The 2016 Hall of Fame inductee remembers his friend and mentor Dennis Green, a coach who saw it as his duty to make everyone around him better
In 1992, I was the defensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings under head coach Dennis Green. We were playing pretty well, with an 8-3 record in late November, when Denny called me into his office. It was late Monday afternoon heading into our week’s preparation for a game against the Rams.
“We’re going to make a quarterback change,” Dennis told me. “I’m going to switch from Rich Gannon to Sean Salisbury.” The offense had struggled a little, and Denny explained why he was doing it. He said the defense might have to carry us for a while. But I left the office wondering, Why is Denny doing this? Why is he talking to me about the quarterback? I’m coaching the defense. He could just make the change, announce it, and I’d do my job.
I didn’t understand the real reason until later: This was part of his way of helping me get ready to sit in that chair one day—to make that kind of tough decision a head coach has to make that many people might not understand. You’re winning; why change? Because the head coach gets paid to see the whole team, and to make the decisions that are best for the whole team. And Denny wanted me to know why he was doing this, so one day, if I was ever in the same position, I wouldn’t hesitate to make such a big call when I was the coach of a first-place team.
For Denny it was about helping every player, every coach, reach his potential. He wanted to see the league get better by having guys climb the ladder like he did.
When Denny died last week, it was heartbreaking to lose a good friend, and to see his family lose a loving father and husband. But I also began to think how indebted I am to him, and how indebted so many coaches—African-American coaches and white coaches—are to him. I’ve never been around a head coach who cared so much about the members of his staff, and wanted to put his staff in position to succeed the way he did.
Denny was an excellent football coach. He took struggling college teams, Northwestern and Stanford, and made them so much better. He got the Vikings to two conference title games. He was terrific in raising the Arizona program. But to me his legacy is that of a coach who made other coaches better.
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I’m a couple of weeks away from one of the biggest honors a football player or coach can experience: induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. No one ever gets there without help from scores, maybe hundreds, of people. For me, one of the most important people in my journey is Dennis Green. In fact, as I reflect on it this morning, there’s no way I’d ever have had the success I had as an NFL coach without the mentoring and guidance I got from Denny, and the team-building and leadership skills I learned from him.
Denny wanted to win. He wanted to win Super Bowls. But he sensed the bigger picture. For him, it was about helping every player, every coach, reach his potential. For him, when it came to coaches, it wasn’t just about the African-American coach, like me and Tyrone Willingham. He helped us both immensely, but he did the same things for Brian Billick and Mike Tice, and so many others. He wanted to see the league be better by having guys climb the ladder like he did, and maximize their potential.
You may wonder: How does a head coach help his staff maximize potential? Three years into my job working under Denny, in 1994, the Eagles called and asked permission to interview me for the head-coaching job they had open. He called me into his office and handed me something. “This might help you out,” he said.
I took into my hands a four-page document he’d put together with tips for head-coaching interviews. He thought of everything. And we went over it together, covering all the things he thought the Eagles would ask me.
“What’s the most important thing you’ll do in the first week on the job?”
“What do you want to accomplish in the first month?”
“How do you want to work on personnel? How will you and your coaches work with scouts? What do you want from the scouts?”
“What attributes do you look for in your players?”
“What attributes do you look for in coaches?”
“How active will you want to be in our city? Is that important to you?”
“Will you want to have a radio show?"
I mean, there were so many things I’d never thought of. And if Denny didn’t drill me on them, I’d have struggled to answer so many of those questions. Will you want to have a radio show? Who knows?! That was so unimportant to me, but Denny felt I needed to be ready for everything. And I was. A year later, after some more fine-tuning, I interviewed with Tampa Bay, so ready for that interview. And I finally got my chance to be a head coach.
The other thing I didn’t know at the time, but learned later, is how much Denny did for his coaches without them knowing. He’d pick up the phone and call owners and universities on behalf of his assistants. That’s the kind of thing you never forget. And those of us who worked for Denny never forgot.
The biggest thing Denny preached was that every person in the organization, no matter what job he had, was a vital part of helping the team win.
When I was coaching the Bucs, after the 2000 season, I was looking for a quarterback coach. Denny called me and said he knew someone I should look at—Jim Caldwell, the head coach at Wake Forest. He said, “I think you should interview him. He’s good and he’ll fit in well with your staff. I think you’ll like him.” I did that, and Jim and I hit it off immediately. I hired him, and he was a tremendous quarterback coach for us in Tampa and Indianapolis. Now he’s been the head coach of the Colts and the Lions, and players swear by him. Denny helped Jim get into the NFL. But not by strong-arming anyone to hire him. Simply by saying, “Just talk to him and you’ll be impressed.”
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Observing Denny for four years, I learned so much that I put into my own coaching book. The biggest thing he preached was that every person in the organization, no matter what job he had, was a vital part of helping the team win. Larry Fitzgerald was a ballboy on a couple of Denny’s early Viking teams, and I’m sure Denny told Larry he was going to help the team by working hard and being the best ballboy he could be. He used to take pride in the fact that we might not have the most talented 53-man roster in the league, but every one of those players was going to have a role. Every player would be great at the role he had, and each player would do something that year to help us win.
Denny also let his coaches coach. He believed in hiring people and letting them work. He told me, “This is the way I want my defense to look. It’s your job to get it done.” And he allowed me to make the decisions I felt I had to make to get it done. He did this with his entire staff. That allowed him to concentrate on the overall team. Because of that, he had a great feel for all of his players. I remember just before the draft in 1992 when he decided to trade defensive tackle Keith Millard. A couple of years earlier Keith had 18 sacks for the Vikings, and we all wondered how we would replace that production. But Denny wanted to get playing time for this wild colt of a backup, John Randle, who was barely six feet tall. I wasn’t totally convinced, but we put John in the lineup, and Denny was right: For the next eight years in Minnesota, John had double-digit sacks, and, of course, he went on to make the Hall of Fame.
To win as a pro football coach, I think you’ve got to have faith in your ability to coach, to delegate to good people and to judge talent. Denny was superb at all three. Add the fact that cared so much about his players and the men on his staff and you have a great coach.
There’s one last story that, to me, tells you all you need to know about Denny Green. In 1998, we were coaching against each other in the same division. I was in Tampa, Denny in Minnesota. We’d started to play better and had become a playoff contender. That year we got two Monday night games, and I had forgotten exactly how Denny adapted the schedule around Monday night games when we were together. Even though we were now competitors, I felt comfortable calling him and asking him for his advice on setting the schedule, and of course he helped me. It wasn’t in his team’s best interest to help the opposition, but Denny did it because he wanted to see me, one of his guys, do well. And he did it because Dennis Green always helped.
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