Green, however, did come back. Coach Ray Nagel had asked the players who didn't participate in the protest to vote on which of the protesters would be allowed to return the next fall. "We voted about seven back, I think," recalls Reardon. "And Dennis was voted back, because he was the nicest guy and a real hard worker."
After graduating with a degree in recreation education in 1971, Green took a job at a sheet-metal shop in Iowa City and nearly skipped the coach's life entirely. "I had a chance to work toward being the general manager of the company," he recalls. "But I decided to work as an unpaid volunteer coach at Iowa, to sec if I liked it."
So for a season he worked at the sheet-metal shop from 5 a.m. until noon, showered and then headed to the gridiron. Two points Green would like to make here: 1) "Give a plug to Tom Nereim, the owner of the shop. A good old Iowa guy," and 2) "I want to thank Frank Lauterbur, Iowa's head coach. He didn't have to give me that job." An unpaid job, mind you. Again, Green saw only opportunity.
Following a season as an assistant coach at Dayton and three years back at Iowa as the receivers-quarterbacks coach, Green got a major break when Stanford coach Bill Walsh hired him to be his running backs coach. Every pupil needs a mentor, and Walsh became Green's. "I was looking for a minority when I interviewed Denny," says Walsh. "But that isn't why I hired him. I hired him because he's so articulate and because he's a joy to be around. Another thing that is appealing is that he doesn't relate everything to race. He's been able to cast off that mantle."
Walsh took Green with him in 1979, when he became coach of the San Francisco 49ers. He then helped promote Green for the Northwestern job. "I was sensitive because I didn't have anybody looking out for me when I was an assistant with the Bengals [1968-75]," says Walsh of his nurturing of Green. "[Cincinnati coach] Paul Brown was no mentor. He was selfish. I wasn't about to let the same thing happen to anybody under me. I wanted Denny to get what was due him."
The Northwestern job was a questionable reward for the disciple. It was certainly the only place where a coach could go 3-8 and be voted the Big Ten Coach of the Year, as Green was in 1982. But Green's five-year record with the Wildcats was 10—45, and by the end he needed salvaging. "He'd call and only talk about the positive, the positive, but I knew he was dying," says Walsh. "He did an excellent job at Northwestern, but it was hopeless. I felt I was saving him when I brought him back in 1986."
Though appreciative of everything Walsh has done for him, Green is feisty enough to dispute that returning to the 49ers as the receivers coach was a case of charity. "Bill needed me, too," says Green. Indeed, by the end of his third year in San Francisco, Green had become Walsh's trusted chief of staff. "He was responsible in my absence," says Walsh. "At offensive meetings I'd introduce a play, and he'd take it from there. During games he was the guy on the headset up in the booth talking to me."
When Green took over at Stanford, in 1989, he finally had a real canvas on which he could leave his mark. In three seasons under him the Cardinal went 3-8, 5-6 and 8-4. The highlight was a 36-31 victory in 1990 over Notre Dame in South Bend, at a time when the Irish were ranked No. 1 in the country and Stanford was 1-3. "That was the first time I felt really big-time as a college coach," says Green. "I was struck by the fact that Knute Rockne and Pop Warner had coached at the two schools, and I felt proud."
Green had demonstrated to his players and coaches that he had the enthusiasm and skill to lead his team into the spotlight. "He's the reason Stanford is where it is now," says Glyn Milburn, now a senior tailback for the Cardinal. "He stressed 'winning attitude' so much that after a while we started to have it."
Green also showed he was a dynamic teacher when he took Ron George, an ungainly linebacker transfer from the Air Force Academy, and molded him into a three-time All-Pac 10 selection and Stanford's sack leader this season. "I had decided to go to Harvard, but I came to Stanford in July just to look around," says George, who's now a senior. "I stopped in the coach's office, and Denny happened to be there. He didn't know who I was, but within a half hour he had completely sold me on his dream for Stanford football. He was intense, so driven with heartfelt emotion. I didn't know if he'd ever win a game, but I knew he was going to do something great."