Dennis Green, whose 10-season tenure as Vikings coach was a remarkable mixture of regular-season success, distressing playoff losses and off-the-field controversy, has died of a heart attack. He was 67.
A statement from Green’s family to an NFL.com reporter said Green died Thursday night. Green had been living in the San Diego area but the statement did not indicate his place of death.
Green, who famously pronounced that there was “a new sheriff in town” when hired by the Vikings in 1992, won more games than any coach in franchise history except Bud Grant. His Vikings teams reached the playoffs eight times in his first nine seasons and advanced to NFC Championship Games after the 1998 and 2000 seasons, though never to the Super Bowl.
The NFL’s second black head coach, Green frequently feuded with the media and, during his final — and first losing — season with the Vikings in 2001, he engaged in a power struggle with then-owner Red McCombs. A man of sizable ego, Green refused to give up his sole authority on personnel decisions and with one game left in the 2001 season, took a $5 million buyout.
Green termed his departure from the Vikings as a resignation, although it was clear that McCombs was making demands that he anticipated would force Green to leave.
Green subsequently had one more NFL coaching job with the Arizona Cardinals, where he went 16-32 from 2004 to ’06. The Vikings have reached only one NFC Championship Game since Green’s departure. He was also a head coach at Northwestern, where he was the Big Ten’s first black football coach, and at Stanford before his move to Minnesota.
In a statement Friday, the Vikings said: “We are incredibly saddened by the sudden passing of former Vikings Head Coach Dennis Green. Denny made his mark in ways far beyond being an outstanding football coach. He mentored countless players and served as a father figure for the men he coached.”
The Vikings praised Green for founding the Vikings Community Tuesday Program, which the team described as “a critical initiative that is now implemented across the entire NFL.” The statement called Green a “transformative” figure in helping to open up head coaching opportunities for blacks among major colleges and in the NFL.
Current Vikings coach Mike Zimmer was at the opening ceremonies for U.S. Bank Stadium on Friday and remembered Green as a “tremendously prepared” coach and “an outstanding person.” He met Green after Zimmer got the Vikings job in 2014, and Zimmer said Green “was very positive about how things were going with the Vikings.”
Grant, who coached the Vikings for 18 seasons, called Green “a fine coach. His record proved that.”
“He’s a major part of a Vikings history,” Grant added.
Perhaps Green’s greatest strength as a head coach was his eye for talent, both among players and coaches. After the Vikings hired him, Green put together a staff that included Tony Dungy, Brian Billick and Tyrone Willingham. Dungy and Billick would go on to win Super Bowls as coaches and Willingham was a college coach at Stanford, Notre Dame and Washington.
Perhaps Green’s signature player personnel decision with the Vikings was his willingness to draft Randy Moss in 1998 with the 21st overall pick, after other NFL teams backed off because of the receiver’s checkered past. He also signed aging Randall Cunningham as a free agent, and Cunningham and Moss helped lead the 1998 team to a 15-1 record.
“For my money, Denny Green is the greatest talent evaluator of any head coach in the game. Ever,” Billick said. “Whether it was the draft or free agency, or the player he had on his team at the time. I remember him saying, ‘Don’t tell me what he can’t do, tell me what he can do to help us.’ ”
At Arizona, Green drafted Larry Fitzgerald Jr., who was once a Vikings ball boy during Green’s tenure.
“He just had an unbelievable knack for knowing talent and being able to evaluate talent,” said Fitzgerald, now in his 13th season with the Cardinals. “His personality as a coach was pretty quiet. He wasn’t a screamer. So when he did speak up and say something it always carried a lot of weight.”
The Vikings were 14-18 and failed to reach the playoffs in the two seasons before Green was hired to replace the retiring Jerry Burns. Green believed the team needed a culture change, and the new coach quickly followed through on his “new sheriff in town” claim.
He quickly dispatched former All-Pro defensive stars Keith Millard and Joey Browner. After his first season, he got rid of offensive line starters Kirk Lowdermilk and Gary Zimmerman plus quarterback Rich Gannon. The next season it was star defensive end Chris Doleman.
Green’s first three teams reached the playoffs, only to lose in the wild-card round each time.
“Denny had a huge, huge passion for the game,” Billick said. “Just a huge competitor. But, once the game was over, you moved on. That was one of the strengths of Denny Green that I remember.”
Green left a complicated legacy in Minnesota. There was great regular-season success — 97 wins to 62 losses, a .610 winning percentage — but his teams were 4-8 in the playoffs. He was praised for his off-field community work, but was the subject of a sexual harassment allegation by a female employee at Stanford that came to light in 1995; the case was settled before going to trial. It was also learned at the time that the Vikings paid a former female intern $150,000 in a sexual harassment claim against assistant coach Richard Solomon, Green’s longtime confidant.
Although Green denied the Stanford allegation and any direct knowledge of Solomon’s actions, those stories, combined with an embarrassing playoff loss to the Chicago Bears after the 1994 season, essentially ended Green’s honeymoon in Minnesota after three seasons. Controversy often marked the rest of his tenure.
In 1996, as the Vikings missed the playoffs for the first time under Green, some members of the team’s board of directors tried to replace him with former Gophers and Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz. The coup attempt failed, although it began an era of discord between the coach and the organization.
Green penned his autobiography “No Room for Crybabies” in 1997, in which he revealed his plan to sue the team’s board unless they allowed him to buy 30 percent interest in the team for more than $28 million.
Two months later, he told a national TV audience that there was a conspiracy on the part of a trio of Twin Cities sports columnists and at least one Vikings board member to get him fired.
Green’s relationship with ownership initially improved after San Antonio businessman McCombs bought the team in July 1998. It helped, of course, that Green’s 1998 team went 15-1, scoring a then-NFL record 556 points. However, the team lost to Atlanta in the NFC title game 30-27 in overtime at the Metrodome.
After that season, McCombs gave Green power over personnel decisions. January 2001 brought the beginning of the end in Minnesota when the Vikings lost the NFC title game 41-0 to the New York Giants. The 2001 training camp in Mankato brought tragedy as tackle Korey Stringer died from heat stroke. The Vikings went 5-10 before Green ended his tenure with a game left in the season.
Green’s departure stunned his players, some of whom were left in tears in the locker room.
Harold Morrow, a backup running back in 2001, said at the time: “Not only was he a good coach, I think he was a mentor to a lot of guys on the team. Guys looked up to him. He gave a lot of guys an opportunity.”
Billick said he will remember Green as a coach “who truly cared about his players and his coaches. He knew what was going on in their lives. He didn’t just pay that lip service.
“He had just a huge, huge impact on my life. And on the game.”
Staff writers Kent Youngblood, Rochelle Olson and Chip Scoggins contributed to this report.