In the fall of 1983, Dennis Green invited me into his office as Northwestern head football coach. His first season had been an 0-11 dud. His second was a 3-8 jump. You would have thought entering that third one in '83 that Dennis Green was 22-0.
"Hey, grab a seat!'' he barked in that bass, gruff-filled voice that filled a room, that echoed across a football field. It would have been a nicer gesture had there actually been a seat to grab. Papers were packed into the visiting chair. It was more of a closet than an office. Nearly 10 narrow, huge, gray file cabinets lined every inch of the walls. More papers were stacked on top of them. And topping nearly every paper in sight were overflowing, old-school reels of football film, the silent movie type.
"Just call me Denny!'' he demanded. From that day forward I did.
I had never heard a man talk so fast and say so much that was worth absorbing. I had never heard one speak with more conviction or authority.
I had never heard of a 3-8 coach being named the Big Ten Coach of the Year, like Denny. I wanted to know how he did it. I had come to Northwestern to see how a paltry record translated into a king's reward.
Northwestern was 1-31-1 in recent games before Denny arrived. It was iconic Michigan coach Bo Schembechler who told me this about Denny in '83: "This Dennis Green, now, he won three games with that team last year and two in the conference and I'm telling ya, that was a hell of a coaching job. Very deserving. I honestly don't know how he did it. He's a helluva tough coach. I imagine he's going places.''
Yes, with a work ethic that was supreme and with a map that kept him on the high road.
* * *
Denny died last Thursday. He was 67.
He sure went places. He coached at Stanford and with the Vikings and Cardinals, all as the head guy. He knocked down barriers with that big, confident voice and with that toughness he learned by losing his father at age 11 and his mother at age 13. He grew up faster than most -- he was forced to -- and his hometown of Harrisburg, Pa., was the perfect training ground for learning how to roll up his sleeves and put one innovative foot in front of the other.
When he became Vikings coach in 1992, he told everyone there was a new sheriff in town. His 1997 biography was titled No Room for Crybabies. He once told me about becoming the new head coach of an NFL team:
"So, you get in there and you work. And you work some more. You plan your work and you work your plan. And you get people who complement you and you get tough players as much as talented players. And you know what? The first time and every time you play against the guy that you replaced or the guy they thought about hiring instead of you, you had better whip his ass. You know what I mean?''
Yeah, Denny, we knew what you meant.
Bill Walsh did. Walsh and Denny were fertile offensive minds that meshed. Walsh became extremely fond of him. Tutored him. Listened to him. Pushed him hard to old-guard, old-school NFL ownership reluctant to open doors.
Denny took Walsh's brand of the West Coast offense and added a twist: The power running game and West-Coast dinking trinkets were colored with a deep-strike vertical passing game. No matter how much he ran it or dumped it, Denny was going to heave it.
He once told me: "Some people are afraid in pro football to be independent in their thought process. I am not.''
That meant coaching the scout team, too. Denny, as head coach, did it. Taxing, grimy work. But not beneath him. He wanted his starters to have the best look each week. He wanted to intricately know the bottom end of his roster. What better way to take the high road?
* * *
When Denny's son, Jeremy, was entangled in child pornography and drug charges in the summer of 2010, Denny and I talked about it. It was the softest I ever heard his voice. Some sentences began to trail off into whispers. But then he perked up.
That happened when he talked about the love he had for his son despite the troubles.
This man of towering pride felt the sting of his family name singed but dug into his reservoir of toughness. He talked about his wife, Marie, and how she supported him and both each other.
He promised to take the high road, stay on it, knuckle his way through. He had spent a lifetime of practicing that art.
His reach back to all coaches and to assist African American coaches in their struggle for college and NFL opportunities is part of his legacy. So is his brilliant offensive mind. So is his leadership and his toughness.
The passionate way Denny coached and lived, though, a drummer at heart and a gritty football coach to the core, resonates. His love for music and his coaching with spice created a tapestry, an arc woven throughout football that endures. He told everyone that he took the high road.
I imagine we can still find him there.