Nowadays, it seems like Northwestern football is all the rage. Winning three straight bowl games from 2016 to 2018, along with the Big Ten West in 2018, the team is on a period of dominance never seen before in its history. What’s more, they’re also getting plenty of support from the school itself, with the $270 million Ryan Fieldhouse being built on the lakefront just two years ago. If there was ever a time to be a Northwestern football player, it’s now — even if the onfield performance isn’t always as good.
But this period of success has been a long time coming. Although the ’Cats have had good seasons in the past, (the ‘95 Rose Bowl and 2000 Big Ten Champion teams) historically, the program has not been known for its dominance; in fact, from 1979 to 1982, the ’Cats went on a record period of futility, losing 34 straight games and downspiraling.
How did a team that lost 34 straight games not only stop that momentous losing streak, but gain enough traction to finally end up on top of college football again? At the center of this transition is one name: Dennis Green, who was named head coach in 1981 and finally ended the streak with a win over Northern Illinois in 1982.
Green is not just a footnote in the program’s legacy; when he was named head coach of the Wildcats in 1981, he became just the second ever Black head coach in NCAA Division I history, and the first of programs that still exist today (the first, Willie Jeffries, coached at Wichita State, which no longer has a football program). He was the first Black head coach in the Big Ten, and was one of the only Black head coaches to ever win the Big Ten Coach of the year award, doing so in 1982 after breaking NU’s losing streak.
Dennis Green was a revolutionary, diligent man who made history with his work in both the NCAA and later, with the NFL. While many have heard of his success elsewhere, not much is often said about his NU days, how he got there and why Northwestern football is forever indebted to his work. As he wrote in his autobiography “No Room for Crybabies,” he “savor[ed] the little things [he] achieved in life.”
From the top now.
Green was born the youngest of five children on Feb. 17, 1949 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to Anna and Penrose “Bus” William Green II. Growing up in what he called a “working class” neighborhood in the fifties, Green wrote that his family “struggled but didn’t starve.” His parents were always an important part of his early life, and encouraged him greatly to work hard in school and in sports; he ran track, played Little League and, of course, football.
Tragedy struck Green suddenly when his father died of a ruptured appendix when he was 11, and his mother passed only two years later of breast cancer. An orphan at 13, Green was then brought up and raised by his older brother Bobby and his two grandmothers, and was determined to succeed for both himself and his family. He worked hard and did well; he was the first Black student to be elected Class President at his high school, led the school football team to two undefeated campaigns, and even worked at the local airport part-time.
Green was so motivated to succeed not only because of his loss of family, but also because of the changing circumstances of the country. When he graduated from high school in 1967, colleges had only just begun to recruit and offer scholarships to Black athletes for their athletic programs, a ticket to “make it, and make a difference” as Green wrote. What’s more, a scholarship would guarantee four years of a room and food to play a game he loved. It was something many in his town dreamed of.
His dream came true when he began attending the University of Iowa in 1967; he was only one of five Black players to join the program that year. He became the team’s starting tailback his sophomore year, and saw significant playing time in several marquee matchups, but his biggest effort at Iowa came that spring.
In 1969, sixteen Black Iowa players voted to boycott spring practices until their demands of academics first, athletics second were met. With their scholarships, the players felt they had earned the ability to get a good education while playing football, and felt that placing the priority on football limited their ability to get into good classes. Green wrote that the boycott was the product of an ongoing culture shock of the late ‘60s, which also included the ongoing Civil Rights protests, the Vietnam War and assassination of Martin Luther King. Green also noted that while he was afraid of losing football, he felt his degree was more important, although he sometimes worried that he would never recover.
He didn’t worry long. Green was one of 11 Black players reinstated by the fall, when he played two more seasons for the Hawkeyes. He graduated in 1971 with a degree in recreation education.
And he wouldn’t lose football for a long time.
Although he now had an education, Green had difficulty after graduation deciding what to do with it. He stayed in Iowa City, working at a heating and air conditioning contractor, before coming up with a plan: to get into the football business, he’d have to work his way up.
He went back to Iowa and told Coach Frank Lauterbur that he wanted to assist the team by becoming a graduate assistant. When Lauterbur told him there was no room and no funds to employ him, Green responded that it wasn’t about the money, and would work for free if he had to. With that, Green had his first coaching job.
Of course, he still had to make ends meet, as he had a wife and two kids to provide for. He kept his job as a contractor, working eight-hour shifts and waking up at 4:30 a.m. to work from 5 a.m to 1 p.m. loading delivery trucks and working in the shop. He’d then shower and head to campus for practice.
