Former NFL and Mountain Lions coach Dennis Green dies at 67

Coach Dennis Green talks to the local media after the Sacramento Mountain Lions’ first mini-camp of the offseason, on June 4, 2010, at Grant High School football field in Sacramento.
Coach Dennis Green talks to the local media after the Sacramento Mountain Lions’ first mini-camp of the offseason, on June 4, 2010, at Grant High School football field in Sacramento. Sacramento Bee file

Dennis Green, who served as coach, mentor and father figure to football players for most of his life, once told The Bee, “I live for this great game.”

Football defined Green, be it his success with the Minnesota Vikings, his timeless postgame rant while with the Arizona Cardinals 10 years ago or his frustrating last stop with the Sacramento Mountain Lions of the now-defunct United Football League. Green, remembered as one of the first African American head coaches in major-college football and the NFL, died late Thursday of cardiac arrest. He was 67.

Green’s family announced his death on the Cardinals’ website, the statement reading in part: “His family was by his side, and he fought hard.”

Football was a salvation for Green when he grew up in blue-collar Harrisburg, Pa., the sport offering a chance of personal growth after his parents died during in his pre-teen years. Green’s father, a postal worker, and his mother, a beautician, died within two years of each other of a ruptured appendix and cancer, respectively.

Football took Green to college at Iowa, where he played halfback and graduated with honors before becoming a coaching pioneer of sorts. After taking assistant jobs in college and the NFL, Green became one of four African American head coaches in college when Northwestern hired him in 1981. He later coached at Stanford, where he previously coached under Bill Walsh.

After 13 NFL seasons as a head coach, Green concluded his career in Sacramento with the Mountain Lions. Green didn’t mind working in virtual anonymity here. It was coaching, and that suited him fine.

What soured Green in his final coaching stop was nonpayment. He sued the UFL and Mountain Lions for breach of contract as he sought $990,000 he said he was verbally promised by Mountain Lions investors. He coached for three of the four years the club existed. He filed his lawsuit with two games remaining in the 2011 season, though he coached the remainder of the season out of loyalty to the players.

“Athletes and coaches don’t quit,” Green told The Bee this past January, explaining his decision to finish the season. “It wasn’t about the team; it was about me and the owner.”

Green was a fan of Sacramento. He bought a home near the Garden Highwayand regularly visited the Sacramento River, fishing pole in tow.

“I caught a lot of salmon, a lot of striped bass,” Green said in January. “I enjoyed Sacramento.”

Green enjoyed his best seasons in Minnesota, coaching the Vikings to eight playoff appearances in 10 seasons. His best team was the 1998 Vikings squad that set then-NFL scoring records in going 15-1 in the regular season.

Raiders coach Jack Del Rio was on Green’s staff in Minnesota. In statement, he recalled Green as a coach and mentor.

“He was a real trailblazer, and his impact on the game continues to live through the many successful coaches that he mentored,” Del Rio said. “One of his phrases – or ‘Denny-isms’ as we call them – is ‘We’re going to plan our work and work our plan.’ I still use that ‘Denny-ism’ today.”

Green’s famous postgame rant while coaching Arizona in 2006 was a classic. Mired in an eight-game losing streak, the Cardinals blew a 20-point lead against the Chicago Bears on a Monday night on two late fumbles and a punt return for a touchdown.

Green pounded the podium and snarled, “The Bears are who we thought they were! That’s why we took the damn field! Now if you want to crown them, then crown their ass! But they are who we thought they were! And we let ’em off the hook!”

Green went 10-45 in five seasons at Northwestern, ending in 1985, and he went 16-18 from 1989 to 1991 at Stanford. Minnesota and Arizona produced a 113-94 record across 13 NFL seasons under Green, and he managed an 8-11 mark in three UFL seasons.

Green’s family requested that in lieu of flowers, contributions be made to the Boys & Girls Club of San Diego.

Joe Davidson: 916-321-1280, @SacBee_JoeD

Related stories from Sacramento Bee