George, who had been raised in Heidelburg, Germany, was such a raw football player that he didn't know how to hit a tackling sled. "Denny taught me everything," says George. "There was never any need for what he did. I was nothing. He had to seek me out."
Why did Green do that? "Human potential," he says. "It always bothers me to see it not utilized."
Green also has a mind that enjoys working out the intricacies of offensive attacks. In 1977 he published a paper in the Athletic Journal entitled "The Fullback Belly Series and Its Many Options." The article is a nine-page compilation of photos, diagrams and written arcana, which only a football geek could love. According to Stanford offensive line coach Scott Schuhmann, Green is "blessed with a sixth sense" that enables him to call the right plays at the right time. Schuhmann was with Green at Northwestern and fondly remembers the Wildcats' beating Michigan State in 1982 on the game's last play, a halfback throwback pass to quarterback Sandy Schwab in the end zone—called by Green. "That was a great play," says Schuhmann. "And Denny hasn't changed since then."
Except that now he is in the money league, and his every move is being scrutinized for its social significance. How has he whipped the Vikings, whose performance last year was called "inexcusable" by Headrick himself, into a single-minded, overachieving unit? To begin with, he got rid of four high-priced veterans—safety Joey Browner, defensive end Keith Millard, running back Herschel Walker and quarterback Wade Wilson—because he didn't think they could help the team win. A Viking insider might not have had the courage to send such stalwarts packing. Walker, after all, went to Minnesota in a trade that was probably the worst of the decade in the NFL but which some folks still hoped would work out.
"Pick the best players and put them on the team," says Green. "When the team sees that, it develops confidence. If you keep players for other reasons, then everybody starts to wonder if you have the guts to turn the program around."
Green waived the 33-year-old Wilson so that two younger quarterbacks, Rich Gannon and Sean Salisbury, could develop. "You can only have two guys fighting for one job," says Green. Then he looked at the rest of the squad and cut everybody else who wasn't up to snuff. Eighteen new players are on this season's roster. "I never have any hesitation to release guys," says Green. "That's the business. Not many guys retire in the NFL."
Next he instilled in his players and staff the need to think positively, to act as one force, to realize how little separates the best teams from the worst. He made every player have a roommate on the road; to break up cliques, he assigned lockers in numerical order rather than by position; he had breakfast served at the training compound in Eden Prairie, Minn., in the regular season so that players would come in early and sit down with one another and become even closer. "He changed the attitude of the team," says All-Pro guard Randall McDaniel. "We're all hanging together now—no individuals. It seems like a simple thing to do, but it isn't."
Green also reinforced a Viking tradition that began under former coach Bud Grant: He has the players stand at attention, helmets under arms, as the national anthem is played. "I respect tradition," he says. "We're all Americans."
Green has given the Vikings an attacking defense that takes risks but comes up with big plays. Minnesota leads the league in touchdowns scored by the defense, with seven, and end Chris Doleman (13 sacks), among others, appears rejuvenated by the fierce style of play. Offensively, Green has installed a conservative, one-back power attack under the guidance of coordinator Jack Burns, a former Washington Redskin coach. Green has purposely avoided a Walsh brand of offense, reasoning that the NFC Central already has enough Walsh disciples in the Green Bay Packers' Mike Holmgren and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Sam Wyche and that another Walshian offensive scheme would only make things easier for enemy defenses.
More than anything else, though, Green's emotional, tough-but-fair style of management is what has turned around the Vikings. He doesn't mind having stars, as long as "they don't carry extra baggage. We're all the same—everybody."