Former Vikings head coach Dennis Green, whose family announced his death of a heart attack Friday, wasn’t always the easiest guy to know off the field.
“He was private,” said Mike Tice, who played under Green, then served as an assistant coach before ultimately succeeding Green as head coach.
But in his element — talking, teaching and coaching football — Tice also remembers a man at the top of his peer group.
“Denny first and foremost was an excellent offensive mind,” Tice said. “He was underrated in that regard. He knew how to break down defenses and was an excellent teacher of coaches.”
Green communicated those ideas in unique, colorful ways to a litany of assistants and coordinators — including Tice, Brian Billick and Tony Dungy, who went on to become NFL head coaches.
“There was an expression he always used. He always used to say, ‘Plan your work and work your plan.’ He was so organized,” Tice said Friday, reacting to what he called “terrible” news of Green’s death. “And another saying that I still use quite a bit, when a player had a lot of ability but the player wasn’t doing well and coaches were criticizing the player, he would say, ‘It’s not always Johnny’s fault that Johnny can’t read.’ It was his way of saying to the coaches, ‘Hey, buddy, maybe it’s you.’ ”
Tice, now the offensive line coach for the Raiders, added: “I still find myself saying those things.”
And there was clearly a method to what Green was teaching. He compiled a 97-62 regular-season record the Vikings, reaching the postseason in eight of his 10 years here. Billick and Dungy went on to win Super Bowls as head coaches.
To the younger generation of NFL fans, Green might sometimes be reduced to a fiery caricature thanks to his decade-ago “they are who we thought they were” rant about the Bears after a loss while coaching with the Cardinals. But make no mistake: Green left a lasting mark on many of those he coached or worked with over the years, as evidenced by the outpouring of testimonials Friday.
Larry Fitzgerald Jr., a Minneapolis native whose ties to Green go back to his youth as a ballboy with the Vikings and extend through his pro career when he was drafted by the Cardinals when Green was at the helm of that team, talked about the massive impact Green has had on him.
“My whole football career is predicated on what he did for me,” Fitzgerald said Friday. “He’s directly responsible for everything I’ve done in my life.”
Randy Moss, chosen No. 21 overall by Green’s Vikings in the 1998 draft after several teams shied away from him, shared similar thoughts live on ESPN on Friday.
“He gave me a chance. I remember him on draft day calling me on the phone and asking me if I’m ready to become a Viking. I told him yes,” Moss said. “He meant a lot to me. He meant a lot to others.”
The Vikings went 15-1 in 1998 thanks in large part to Moss exploding onto the scene to lead an offense that scored 556 points — an NFL record at the time. On the front end of those passes was quarterback Randall Cunningham, whose career was revitalized by Green.
“He was a man who really, really cared,” Cunningham said Friday on NFL Network. “I believe that without God using Dennis Green, I probably would not have played football as long as I played.”
In an interview Friday, Billick said Green was the best talent evaluator he’s ever seen. Dungy, Green’s defensive coordinator for four seasons, tweeted: “Denny Green did so much for me but the best thing was allowing his Asst coaches to have time with their families.”
Former Vikings running back Robert Smith was among the first to react, tweeting that Green’s death felt like he was losing a father.
Kurt Warner, the former Cardinals quarterback coached by Green in Arizona, tweeted, “we lost a good man way too soon!”
“Just hearing about him passing today and just reading about a lot of the comments and positive things people are saying — Denny Green was just that,” Moss said. “The things that they are saying about this man are very true.”
Staff writers Kent Youngblood and Chip Scoggins contributed to this report.