It was at the University of Pittsburgh that the Salk polio vaccine was discovered. The school has also fielded nine national football champions, and so far no one has tried to devise an antidote for Panther fever. Bet the homestead no one will this year, either, for on these muggy summer days, Pitt fans are dreaming of 11 cool fall football afternoons in the offing, and daring to whisper that the Panthers have a shot at a 10th national title. What's more, they're talking right out loud about the wonders that will be wrought by the player widely believed to be college football's best, the Natchez nonpareil, Hugh Green.
This is the same atmosphere that was to be found on the school's urban campus before the 1976 season, when Pitt won its most recent title. Then the player was Tony Dorsett, the running back from nearby Aliquippa, Pa., whose achievements were not only spectacularly visible to the folks in Pitt Stadium but also were made known to the nation at large on television and in the weekly offensive statistics sent out by the NCAA. But this time the player of particular note isn't a hometown guy, doesn't score touchdowns and isn't even on the NCAA stat sheets. That's because Hugh Green hails from Mississippi and is a defensive end.
Conservative evaluators of college football talent say Green is the defensive player in what should be a vintage year for that category. Others proclaim that Green is so easily the best collegiate player—on offense or defense—that he has lapped the field. To Frank Broyles, athletic director at Arkansas, Green is "all-world." Syracuse Coach Frank Maloney believes Green's skills are so superior that "he just shouldn't be playing college football."
Maloney, whose Orangemen tackle Pitt on Nov. 1, has ample reason to want Green to be somewhere else. In the three years since Green arrived at Pittsburgh, Maloney's offensive-minded Orangemen have been beaten in all three games. The Greening of Syracuse isn't a pretty phrase on Piety Hill.
August 31, 1980
In college football—unlike the situation in the pros—a single dominating defensive player is enormously important because he controls strategy on both sides of the line. "In the pros they have this secret technique for neutralizing a great defensive player," says a top collegiate coach. "You may have heard of it. It's called holding."
John Marshall, a former assistant at Southern Cal who now is the coach of the special teams at Green Bay, says, "The value of an outstanding individual in the college game has to do with the level of talent. In college the players not only aren't as good, but the truly good ones are spread out." Oklahoma Defensive Coordinator Rex Norris says, "A great college defensive player dominates everybody he plays against. In the pros, there's a balance of super-players."
Thus, in college football a team not only weakens its own offense by double-or even triple-teaming a player like Green, but its own defensive game plan must take into consideration the fact that there can be no slipups; the offense can't be expected to compensate for defensive lapses. The result is often overcautious defense. In short, rivals are forced to alter their entire style of play, not just their offensive plans.
Says Pitt Coach Jackie Sherrill, "Hugh Green, with his maturity and his intensity, gives us enormous flexibility. Even on offense we can gamble more." The outlook is not entirely hopeless, of course, when a team finds itself up against a lights-out defender like Green, or Florida State's Ron Simmons, or UCLA's Kenny Easley (see boxes). "The other team does have a choice," Texas Coach Fred Akers says. "It can run away from him."
Fearless Lou Holtz at Arkansas prefers to go whole Hog. "A great player dominates and intimidates," he concedes. "You get so engrossed with handling a super-player like Green that you lose sight of how you're going to win. Actually, our philosophy is to run right at a great defensive player."
Does it work?
"Naw. We get beat. But at least he makes the tackle quick on us, and we don't waste film."
What exactly does Green do? Ray Zingler, Pitt's defensive end coach, says, "He does two things. First, he'll rip your head off, then he'll cut your heart out."
No wonder then, that Green has been named to 12 All-America teams. In 1978 he was on the Walter Camp Foundation first-team All-America squad, the first sophomore ever to be so honored. After playing only two years at Pitt he was picked for the school's alltime team, which dates back to 1910. If there was any justice, Green would be sharing the preseason lead in the race for the Heisman Trophy with Ohio State Quarterback Art Schlichter. However, his chances aren't good. The last non-back to win the Heisman was Notre Dame End Leon Hart, in 1949. You would think Green should be in hot contention for the Outland Trophy, though it is supposed to be awarded to the outstanding interior lineman. On that basis, he would certainly be ineligible because he doesn't play an interior line position. That seems somewhat unfair, however, for the fact is that Ross Browner won the Outland Trophy in 1976. Browner was a defensive end. Those responsible for giving the award say that Browner won "by mistake." Well, at least there should be no mistaking that Green is the preseason favorite for the Lombardi Award, which goes to the outstanding college lineman.