The gambit worked; by February 1973, he had gotten the attention of the University of Dayton, who hired him as an assistant coach for a $6000 salary. It was there that he first developed his coaching philosophy for players, a policy he had followed himself when he was in high school: Desire, Dedication, Determination. He would go on to be rehired at the University of Iowa, where he worked for three years as the Wide Receivers Coach.
His life would change forever when he caught the attention of legendary head coach Bill Walsh. Walsh, then at Stanford University, asked if Green would come on as an assistant at the school in 1977, and Green wholeheartedly accepted. Green would learn from Walsh and develop one of the best offensive minds football has ever seen, as the two worked on what is now called the “West Coast” offense. While in California, he served as an assistant for Walsh at both Stanford and the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, before getting his first big gig: Offensive Coordinator at Stanford, working with future Hall of Famer John Elway.
After nine years of hard work and dedication, Green had not only climbed his way up the coaching ladder, he had completely toppled it; he was now a fantastic coach in Northern California, and it was only a matter of time before someone put him in charge.
In 1981, Evanston came calling.
In 1981, Northwestern hired Stanford’s Doug Single to serve as their new Athletic Director, desperate to buoy their programs and fight an ongoing football crisis: the losing streak then sat at 20 games. Single, who had previously served as assistant AD at Stanford, called Green and told him the job was his for the taking. With that, Green became the first Black head coach in Big Ten history.
Of course, the job wasn’t a cakewalk. Northwestern, in the middle of its losing streak, was muddled by rumors that the private school just couldn’t compete in the Big Ten, and like its neighbors Depaul University and the University of Chicago, should fold the football team and put its efforts into basketball. Despite his historic status as head coach, Green noted that he might have only gotten the job due to his connections, and wrote that the job was not ideal for his attempt at making history:
“A lot of people even said,” Green wrote in his autobiography, “that the symbolism of my hiring at Northwestern was diminished because it suggested the only place where a black man could get an opportunity was in a place where he was destined to struggle.”
Nevertheless, Green set up shop and began to try to get Northwestern out of the hole. He noted that in his experience in the Big Ten, he knew what it took to compete in the conference, and Northwestern didn’t have that. He also wrote that the University simply had not made the commitment in finances and facilities to build a successful program, noting that NU had done a fine job in supporting all its other sports (the women’s sports in particular always had top-five finishes) but had failed to fully commit to football. Historians have attributed this to lackluster coaching from Alex Agase and Rick Venturi, but the blame fell on both sides; no one was committing to the ’Cats.
Green took his philosophy of “Desire, Dedication and Determination” to heart, bringing the academic and athletic commitment he had learned at Iowa and Stanford to Evanston. Through a miserable 0-11 premiere campaign, Green stayed upbeat, telling his players “this could be the week” and working them hard. Through losses that included 52-0 to Wisconsin, 70-6 to Ohio State and a heartbreaking 21-20 to Indiana, Green never soured, mentioning that he knew this was a situation that required guts and determination.
This paid off on Sept. 25, 1982, when the ’Cats pulled off a 31-6 victory over Northern Illinois. The fans went nuts, laking the posts in a happy version of the frustration that occurred the year before, and Green quietly noted that “our band members were able to put their hats on backwards.” Finally back in a winning locker room, Green noted that his motivational tools had finally paid off, and in a display of teamwork and trust, swan dived off a table into his team’s arms.
Northwestern was back on the map; Green was flown to New York to appear on Good Morning America and the Today show on the same day; one of the first to ever appear on both shows. Green spoke positively of the program, noting that this was only the beginning for the team and ongoing success. Northwestern would win two more games in 1982, and for his efforts, Green was named Big Ten Coach of the Year; an interesting honor for a 3-8 record.
It didn’t stop on the field; after that season, Northwestern’s administration and alumni committed $20 million for new athletic facilities. The football team would win seven more games over Green’s tenure, with a swan dive following each one. Green had succeeded in an impossible scenario; he made Northwestern competitive in the Big Ten.
Ever the sentimentalist, Green wrote that his time at Northwestern wasn’t about winning, but about leaving “your ego out of the picture when you coach. You have to believe in yourself and understand that if you work hard and don’t win a game, that doesn’t mean you can’t coach.” He wrote that all the guys he coached developed the right attitude about life and sports, and developed a special tie to Northwestern; they’d attend all the big games during the team’s magical run in ‘95.
