In 1992, the Minnesota Vikings were looking for just the fifth head coach in team history, after the retirement of long serving Jerry Burns. They appointed the head coach of the Stanford Cardinals, a man whose previous pro coaching experience was three years as wide receivers coach for the San Francisco 49ers. His name was Dennis, or Denny, Green, and upon his appointment he became just the second African American to be named an NFL head coach in the modern era.
Green, who died as 67 from a heart attack, had been a disciple of noted football visionary Bill Walsh with the 49ers, and announced on the day of his appointment that “there was a new sheriff in town”. The sheriff set about refereeing his shire, taking the Vikings to an 11-5 record in his first season and a loss in the Wildcard round of the playoffs. In what would be a trademark of Green’s Vikings teams, they improved from 13th in total points the previous to fourth. Three Wildcard round exits followed in the next four seasons, with only one season not ending with a postseason berth in Green’s first five years in charge. They finally won a playoff game following the 1997 season, with a late field goal the difference as they beat the New York Giants 23-22 in the Meadowlands. The next week saw the team fall to the 49ers, and despite the continued success in reaching the postseason Green attracted some criticism for not pushing his teams deeper into the playoffs (much like Marvin Lewis and the Bengals in recent days). Then 1998 happened.
The 1998 Vikings under Green is one of the greatest teams in NFL history, and arguably the best to not win the Super Bowl. Under Brian Billick’s stewardship, the offense with Randall Cunningham at quarterback (3704 passing yards and 34 touchdowns), Robert Smith at running back (1187 rushing yards, six touchdowns) and rookie sensation Randy Moss (1313 yards, 17 touchdowns) with savvie veteran Cris Carter (1011 yards, 12 touchdowns) at wide receiver, set an NFL record with 556 points scored as the team went 15-1 in the regular season, but failed to reach the Super Bowl as they lost 30-27 to the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship game.
Green’s next two seasons saw the team reach the playoffs both times, but as before success would elude them. This including another championship game loss in 2000, which would mark the end of the last winning season of Green’s career with the Vikings. He was released from his contract with one game remaining in the 2001 season, with the team 5-10 and on their way to the only losing season since Green took charge.
He became the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals prior to the 2004 season, but his time in the desert was not a success. He never won more than six games in any of his three seasons in charge, and it was during the 2006 season that he delivered the press conference for which he (rather sadly) is best known for, among newer fans of the NFL.
He ended his NFL coaching career with 113-94 record, with a disappointing 4-8 mark in the postseason. His quarterback of that magical 1998 Vikings team, Randall Cunningham, said that Green “built our morals, our character, our integrity”, and believes that without Green he “probably wouldn’t have played football as long as I played.” Brian Billick, who went on to win the Super Bowl that would elude Green in his second season with the Baltimore Ravens and later co-hosted The Coaches Show podcast with him, tweeted that “(…today is a) tough day. Huge loss. I can’t imagine what my life would have been if not for the opportunity to work with Denny. RIP Coach.” While he may have never tasted the ultimate success in the game, he touched the lives of many, and made the game richer for his presence. His record suggests that of a winner, and truly that is what he thought he is. He will be greatly missed.