over the Hawkeyes and on to the Rose Bowl where he became the first black quarterback to lead a team to an NCAA Division I-A title. It left an impression on Green and others across the country, including future Gophers quarterback Tony Dungy.

It's one thing to notice a monumental moment. It's another to make your own the way that Green and Dungy did. The way those men view it, however, is they benefitted from opportunities created by others and tried to pay it forward to those who followed.

Three years after casting his eyes toward the matchup at Memorial Stadium, Green gazed about 120 miles south of Harrisburg to Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed as part of his *I Have a Dream *speech a vision that "one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers."

"That was incredible," Green said in reference to the speech that was a keystone of the march for equal rights. Green respected student athletes who were committed to earning degrees while playing, as well as college students who traveled from the North into an overtly segregated South on buses to peacefully push for integration and were often met by violent confrontations.

"Most of us, myself included did not feel we had anything near the patience or maybe discipline to follow that concept of nonviolence," Green reflected. "You could get hit upside the head, and you're not supposed to hit back, so our place, we felt was really in trying to do the best we could but we just admired the young guys and young girls who had the courage to do that because it was extremely dangerous."

By the time Green was nearing high school graduation he had seen progress made through legislation and legitimate integration. He became one of 15 African American players of an incoming class of 30 at Iowa, where he played running back for the Hawkeyes (1968-70).

"Well, I feel very fortunate. I've always said I was born at the right time, with being born in 1949 and growing up right at the height of the Civil Rights Movement," Green said. "I came along at a time when opportunity was created by very brave and determined people that came before me, and I was fortunate enough to benefit from it."

Coaching progression

Green played for the BC Lions in Canada in 1971 before beginning a coaching career as an assistant at Dayton in 1973. He's coached in parts of the past five decades, including at Iowa (RBs, 1974-76), Stanford (RBs, 1977-78) and the 49ers (special teams, 1979).

After three seasons coaching on Bill Walsh's staff, Green became offensive coordinator at Stanford in 1980, which led to an offer to become the second African American head coach in NCAA Division I-A (after Willie Jeffries, Wichita State, 1979-83) at Northwestern in 1981.

Green said people in the coaching business thought he shouldn't take the job at Northwestern because "the program was really in bad shape and had no commitment at all, but I really, a hundred and 10 (percent), felt we had come a long way when I got the opportunity to be a head coach at a fabulous school like Northwestern. I had played in the Big Ten, recruited as an assistant coach and had a lot of respect for the conference itself, so I really felt that was a sign of progress that I would have an opportunity to be a head coach in that conference."

Green reunited with Walsh in San Francisco as receivers coach in 1986, a season after Jerry Rice debuted with the 49ers. He was hired as Stanford's head coach in 1989, a year after interviewing for a head coach position with the Raiders for which Mike Shanahan was hired. The late Raiders Owner Al Davis, a champion of diversity in hiring practices (and nondiscriminatory in firing practices), removed Shanahan and promoted Art Shell to the position during the 1989 season. Shell the first African American head coach in the NFL in the modern era and second ever after Frederick Douglass "Fritz" Pollard in the 1920s.

Green said he appreciated the opportunity to recruit players who were strongly committed to education during his time at Northwestern and Stanford.

"The reality is football is not something you can do forever," he said. "Football can open a door and create some opportunities, but the education at that university you go to is really where it's at."

Green said he thinks the private schools Northwestern and Stanford (currently coached by African American David Shaw) were able to hire him based on what they felt was best.

"They just felt if you were qualified for the job and could help them win and bring in the type of athletes that they wanted that were serious about school as well as football, then you could get that opportunity and that's how it worked out for me," Green said.

Green was able to improve Stanford's showing in each of his three seasons, including an 8-4 mark in 1991 highlighted by a trip to the Aloha Bowl and a final ranking of 22.

Jerry Burns, who was an assistant at Iowa in that marquee matchup against Minnesota in 1960, announced his retirement as Vikings head coach in December 1991, and Green was named his successor on Jan. 10, 1992, becoming the third African American head coach in NFL history and second in the modern NFL.

Darrin Nelson, who played at Stanford with Green as his running backs coach, said he was kind of sad to learn that Burns was retiring and excited to learn he would be followed by Green. Nelson visited Green on his first day in the office to reconnect.