Who then goes to the pros. Gil Brandt, the Dallas Cowboys' vice-president for personnel development, says Green has the greatest ability of any of this year's group of draft eligibles. Ralph Goldston, East Coast scout for Seattle, says, "If there's anybody better than Green, I'd sure like to see him. Green's not only tough, he's mean as hell." Goldston says Green could well be the first pick in the entire draft. One of the most active sports agents, Jack Mills of Boulder, Colo., estimates that Green should command $1 million—perhaps a four-year contract worth $600,000 in salary and another $350,000 to $500,000 in bonuses. Says Green, "It's sure fun when everything is going your way. Football is first with me; everything else is second. Let's be honest, it's the only thing I can do."
Relaxing in his dorm room (WELCOME TO THE FRIENDLIEST PLACE IN TOWN, says a sign on the wall), Green reflects on his craft. "See, on defense, all we want to do is hit, get up, and then hit harder the next time," he says. "If you're gonna play at Pitt, you're gonna hit. Offense is more finesse, the witty and brainy types. Offensive players can't stand being physical. Me, if I don't crush someone on a play, I'm disappointed. Let's be truthful. Fans like the sport because of the violence, which is also why I like it."
Ah, yes, the violence. Sherrill says, "Hugh has one speed: full. And he has that explosive strength. He's so reckless and so quick. Nobody in college football can block him." He runs 40 yards in a certified (by Seattle's Goldston) 4.63 seconds, halfback speed.
Oklahoma State Coach Jimmy Johnson, a former Pitt assistant, says Green "has the agility of a 170-pounder. He is never off his feet, just like a cat." A very mean cat, albeit a very cooperative one. Says Johnson, "Whatever you ask him to do on the football field, he'll do it better than anybody has ever done it before. You can build your entire defense around him. Heck, you can build your entire team around him. If Hugh Green is on your team, you're automatically one of the finest in the country."
Which is what Pitt is this year. "Having Hugh," says sophomore Quarterback Dan Marino, "is a great comfort to me. It means I go into a game figuring if we score two touchdowns, we can win. He gives me an awful lot of confidence." In the Panther defense, Green tells his buddies to plug up the middle and he'll take everything wide—around both ends. He lines up at defensive end over the tackle 60% of the time, but at times he plays linebacker, either outside or inside. In these intricate times Pitt is booming Green as a Heisman and Lombardi candidate at defensive end as well as an All-America candidate again. Because Green himself doesn't decide where he will play until the last second, the opposing offense hasn't a clue, and it isn't unusual to see rival linemen missing blocks and tangling each other up, so intent are they on making their assignments to get a piece of Green.
Last year Green made 76 solo tackles and was in on 59 others. He nailed the quarterback 11 times for—102 yards. Green will be double-and triple-teamed as usual this fall, but he'll fight off his attackers and make his tackles. The concentration on him will free other members of the talented Pitt defense, which in Brandt's estimation will provide eight pro draft picks, to pounce and pillage. Defensive Coordinator Serafino Fazio says the only time his unit worries is when the Pitt offense fumbles the ball inside its own 10. Says Hugh, "This could be the year that Pitt had everything and didn't do nothing. Or the year that Pitt had it and did it."
Green, who is 21, grew up fatherless in Natchez and his mother died when he was six. He was taken in by his aunt, Lucy Berry, and her husband, Eltee. Eltee, a masonry worker, says, "Hugh always thought I was rough and mean on him. I wasn't mean. But I was rough because I wanted to get it in him that whatever you do, you do it right."
Back then, a big time for Green consisted of rolling a tire down the street with a stick during the day and sitting on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi at night. He used to spend a lot of time under the bridge that leads to Vidalia, fishing for perch and catfish, but even that was not exactly a thrill-a-minute activity. "I never caught much," says Green. "I'd just beat at the water with my pole." When he was 13, Hugh ran away from home. He slept overnight on a parked bus in Natchez. The next morning a policeman spotted him sitting in a tree overlooking the Mississippi, sulking. "How old are you?" the cop shouted up to the youngster. Said Green, "Thirty-five." That witticism got him thrown into jail. A kindly judge later said to Hugh, who was obviously well built even then, "You ever tried football? That would be better for you than running away." Green took his advice.
The first team Hugh played for was a junior high squad that went 0-4 in a curtailed season. In high school Green thought so many players at North Natchez were better than he that he quit football. But the empty afternoons got to him, and so did Eltee Berry's philosophy. So Green tried again. Since then, he has never considered quitting. "I couldn't do that," he says. "That would be like finding out the king was gay."
