Such a team player is veteran running back Roger Craig, whom Green had coached in San Francisco. "He knows my attitude, or I wouldn't be here," says Craig of Green. "He shows no favoritism. If you cause distractions, you're gone; you don't have to blink."
The classic example of Green's no-nonsense approach occurred way back in his first spring at Northwestern, when he kicked Chris Hinton off the team for having walked during part of a mandatory mile run. A tight end at the time, Hinton was only the best football talent to come through Northwestern's ivy halls in a quarter century, but Green didn't care. Hinton was an underachiever. Green offered to help him transfer to Southern Cal or anywhere he chose.
"It shook me up," recalls Hinton, now a seven-time Pro Bowl tackle for the Atlanta Falcons, who literally had to beg Green to reinstate him on the Wildcats' squad. "When I came back, I played on the scout team. It wasn't really fair, but I'm a likable guy, and nobody had ever really kicked me in the butt." Hinton started working hard, switched to tackle at Green's command, became the fourth pick in the 1983 draft and is now a millionaire. "Dennis made the difference," says Hinton.
The Vikings are not a great team—they have weaknesses at several offensive positions—but they play with fervor, winning games they probably shouldn't. On Oct. 4, for instance, Minnesota overcame a 20-0 fourth-quarter score to beat the Chicago Bears 21-20. On Nov. 22 the Vikings rallied from 13 points down to defeat the Cleveland Browns 17-13, even though the offense netted only 141 yards. Corner-back Audray McMillian intercepted a Cleveland pass and returned it 25 yards for the winning touchdown with nine minutes to go. Can you count on something like that happening week in and week out? Sure, says Green: "It's just a matter of making the players realize how hard you have to work to win in this league."
After the Brown game Green stood before the cameras and notepads, ominous at 250 pounds or thereabouts—once a sculpted 195 pounds, he put on most of the girth during his stressful Northwestern tenure—and chided the press for what he perceived to be a negative tone to its basically innocuous questions. Don't ask about quarterback controversies, he yelled, glowering. Write positive things. Don't undermine success. "It's a team, fellows," he said. "It's a team! You guys get used to me. I'm not b.s.-ing."
The fact that Green is a black man does count for something. In 1989 fullback Ellery Roberts transferred from Miami to Stanford because he wanted to play for Green. "It is easier to relate to someone you can envision has gone through what you have simply because of the color of his skin," says Roberts. "You see what he has accomplished, and it is great."
However, Green is so cantankerous, so relentless in his journey, so certain of his grip on the wheel of life that he'll scorch anybody of any skin tone if that person stands in the way of his bounding ship. "You can get aboard, but don't slow us down!" he often warns his players. And where is the ship headed? To the land of success, where the past doesn't matter.
"I don't want it to sound as if there weren't bad things when I was growing up," says Green, in case that was the impression he has given. "Oh, man. I went to school with three guys who committed murder before they were out of junior high. Murder."
And what was it that set the youngsters down the wrong path? "They made the wrong choices," says Green with a shrug.
It's that simple, the coach explains. Opportunity presents itself, you make your choices, and the rest—the part you can't control—is just coloring.