Nelson, born in California 10 years after Green, said he and teammates didn't feel an added sense of pressure to help Green succeed in a role that was so groundbreaking for an African American.

"I never really thought about that, to tell you the truth," Nelson said. "He was just a head coach, and hopefully everybody will get to that stage where it doesn't matter anymore. We played hard for Denny because he was the head coach. He had a lot of coaching experience, coached a lot in college. I was just excited he got the opportunity because I had known him prior, but did I play harder for him because he was a black head coach? No, I played hard anyway."

Green said his previous experiences in the Midwest established the belief that the opportunity was in a "community you could go in and be accepted as the man, and the idea would not be anything to do with race. If you can help them win, you'd be accepted, and you'd work out. If you didn't win, your butt would be fired like anybody else."

Influential impact

Dungy said during a recent phone interview that the impact Stephens made at Minnesota led to his desire to play quarterback for the Gophers. He was undrafted in 1976, but debuted with the Pittsburgh Steelers as a safety in 1977 and led the team in interceptions in 1978 in helping Pittsburgh win Super Bowl XIII. He was traded to San Francisco in 1979 when Green was coaching special teams. Dungy spent the training camp of 1980 with the Giants, and then became one of a handful of African American assistant coaches in the NFL in 1981.

"I wanted to do the best I could to be the best I could and I felt that was the way I could make a difference," Dungy said.

He was promoted in 1984, serving as Steelers defensive coordinator until 1988. Dungy coached defensive backs for the Chiefs from 1989-91, taking notice when Shell became head coach of the AFC West rival Raiders.

"That was a great time, really," Dungy said. "We were all kind of sitting there, hoping somebody was going to get an opportunity, feeling like there would be a chance, but to see it come to fruition and to see Art take over, that was a watershed moment."

He also recalled receiving a phone call in 1992 with an offer from Green to become defensive coordinator of the Vikings.

"It was something I wanted to do. I wanted to come and help him succeed," Dungy said. "You want to win, and there's always that competitiveness, but there was something inside that, 'We want to do this. We want to show that if (minority coaches) get an opportunity, they'll do a great job.' "

In leading a coaching staff and locker room, Green drew on the lasting impression of his father, who passed away when Green was 11 years old but not before teaching his five sons how to fish, hunt, "stand up for yourself and take responsibility for your actions."

Frank Gilliam, the Vikings first African American scout, helped recruit Green as an 18-year-old to Iowa as a Hawkeyes coach and enjoyed working with Green in Minnesota.

"We had known each other for such a long time, and Denny was also in good programs, with Bill Walsh, a great influence in the National Football League," Gilliam said. "Denny was with him for years and learned a lot about the game, and he brought that knowledge to the Vikings when he was selected head coach."

The 1992 team, led by Green and a deeply talented staff of assistant coaches, went 11-5 and won the NFC Central for the best mark by a Vikings team in a coach's first season.

Dungy said Green mentored him during their four seasons together and continued to do so after Dungy was hired as head coach of Tampa Bay in 1996 when the Vikings and Buccaneers were in the same division. Dungy could call and ask Green's advice on scheduling and other off-field procedures.

"We were trying to win games and that was an important part of it, but he definitely was getting me ready for that opportunity and talking to me about how he did things, why he did things, showing me in terms of scheduling and meetings and a lot of the behind-the-scenes things, I owe him a lot because he definitely got me ready," Dungy said. "He was always there to help and he wanted to see me succeed. That was important, and it rubbed off on me because I tried to do the same thing for guys on my staff. I learned a lot from Chuck Noll, and my football philosophy probably came from my time with the Steelers, but in terms of being prepared to be a head coach, Denny Green did more for me than anybody."

Dungy had success with the Buccaneers and became head coach in Indianapolis in 2002. He and Lovie Smith became the first two African American head coaches of Super Bowl teams on Feb. 4, 2007, when Dungy's Colts beat the Bears in Super Bowl XLI.

With about 45 seconds remaining and the outcome in hand, Dungy's mind flashed. He remembered how his father, a World War II veteran, had walked past a segregated school in Virginia to teach African Americans and how he had told stories about Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson.

He thought of legendary coaches at historically black schools like Eddie Robinson and John Merritt, NFL assistants Lionel Taylor and Sherman Lewis and Jimmy Raye, "guys who I thought would have been able to lead teams to the Super Bowl but never got the opportunity."