Coach Tom Williams of North Natchez says, "A Hugh Green comes along about once every 20 years. We were hard on him, but we got the max out of him." In his senior year Green made 116 solo tackles and was in on 58 more. "The main thing we taught him," says Robert Smith, the school's defensive line coach, "is that playing defense is an honor." Which makes it an honor for everybody watching him except, perhaps, Aunt Lucy, who confesses, "I know he's good, real good, and I'm so proud of him. The only problem is I never have fancied football."
And recruiters traditionally have not fancied Natchez as a breeding ground for football talent. Thus, Green was lightly recruited. Mississippi State was the only major school to show serious interest, and Green signed a letter of intent. That was the winter of 1976. Pitt had hired Sherrill after Johnny Majors, then leading the Panthers to a national championship, announced he'd be leaving for Tennessee. Sherrill was raised on a chicken ranch in Biloxi and therefore pays particular attention to prospects from Mississippi. He had his eye on a tailback from Pascagoula named Rooster Jones, who had scored 52 touchdowns. While studying films of Jones, which included a game with North Natchez, Sherrill and his assistants kept noticing a Natchez kid who seemed to be playing in the Pascagoula backfield. It was Green, doing his thing. Ultimately, Jones, who also had signed with Mississippi State, defected to Pittsburgh and urged Green to check the school out.
"I went," says Green. "And after one day I called home and said, 'I hate it, it's ugly. Have you ever seen black snow?' Next day I called home and said, 'I love it, it's gorgeous. You should see this pretty snow.' " The turnabout was caused by the Pitt players, whom he liked (Dorsett, by now a Dallas Cowboy rookie, phoned Green and said, "They really do want you. You must be real good"), and Sherrill, whom he believed. Sherrill told Green, "I'm not going to pay you to go to Pitt. And I'm not going to say you'll start or even play. But if you're good, you'll get more publicity here in one year than you will at any other school in four."
As it was, Mississippi State had pretty much ignored Green after getting his signature on a letter of intent, and Hugh, a gentle but emotional person off the field, doesn't deny he was flattered by the attention from the North. "I hate to admit it," he says, "but I think I went to Pitt because I wanted to get on national TV and say, 'Hi, Mom.' " He has. He has also given his howdies to many an opposing quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end and offensive tackle who has strayed into his path, which is somewhat wider than a church door. Runners find Green's long arms (his reach is 36") arresting, and his tackles punishing, although at 6'‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬™" and 222 pounds he is not of epic size. ("I know I'm 6'2"," Green contends. "I've always been 6'2". But the pro scouts measured me different. Why would they want to make me shorter?")
Although Sherrill and others deny it, the truth is that Green was a come-along with Jones, who has turned out to be a good but not lights-out kind of player at Pitt. Says Rooster now, "Hugh has hit me a lot but never the way he wants to. And I wouldn't want him to. Man, if he has a weakness, it's only in his dreams, because when he gets on the field, he's all real."
The Pitt coaches began to suspect they had something special when, the summer before he reported, Green asked to look at films. "The great ones, like Dorsett and Green, are all alike," says Sherrill. "They sit in the front row at team meetings, look you in the eye and ask you questions."
But Sherrill normally doesn't start freshmen. So in Green's first game, against Notre Dame, Hugh was forced to watch from the bench—until the second play. Green was first string for the rest of the season and went on to be a second-team All America. The only time Green is benched now is in Pitt's practice sessions. "I guess this is unfair to Hugh," says Fazio, "but there's no need to embarrass our own players."
"You don't teach a player to do what Green does," says Goldston. "It's God-given." Sherrill agrees, saying, "We, as coaches, always take a lot of the credit. But the fact is, we learn an awful lot more from Hugh Green than he learns from us. What we learn from him we try to teach to others." Zingler is in awe of Green. On first meeting him, Zingler said, "Hugh, I hope I can contribute in some small way to your becoming a better football player." Said Green, "Coach, you can. I can get better every day." Nobody questions Hugh's want-to. Says Zingler, "When he puts his game face on, you know he's going to go as good as he can. He senses he has a great obligation to himself. And he never leaves anything for tomorrow."
At Natchez, where Coach Williams once said, "Hugh doesn't play for North Natchez, he is North Natchez," Green was chided one time during a scrimmage for a hit that wasn't up to standard. With that, Hugh backed up, then tore into the blocking sled with such force that he totaled it.
"I do find," Green muses, "that something like a forearm up alongside the head does seem to settle most folks down."
