Seven years ago Dennis Green was driving a truck to help make ends meet. Today he finds himself the football coach at Northwestern University, and the first black head football coach in history of the Big Ten Conference.
Only 31, he was appointed by an athletic director two years his junior. Doug Single is the youngest athletic director of an NCAA Division I school. Together they plan to challenge the rest of the Big Ten while maintaining Northwestern's tradition as "The Harvard of the Midwest."
Both came to Northwestern from Stanford, where Green was offensive coordinator of varsity football and Single was assistant athletic director. Green was warned, "You're young, you're bright, don't go into a situation like that." For the last five years Northwestern has a football record of 3-51-1. Nowhere to go but up.
Green is acutely aware of the pressures on him because he's black. However, he needn't worry about alumni like those who shadow a Notre Dame coach.
"Being black, my biggest asset is Northwestern University," he said. "I'd have no trouble communicating with a high school senior from New York or Chicago, or the alumni here, either. Right now, their (alumni) expectations are pretty low."
In 1979, after three years at Stanford, Green joined San Francisco 49er and former Stanford head coach Bill Walsh as special-teams coach with the 49ers. He went back to Stanford last season.
"For most assistant coaches in college, coaching in the pros is the ultimate," Green said. "You get to deal with the topflight athletes. It was a very valuable experience for me. You also get to find out what the human limits are, something you can only guess at on the high school or college level."
Green has plenty of moral support from black coaches at some of the predominanatly black colleges in the South. "This is a big break for us," commented one. "It's taken too long for one of those big schools to give one of us a chance. I honestly thought, though, that some Ivy League school would do it first. But it isn't going to be easy for Dennis no matter how you look at it."
The Ivy League connection is coming anyway. In 1983, Northwestern will play a two-year series against Yale. Stanford also is a possibility sometime in the next 10 years, along with Rice and the University of Virginia or Duke.
"They would be interesting games for both teams," Green said. "We all have similar attitudes toward the role of varsity sports in the academic environment."
Does Green still sapire to be an NFL head coach?
"No, not really," he said. "Not now at least. I used to put myself in Walsh's shoes when I was his assistant at San Francisco. I would try to figure out what I would do in any given situation. To get a headcoaching job these days in the NFL, you almost have to have been in a coordinatortype position for a while. Even though I'm young, I've been lucky enough to have had some key positions in first-class organizations."
This sentiment is echoed by his southern black counterparts.
"It's good that Dennis gets to start at a place that is no pressure cooker," one said. "He is to some extent protected by the academic prestige of that school. But he's got the credentials. All he needs now is for his AD (athletic director) to back him up and to support him with the alumni."
The alumni are likely to be buoyed by anything that helps attendance. This past season's home games drew an average of only 16,000 to a 48,000-seat staduim.
He won't have to start with a green team. Fifteen of the 22 regular starters will be juniors, so he'll get another two years from most of them.
A primary recruiting problem shows up easily in the size of his defensive line.
"The core of a top-notch football team starts with a strong defense," Green said. "Our defensive line averages only about 235 pounds compared with 248-250 for the Big Ten as a whole. That's giving away quite a bit.
"We don't intend to break any recruiting rules or violate any NCAA regulations. It will be understood here that a studentathlete is a student first. But just as people expect academic excellence from us, there's no reason why people can't expect athletic excellence. Of course, that depends on your definition of excellence."
Indeed. God forbid anybody finding a Yale, Northwestern or Stanford guilty of taking too much license with recruiting law.
Perhaps the biggest story here is why people, myself included, are making such a fuss over Dennis Green's appointment. Two things need noting. One: Dennis Green in 1981 should not have been the first black head football coach in the Big Ten; there ought to have been others before him. Two: There are more Dennis Greens out there. What we really need are more athletic directors like Doug Single.