He also thought of Denny Green.

"You start thinking about all the things that had to happen and go right for you to get there and the direction my dad gave me, and opportunities people had given me and Coach Green and the training I got from him," Dungy said. "All of those things went through my mind in those last 45 seconds. It was a thrilling moment."

Brian Billick, who was assistant head coach and tight ends coach for Green at Stanford (1989-91) also made the move to Minnesota. Billick coached Vikings tight ends two seasons before becoming offensive coordinator in 1994 and helping the Vikings go 15-1 in 1998 and set an NFL scoring record (556 points) with Randall Cunningham at quarterback that was later trumped by the Patriots and Broncos. Billick went on to lead Baltimore to victory in Super Bowl XXXV.

Two players Green coached, Mike Tice and Jack Del Rio, also went on to become NFL head coaches.

"I've always been extremely proud of all the guys, whether they got to be a head coach (or not)," Green said. "We liked the idea of helping players become coaches to have a career besides playing the game when it was over, and then we had longtime lifers like Monte Kiffin and Tom Moore, who had been around a lot of different programs and were strong contributors to what we were doing. It was pretty exciting."

Historic combination

Free agency in 1994 brought about another historic moment. As can be the case, however, the principals in the moment didn't notice that the signing of Warren Moon would lead to the first combination of an African American starting quarterback and head coach in the NFL (Vince Evans made one start for Shell's Raiders in 1993).

Green saw in Moon a talented player who could step in and help the Vikings win immediately, and Minnesota went 10-6 to claim the NFC Central.

"It never dawned on me that I'd be the first African American head coach of an African American starting quarterback, but what did dawn on me is that Warren loved to play, loved to compete and we had a system we felt he would fit into, that we had some good receivers like Cris Carter and Jake Reed, we had a dynamic running back like Robert Smith, and that he would do well, so that's really what it came down to," Green said.

Moon, who didn't receive an opportunity to play QB in the NFL until after he led his team to five straight Grey Cup championships in Canada, said he didn't think about it at the time either.

"I think that just goes to show that the times and thinking had changed a little bit, especially within the game of football. There wasn't a whole lot made of it. We had already had an African American quarterback win a Super Bowl by then in Doug Williams (MVP of Super Bowl XXII), we had a lot of accomplishments by African Americans, so I don't think it was that big of a deal. I think it maybe would have become more of a big deal if we had made it to the Super Bowl or something like that, people probably would have brought it up, but I'm glad it wasn't brought up because it just shows things were starting to become normal and the way they should be."

Added Dungy: "I was there, and it didn't even hit me. I'm thinking about it and didn't know that was the first one. I just thought of Warren as a future Hall of Fame quarterback and Coach Green was a great coach, and I thought we had a chance to win, but I guess if you look back on it, that was a milestone moment."

Moon said he loved playing for Green because of his attention to detail and the amount of say that the quarterback was given in the offense's plans.

"Everything was detail-oriented, very organized, very well-laid out, from what we ate every day to how we trained to the amount of time we spent on the field," Moon recalled. "He came out of that Bill Walsh system, so he was very versed in organization."

The week of preparation involved hydration, nutrition and a tempo of practice that emphasized speed but left players capable of being fast and fresh on Sundays, Moon said.

Green went 97-62 in Minnesota for a regular season winning percentage of .610 (second in franchise history behind Hall of Fame Coach Bud Grant's .620) and ranks second behind Grant in number of games coached. Green's 10-year tenure in Minnesota ended in 2001 when Tice was promoted at the end of Green's only season with the Vikings with a losing record. Green was head coach of the Arizona Cardinals (2004-06) and of the United Football League's California Redwoods (2009)/Sacramento Mountain Lions (2010-11).

Other coaches of color have followed: Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis is the second-longest tenured head coach in the NFL, Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin led the Steelers to victory in Super Bowl XLIII, and they will be joined on the sidelines in 2015 by counterparts Smith in Tampa Bay, Jim Caldwell in Detroit and newly hired Todd Bowles with the New York Jets.

Green, who turns 66 on Feb. 17, is grateful for the opportunities he's realized within his lifetime and optimistic that more equal opportunities await future generations.

"My generation laid a certain foundation," Green said, "It's up to the next generation to be able to recognize that really, it's all about equal access and equal opportunity and all of us operating on the same, playing on the same earth."

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