For all his strength, Green hasn't been big on lifting weights. "White guys lift weights," he says with a laugh. "Black guys play basketball." Only recently has Green started lifting, explaining, "For us to win a national championship, everyone on this team has to do something he ordinarily doesn't do. For me, that's weights. Besides, these pro scouts come in and ask for Hugh's chart, and if Hugh doesn't have a chart, Hugh's in trouble." Green also conditions himself by running, often from dawn to exhaustion in the off-season, but basically he's one of nature's bounties: a great body that stays in great shape naturally.
There are only minor caveats about his football future. Brandt says, "The fact that God didn't make him four inches taller hurts. So in the pros he'll be switched to linebacker, and sometimes there are problems with converting a player." That doesn't prevent Brandt from rating Green as the most talented senior player in the nation. Goldston agrees but says, "I don't think his lack of height is a" negative, the way he plays." For his part, Green admits he sometimes takes his eye off the quarterback and that occasionally his drop-back pass coverage isn't perfect.
Green's prowess dictates that he be something of a team leader, and so he is, leading by example, not with his mouth. Says Sherrill, "You don't see snakes jumping around. They coil up real quietly, then strike. That's Hugh."
Green and Sherrill have a warm, respectful relationship. Early on, Green told his coach that he was going to buy a $13,000 Thunderbird. Sherrill said, "I can't let you do that. The NCAA would be on us so hard. Buy a used car." Green did, a 1976 Cougar for $5,500, and says gratefully, "Everything Coach Sherrill tells me is right. You need somebody older and wiser.... Besides, I think he knows what he's talking about."
"Because when he was a player at Alabama, he bought a Corvette." George Burns never set up a punch line so perfectly.
In addition to his scholarship, Green gets a monthly $130 Social Security check as a result of his mother's death. He divides it thusly: car payment, $129.10; eating out, trips, gasoline, clothes, miscellaneous, 90¬¨¬®¬¨¢.
But if that kind of budgeting seems a bit odd, it's not troublesome for Green. After all, he was never rolling in dollars in Natchez and 90¬¨¬®¬¨¢ is, he says, "still more than nothing." Green is very tight with a buck. He painted dorm rooms at Pitt two summers ago for $4 an hour, and a friend says, "He saved about $3.95 of it." Among Green's favorite possessions are his stereo (bought for $90 when he was in junior high), his bike (bought for $40 in high school) and a black and white television (so old that even Green is hazy about when he acquired it, but not the price, $100).
Hand in hand with Green's frugality is a down-home self-sufficiency and directness. Hugh cooks, irons and sews. Indeed, one of his favorite outfits includes a long-sleeved blue and white shirt he made himself. Green is not the least self-conscious about his home-making abilities. "I think it's a good idea to be able to take care of yourself," he says.
Green also thinks of himself very clearly: he is a football player, not a thinker, not a raconteur, not a man of many talents. Life revolves around football for Hugh Green; the other parts of his days are left to sort of take care of themselves. "I spend a lot of time answering the telephone," he says. "Mostly it's girls calling." But hanging from the rearview mirror of his car is a Capricorn medallion, given to Green by a girl friend in Mississippi to keep the other girls away. "Does it work, Hugh?"
Green is docile and malleable when not between the sidelines. If things don't work out today, maybe they will tomorrow. If not then, maybe the next day.
The only off-field concern about Green, who gets high marks in the column headed "Good Person" right down the line, is that he is so open, so friendly that he is given to going down the street with anybody. There have been associations that didn't thrill Sherrill, but when he mentioned his feelings, Green immediately saw the light. A part of the problem is that Hugh Green, by his own admission, is just a country boy seeing city lights—and he loves the view. He also loves the celebrity.
Recently, for example, Hugh and a companion walked into Primanti's restaurant in Pittsburgh's wholesale district. All heads turned. Green ordered a huge sandwich—ham, eggs, cheese, cole slaw and tomato between two ridiculously large pieces of Italian bread. When it arrived, the companion was horrified to be served an identical sandwich and asked, "How in the world can I eat that?" Waitress Candy Carter said, "Want me to put some whipped cream on it?" Green erupted in laughter. "Sure is fun when you're a winner," he said.
Sherrill, in letters to his players this summer, warned them that "the air is getting awful thick about the possibility of us winning the National Championship in 1980" and to watch their mouths.
That's one piece of Sherrill's advice Hugh Green is having trouble with. After all, when you are the best, it's hard to be humble. "We see nobody directly beating us," Green says. "We think about our talent, and we fall out laughing. Nobody is better in the country than our front five. Then we have Marino, and there isn't anyone else like Big Mac [Fullback Randy McMillan]. We know we got it. We're a better team than the Pitt team that won it all in 1976. All they had was Tony Dorsett."