Green would leave the team for the NFL again in 1986 to join the San Francisco 49ers and his mentor, Bill Walsh, but he left Northwestern in better condition than he got it. He had shown them how to win, and although it would be years before they turned the corner, they got the background behind them.
In Green’s own words, “if you really believe in your approach and stick with it and get administrative and fan support, you’ll get the players and eventually you’ll win.”
After his time with the ’Cats, Green worked with the Niners as a Wide Receivers Coach and won a Super Bowl with them in ‘89, before picking up his second head coaching gig back at Stanford, turning the program from mediocre to reasonably decent (although he still never won a bowl game). Meanwhile, the NFL was taking notice of his progress, marking him as one of the more promising prospects for coaching.
In 1992, the Minnesota Vikings made history and hired Green as only the fifth head coach in franchise history. The move was a surprise for many, as the Vikings had been widely known as an internal franchise, meaning they often hired from within the organization and rarely sought outside prospects. Green, now known for his ability to turn mediocrity into winning, was thought to bring the Vikings back to glory and to their first Super Bowl victory. Green proudly told the press in his opening conference “there’s a new sheriff in town,” and began to post winning campaigns for the franchise.
Of course, Green was still making history, being only the second Black head coach in NFL history (the first, Art Shell, coached the Los Angeles Raiders beginning in 1989) and only the first to do so without playing in the league first. This brought some negative attention to Green in Minnesota, as racist fans would taunt him with letters, even after hard-fought victories.
What’s more, there were constant rumors that Green would be fired and replaced by a Minnesota native. The most noteworthy of these came in 1996, when Notre Dame Head Coach Lou Holtz abruptly resigned in the middle of the season, with the rumor that Viking ownership wanted to rattle Green and fire him. Green responded quietly with legal consultation, and threatened to sue. He continued to coach, but noted later that the Minnesota media seemed against him from the start.
Then, in 1998, he hit a breakthrough with one of the most potent offenses the league had ever seen: Randall Cunningham at quarterback, Robert Smith at running back and legendary duo Cris Carter and rookie Randy Moss at receivers. The offense scored a league record 556 points, and raced out to a 15-1 record. A Super Bowl seemed guaranteed, but a missed field goal in the NFC Championship doomed the Vikes, as they watched Atlanta win in overtime and lose to the Broncos in the Super Bowl.
Green would coach the Vikings for three more years, but never reached that level again, and was dismissed from the team in 2001. He would wait three more years for another coaching job before being hired as head coach of the ever-disappointing Arizona Cardinals. He did his best to assemble a core, but was known best in Arizona for a postgame press conference following a loss to the Chicago Bears:
“The Bears are what we thought they were,” Green said passionately. “They're what we thought they were. We played them in preseason — who the hell takes a third game of the preseason like it's bullshit? Bullshit! We played them in the third game — everybody played three quarters — the Bears are who we thought they were! That's why we took the damn field! Now if you want to crown them, then crown their ass! But they are who we thought they were! And we let 'em off the hook!”
Green was fired after that season, but only two years later, the Cardinals made the Super Bowl. Analysts have agreed that a big reason for the success was due to the core Green had assembled in his time with the club.
Dealing with racism, meddling ownership and the wild roller coaster that is the NFL, Green quietly put together one of the best coaching careers the league has ever seen, winning 113 games. Moreover, he made fantastic connections with dozens of people, and showed the league that Black coaches knew how to win; Hall of Fame Tony Dungy would later cite him as an inspiration in his induction ceremony.
It was a dark day for the league when he suddenly passed.
On July 21, 2016 Green died suddenly due to complications from cardiac arrest. He was 67. Tributes from around the country flooded in, both from the NFL and the NCAA, describing what a wonderful coach and leader he was for every team he served.
Green was known for his tenacity and dedication as a coach, along with his historic place as one of the first truly successful Black head coaches in college and the NFL. Northwestern’s foundation as a modern-day program began with him, he transformed Stanford into a high-caliber program, and he brought the Vikings to success that Minnesotans had only dreamed of before. What’s more, he made history in both the NCAA and NFL, becoming one of the first Black head coaches in each league.
Today there are three Black head coaches in the NFL, and 13 in Division I Football; three are in the Big Ten. Dennis Green was the very first in the Big Ten, and showed what Desire, Dedication and Determination could truly bring to the game.
From 0-11 to 15-1, his legacy transcends numbers.