When the news of the passing of Dennis Green broke this past Friday, my first thought was about Dennis Green the NFL coach. Who can forget the 1998 Minnesota Vikings with Chris Carter, Robert Smith and Randy Moss? What about (especially in Chicago) "they are who we thought they were", which he said after a close loss to the Chicago Bears as coach of the Arizona Cardinals in 2006.
Although he will always best be remembered from his time in the NFL, the five seasons he spent as head coach of the Northwestern Wildcats should not be forgotten.
When Green was hired prior to the 1981 season, he became the first African-American head coach of a Big 10 school and just the second in FBS (Division 1-A) history.
In 1981, Green came into a less than ideal situation with the Wildcats. Between 1976 and 1980, the Cats lost a staggering 51 games, and won only three. Seriously, I'm not making that up. Those seasons were part of an even longer stretch of futility. From 1972 until 1994, the team didn't have a single winning season. Green's 1981 squad didn't fare any better, finishing 0-11 that year.
Things would improve a little for Green the next year, when the Cats finished 3-8. The team's win on September 25th of that season was the first for the school in just over three years. Any time a coach can end a three-year losing streak, you figure it deserves to be recognized. Green's small but important turnaround was noticed, and he was named Big 10 Coach of the Year. He became the first Northwestern head coach to win the award, and only two others have won it since. He remains the only African-American to have won the award.
Although he finished with only 10 wins in his time in Evanston, Green brought a measure of respect back to the program which had been missing. Even though it might not look like it, 10 wins over five seasons is still a lot better than three.
Green would go on to coach for three more seasons in college, finishing with one winning season at Stanford between 1989 and 1991. The next year, he moved up to the NFL with the Vikings. Over 13 seasons with the Vikings and Cardinals, Green finished with 113 victories, and two appearances in the NFC Championship game.
Pat Fitzgerald, the current head coach of the Wildcats, sent out a tweet about Green on Friday. "Our entire football family is grateful for Coach Green's impact! Thoughts and prayers are with his family today."