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Elia Powers and Elia Powers

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Compassionate football fans can sympathize with Minnesota Vikings head coach Dennis Green for having to endure consecutive upset losses to start the 2001 season.

He’s had the ominous task of mediating recent verbal tiffs between the team’s discontented superstars. And surely the Twin Cities’ pigskin faithful will be calling for his head if the reigning NFC Central champions aren’t fighting for a playoff spot when temperature plummets below zero.

But don’t shed a tear for Green. He’s seen it all before.

Whatever chilling scenario may befall Green this season, he will keep things in perspective, just as he continually has during a 30-year coaching career that has bounced the 52-year-old from the Midwest to the West Coast and from the college game to the NFL.

Green, who played running back and flanker at the University of Iowa, started his coaching career as an assistant with his alma mater. Soon thereafter he found work at Dayton, Stanford and with Bill Walsh’s San Francisco 49ers.

But Green learned the lessons of losing during his first head coaching job, a five-year stint at Northwestern (1981-85), during which he had a winless debut season en route to a dubious 10-45 career record.

“You took it as part of the process,” Green said. “It helps you understand that you have to rebuild programs.”

In Green’s first game at NU, a home contest with Indiana, the Wildcats fought back to within one point in the final moments. Green opted for a two-point conversion in hopes of notching an outright victory. His plans were thwarted, however, when the Hoosiers stopped NU. This proved to be a bad omen.

The Cats lost their next 13 games, including a 64-0 defeat to Iowa and a 70-6 thrashing by Ohio State.

On Sept. 18, 1982, Green finally got his first head coaching victory, a 31-6 win over Northern Illinois.

“The first win was great because that first year we had a chance to win but we didn’t,” said Green, whose team also beat Minnesota and Michigan State in his second season. “Anytime you win when you are trying to turn around a program is exciting.”

Giving NU a winning football team wasn’t the only barrier Green encountered in Evanston. At the time of his hiring, he was the only black coach in NCAA Division I football.

While Green said racism on campus and in the community was never an issue, he was proud to be playing a major role in an important cause.

“You always want to be a leader,” he said. “I didn’t look at myself as a black coach, but I did look at myself as a pioneer in the business of opportunities for minorities in coaching.”

The Cats, having suffered through decades of disappointment on the gridiron, were looking to bring in a coach who understood the nuances of an academically oriented university.

Green was just that man.

“Having coached at Stanford, I recognized that you can get a football player who is a student first and an athlete second,” Green said, “a player who understands the competitiveness in the classroom and on the football field. I became the (head coaching) choice who understood the mentality (of such a student).”

But getting the top athletes to commit to NU was a tough sell, and Green’s constant challenge was to convince recruits that his team could be competitive in the Big Ten.

Academics always turned out to be the centerpiece of the deal. Green said he posted one perfect record: Every player he recruited graduated in four years without redshirting.

“That’s about all you could stress,” said Chris Hinton, an All-American offensive lineman who played for the Cats from 1979-82 before going on to a distinguished NFL career. “You couldn’t stress tradition or a great fan base.”

Or facilities, for that matter. Green’s team had no swanky indoor practice center — a state-of-the-art weight room was hardly an afterthought — and the team’s only taste of big-time football stadiums came during Big Ten road trips.

However, some other new athletic facilities were in the works during Green’s tenure.

The administration backed a Welsh-Ryan Arena renovation, an aquatics center project and a $20 million building campaign, Green said. But less than $1 million went toward football, which obviously had little pull.

“It was a different time and a different commitment from the top down,” Green said. “The president of the university and the board of trustees made a financial commitment in many regards. Football renovations were not among the top priorities. We did the best we could at developing the program. We weren’t going to get a lot of money.”

Added Jeff Robinson, former NU cornerback and team captain, and current coordinator of pro personnel for the Vikings: “Words kept being spewed about what was going to come for the program. We would go to Michigan and Ohio State and see how much better they had it. It was hard to come back.”

Green understood the program’s limitations and chose to remain stoic and focused around his players, Robinson said. But for a coach with success on his mind, losing was never something he could get accustomed to.

“It eats away at you,” Robinson said. “You could tell that he had the commitment to get his team on solid ground. Even watching from afar, I could see his determination.”

In 1992, while working for the Vikings, Robinson got a chance to give something back to his former coach when the team’s management asked for his input on its search for a new headman. He recommended Green without hesitation and praised him for his sideline style.

“He taught me how to handle myself and represent the school,” Robinson said.

“He’s definitely a players’ coach — calm, cool and collected. By the time he gets to a game, so much preparation has gone in that everyone feels comfortable. Everything about him that I said in ’85 I could still say about him now.”

Now in his 10th season with the Vikings, Green is tied with Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher for the longest tenure with a single team among current NFL head coaches. Although he has been away from Evanston for more than 15 years, Green still attributes much of his current success and tremendous longevity to skills he picked up at NU.

“You have to have perseverance,” Green said. “I learned that at Northwestern. You can’t get discouraged when things don’t go the way you want, and you have to stick with your plan.”

At no time has perseverance been more important for Green than in dealing with the heat-related death of former Vikings tackle Korey Stringer on Aug. 1. Having gone through a tortuous preseason of grieving and constant questioning, the coach said he empathizes with the NU community, which has been suffering from the death of senior strong safety Rashidi Wheeler.

“It’s a tragedy,” Green said of Wheeler. “Anytime we lose young people and a teammate it’s as big of a tragedy as can happen. I’ve never had it happen before and I’ve been in the game for 30 years. I think you have to realize that most times it is unavoidable. People just have to pull together.”

And that’s a skill the veteran coach has mastered — from pacing the sidelines at damp, scarcely attended NU games on Saturdays to calling the shots in the raucous “Homer Dome” on Sundays.

Green’s love of the game still boils down to one basic aspect.

“I enjoy developing players,” he said. “That’s been the strength of my programs. That’s teaching — the best part about being a coach.”

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