Dennis Green has been an organizer of something or other almost his entire life.
In adolescence, it was neighborhood sporting events in his hometown of Harrisburg, Pa. In high school, it was a summer job supervising a four-man, airport maintenance crew.
For the last 20 years, he's been orchestrating the ebb and flow of six different football teams on a variety of levels.
Green, 43, has been good at all of these organizational ventures, too. So good that he says he never had to apply for any of the nine jobs he's held in football over two decades.
"If you have a reputation of trying to do a good job, people will call," he says.
Last winter the Minnesota Vikings sent out an SOS for a taskmaster who had no attachments to their weak-kneed past. A once-proud franchise had lapsed into mediocrity and was in need of sweeping change. Green, with a reputation as a demanding, detailed, devoted manager, fit the job description.
On Jan. 10, he left Stanford to become the fifth head coach in the Vikings' 32-year history -- and only the second black head coach in the NFL's modern history, joining Art Shell of the Los Angeles Raiders. He replaced Jerry Burns, who had retired.
Six games into his latest job, Green has weeded out the malcontents, redefined the work ethic and turned in arguably the best coaching job in the NFL this season. He has transformed a team of chronic underachievers into a feisty group of playoff contenders.
Coming into today's home game against the Washington Redskins, the Vikings are 5-1 and lead the NFC Central -- a division that sent two teams into the playoffs last year, neither of which resided in Minneapolis.
This turn of events hardly surprises anyone who knows Green or his background.
"He is uncanny in being able to find out what the dynamics are on a team," said Maryland athletic director Andy Geiger, who hired Green as head coach while Geiger was AD at Stanford in 1989. "If he doesn't like the dynamics, he changes them.
"He changed Stanford from a soft-type football team to a very hard-hitting, aggressive team. If you look at Stanford today under Bill Walsh, whose offensive credentials are impeccable, Stanford No. 3 in the nation on defense. That was totally atypical in terms of Stanford's history. If we had problems over the years, it was that we couldn't stop anybody. Dennis revolutionized Stanford football."
What Geiger saw in Green was more than just a football coach.
"He's a superb corporate executive," Geiger said. "He demonstrated ability at the executive level. That's what we all look for. A lot of people can X and O you to death, but inside, their program is a shambles. With him, you get soup to nuts, A to Z. Football is America's corporate game. It's all about organization and motivation."
The ability to organize came from his childhood associations in Harrisburg with neighborhood friends like Jimmie Jones, who went on to Southern Cal as a quarterback, and Jan White, who played at Ohio State and with the Buffalo Bills.
Much of Green's inspiration came from his father, a postal worker who died when Dennis was 11. "He had, in the 1950s, a very tough job for a black man in Harrisburg, with five sons," Green said. "He taught us pride and dignity."
Green found success in sports. He went to Iowa on a football scholarship, playing tailback and flanker. When his playing days ended, Green launched into coaching. He started at Dayton in 1973 and joined Bill Walsh at Stanford in 1977 to coach running backs. In 1979, he went with Walsh to San Francisco and the start of the 49ers dynasty, working as the special teams/receivers coach.
He returned to Stanford as offensive coordinator in 1980, got the head coaching job at Northwestern in 1981 and went back to Stanford again in 1989 with Geiger.
Green broke through racial barriers along the way. Asked if his success will open doors in the future for blacks, he talked about those who preceded him.
"I think I'm a guy working my way right through the system," he said. "I'm fortunate to be head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, or Stanford, or Northwestern. A lot of guys started before I did who did a great job and who are as talented or more talented. If given the opportunity, they would have done as well.
"I don't think I carry a larger burden. My responsibility is to coach the football team. Race doesn't enter into what I'm supposed to do."
When the job at Northwestern opened in 1981, he didn'hesitate, even though the program was near comatose. Although his five-year record was only 10-45, Green was Big Ten Coach of the Year in 1982 for a three-victory season. His bigger success was saving the program.
"You have to be willing to take a job no one else will take," Greesaid. "I felt it was an opportunity. I don't think you can wait for what you think is the easiest path to success."
After Green's Stanford team went to the Aloha Bowl last year, he was contacted by several -- he won't say which ones -- NFL teams. He liked Minnesota because he had connections to the organization and he knew the personnel from his time with the 49ers.
The Vikings liked him because he was "willing to make the right calls," according to Roger Headrick, the Vikings president and chief executive officer. The team had made plenty of wrong calls in recent years, including the ill-conceived, 1989 trade for Herschel Walker.
"Last year was the final straw,"said Headrick, who replaced Mike Lynn -- the man who made the Walker trade -- in January 1991.
"In Jerry Burns' last game, we almost fell down on the field against the Packers and hardly performed [in a 27-7 loss in
Minneapolis]. In my mind, that was inexcusable. We needed changes to be made and not be bound by anything in the past, not have someone saying, 'Maybe we can turn this guy around.' Dennis is going to make a judgment based on what you do on the field, not whether you went to any Pro Bowls."
Green wasted little time shaking the Vikings out of their lethargy. He cleared the locker room of former Pro Bowlers and Vikings mainstays Keith Millard and Joey Browner, and released quarterback Wade Wilson. He agreed with Walker that it was time to wipe that slate clean. Of the departed players, only Walker has been productive since leaving Minneapolis.
Green then took a grass-roots approach toward changing the work ethic.
"I emphasized two things," he said. "One, this is a business and we ought to be good at it. Two, we ought to be willing to work at it and enjoy what we do.
"The big thing we tried to do here is come in with an attitude that is positive and be determined to be successful. We've got some terrific players who are not underachievers, like Randall McDaniel, Gary Zimmerman, Steve Jordan."
And somewhere along the way, the Vikings seem to have lost their reputation for underachieving.
"We're not in the playoffs yet," Green said. "Our goal is not tdrop a label; our goal is to be in the playoffs. All we care about is reaching our goal. We don't give a damn what people say about us."
Today's game will serve as a barometer on how far the Vikinghave come in Green's short tenure. While he plays it down ("We don't get any extra points if we win it"), Headrick recognizes the significance.
A big game?
"Very," Headrick said. "We've got to know where we stand. If we want to get through the NFC, we've got to beat somebody from the East. If we're going to get to the top, we've got to beat somebody at the top."
In Dennis Green, the Vikings think they have a man who knows the way.
Dennis Green's coaching itinerary
Years .. .. .. Team/school .. .. .. .. .. Positions held
1973 .. .. .. .. ... Dayton .. .. .. .. .. .. .. RBs, receivers
1974-76 .. .. .. ... Iowa .. .. .. .. .. .. .. . QBs, receivers
1977-78 .. .. .. ... Stanford .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. RBs
1979 .. .. .. .. ... 49ers .. .. .. .. Receivers, special teams
1980 .. .. .. .. ... Stanford .. .. .. .. Offensive coordinator
1981-85 .. .. .. ... Northwestern .. .. .. . Head coach (10-46)
1986-88 .. .. .. ... 49ers .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. Receivers
1989-91 .. .. .. ... Stanford .. .. .. .. .. Head coach (16-18)
1992- .. .. .. .. .. Vikings .. .. .. .. .. .. Head coach (5-1)