There are no shades of gray for Dennis Green, a black man clad in purple in a white man's world. Take your colors and your social implications and your race relations and all the rest of the baggage you think comes with being a rookie African-American coach in the NFL and sec if any of that gets you a single first down on Sunday. See if these things even get you a bite on your favorite Minnesota bass water, Lake Minnetonka, with the sun coming up behind you and all the world misty and golden and quiet. Ball-carriers, blockers, fish—none of them gives a damn about melanin cells at crunch time.
"You know what matters?" says the 43-year-old Green with a small, hard smile. "Preparation and competence. That's all. Players won't play any harder because of race. They don't want a black man or a white man to lead them. They want someone who knows what he's doing."
And bass? Same thing. If they're going to give it up for the frying pan, they'll do it sooner for an angler who knows the water, who presents the lure properly, who sacrifices for what he gets. "Got an old saying from my minister," says Green. " 'Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.' "
In Green's book, you work, work, work. You take the pain. And then you get your reward. The man refuses to use live bait when he fishes for his beloved bass. That would be too easy, almost like cheating.
"Last year when I put together lists of things I was looking for in a head coach, Denny's name was on nine of the 10 lists," says Viking CEO Roger Headrick. "But what most impressed me was the amount of homework he had done in preparation for meeting with me, the things he prepared about himself, about the Vikings, about coaching in the NFC Central."
Race, Headrick insists, was not a factor in his decision to make Green only the second black head coach in modern NFL history. It may have been a factor when Al Davis installed Art Shell as coach of the Los Angeles Raiders in October 1989, breaking a half century of lily-whiteness at the top spot; after all, it was getting mighty embarrassing for a league in which 56% of the players are black not to have one black head coach. Says Headrick of Green, "I was simply looking for the best head coach possible."
But skin color is something Green can't shake, can't crawl out of, can't ignore, because people won't let him. He's not a rookie NFL coach who has led what was a divided, underachieving team to an undefeated preseason, to a 9-4 regular season and into first place in the NFC Central; he's a black, rookie NFL coach who has done all those things. Regrettably, Green's acceptance last January of the Minnesota job, after three seasons as the coach at Stanford, obliterated the ranks of black head coaches in NCAA Division I football. With Long Beach State having dropped football at the end of last season and with it coach Willie Brown, and with Northwestern having fired Francis Peay in November 1991, Green's departure reduced the number of black head coaches at the 107 Division I-A schools to zero (until Temple hired Ron Dickerson last month). "Now that," says Headrick, "is something I never thought about."
Other people have, though. Much to his discomfort, Green is the perceived authority on minority hiring practices in football at the collegiate and pro levels and as such is asked to weigh in on the related social, economic and psychological impact these practices have on the fabric of American society. Got a question on race and sport? Call Denny. "The whole black issue is not really an issue," says Viking p.r. director Merrill Swanson. "It's all media-driven. I finally had to pull the plug on the Why are there no black coaches on the top college football teams? story. Every reporter wanted him. It got so burdensome for Denny, I just said, 'No more.' "
What people don't know about Green is that he is tough and motivated and talented and more than a little mean. He has never whined about anything, has never wanted anything he didn't deserve and, hence, will never make a good spokesman for those who only want to complain. Raised in Harrisburg, Pa., he married his high school sweetheart, Margie Shindler, a white woman, at age 18, went to Iowa on a football ride, helped raise a daughter and a son, and worked at everything he did. Even when he coached Northwestern, from 1981 to '85, when the Wildcats were mired in the worst losing streak in the history of big-time college football (it ended at 34, in Green's second year), he never made excuses for losing.
"I'm pretty much a hard-line guy," says Green. "I'm old-fashioned. No excuses. My father and mother both died when I was young, and I learned that life is not always fair, that you can't take anything for granted. Plus I'm a product of the '60s. I graduated from high school in 1967, and besides that being a 'summer of love,' it was also a window of opportunity. If you were a black athlete and you took care of business, you could go to school anywhere you wanted.