Stanford’s Dennis Green Has Rare Opportunity


In January, Dennis Green evaluated his situation and decided to take this point of view: Don’t believe the hype.

Report after report had appeared on the wire services and in newspapers claiming he was the front-runner for the job as football coach at Stanford, a university long known for its ability to mix academics with winning athletics.

But he remembered history. The history that told him not to get his hopes up. In February of last year, Green also was the focus of many reports that said he would replace Tom Flores as the coach of the Los Angeles Raiders, which would have made him the National Football League’s first black head coach in modern times.

Those reports, however, turned out to be inaccurate; Green had been burned and the smoke still hadn’t cleared as of January. His psyche was bruised; his wariness was more intense. “I had been up for too many jobs to feel that I knew that I had the job,” the 40-year-old Green said. “I was guarded.”

But this time, Green, then the receivers coach of the San Francisco 49ers, got the green light. After the 49ers had defeated the Minnesota Vikings in the divisional playoffs on Sunday, Jan. 1, Green received a phone call.


It was Stanford on the other end, offering him a third coaching stint at the university, but this time as head coach. “I was mildly surprised they offered me the job,” Green said. That Monday, he discussed contract terms with Stanford. That Tuesday, a news conference was called, officially announcing him as coach.

For the next three weeks, he essentially was operating his own shuttle system, going from the 49ers’ camp to Stanford, then back to the 49ers, then again to Stanford. In between, the 49ers had beaten the Chicago Bears in the NFC title game to reach Super Bowl XXIII, where they defeated the Cincinnati Bengals, 20-16, on Jan. 29.

Afterward, Green had a Super Bowl ring and a new coaching job waiting.

“It was a hell of a January, wasn’t it?” he reflected.

That it was.

It was early August, about 11:50 in the morning, and Dennis Green came out of a meeting with his coaching staff. His secretary relays a message that Margie had called.

“Who?” he questions.

“Margie, your wife,” she responds.

That’s a figurative capsule of the new atmosphere enveloping the Stanford football program. Says starting quarterback Steve Smith, “Coach Green seems more intense, a perfectionist. Things were a little more laid-back (last season).”

Jack Elway, the father of one of Stanford’s most famous alums, was fired as coach after last season. He coached from 1984 to ’88, with one winning season -- an 8-4 mark in ’86 and a Gator Bowl berth for the Cardinal (the color, not the bird).

But more recently, Stanford Stadium, which seats 86,019 and was the site of Super Bowl XIX, has been half-filled on Saturdays. Alumni support has been in a state of decline. The athletic department has been hurt by a monetary shortfall. And, the most stinging negative: Stanford, which didn’t have a losing football season from 1964-80, has had only one winning season since.

In fact, Stanford in this decade probably is known more for its band marching onto the field prematurely at the end of the California game in 1982 than the team itself, which lost four games by a combined 14 points and tied two other contests en route to a 3-6-2 1988 record.

“The program wasn’t going in the direction I had hoped -- from a standpoint of interest, improvement, from a players’ standpoint, the fans,” Athletic Director Andy Geiger said.

“He’s (Green) rounded up the alumni. He’s spoken at several functions and made public appearances. He has everybody excited again.”

The air of excitement on this scenic campus with the Spanish-style architecture hits you squarely in the face. Athletic officials speak of it; players talk optimistically, fans and supporters react as if they were given a reprieve. “Things were so depressing before. There was no energy at all,” said one longtime Stanford fan as he sat in the bleachers of the football stadium on a lazy Saturday afternoon.

Green’s first order of business was to instill an atmosphere of discipline, as well as energy. He outlawed all alcohol in the coaches’ locker room after practices. Punctuality for weightlifting sessions and practices is mandatory -- not optional -- for players. And he refocused athletes’ thinking, with an accent on purpose.

“I believe in urgency,” said Green, who has scrapped the run-and-shoot offense employed last season in favor of a pro-set scheme. “We want our players to sense that things haven’t been good at Stanford. If we don’t make it to a bowl game every year, then we haven’t had a successful season. I hope it’s a return to a glorious past.”

That Green is a black head coach in a revenue-producing sport in the Pac-10 isn’t necessarily the issue in this scenario. That he is a black coach in a major program with at least a shot to win (and play on national TV) and with at least a chance to play on New Year’s Day is an issue. (With Heisman Trophy winner Jim Plunkett at quarterback, Stanford won the Rose Bowl in 1970 and ’71).

Chances are the three other black head coaches at Division I universities -- Wayne Nunnely at Nevada-Las Vegas, Cleve Bryant at Ohio University and Francis Peay at Northwestern -- won’t be seen on national TV with their teams or in postseason bowl games. Furthermore, a successful tenure at Stanford would polish Green’s resume as a head-coaching candidate for the NFL. “In a blanket statement, I guess we all (black candidates) are pulling for him,” said Chicago Bears running backs coach Johnny Roland, also aspiring to be an NFL head coach. “That crutch wouldn’t be there anymore in the sense that people can’t say there hasn’t been a black head coach in a major program.”

In a sense, Green has taken that next step for blacks, reached that next level. “Stanford made a tough decision in hiring me, but they made a good decision,” Green said.