Starting up a football league in the midst of a global recession — and while competing against the established behemoth known as the NFL — may be the challenge of a lifetime for most people.
For Dennis Green, it’s just one more obstacle to overcome in a career defined by persistence.
Green — a former NFL head coach with 13 years experience leading the Minnesota Vikings and Arizona Cardinals — has taken the reins of the California Redwoods, a San Francisco-based squad participating in the inaugural season of the United Football League.
“I’ve always believed in the concept that there are plenty of great football players out there who never got the right opportunity to play in the NFL,” Green said from the Redwoods’ training facility in Casa Grande, Ariz. “We believe our league can showcase those guys and we believe that people will be interested in
watching them, especially during this time of the year.”
The opportunity at the UFL, which began its season Thursday, is not the first time Green has leapt into the relative unknown.
In 1981, after assistant coaching stints with the 49ers and Stanford, Green became just the second black coach in major college football history when he took the helm at Northwestern.
After a promising stay at the school — he won a Big Ten Conference Coach of the Year award while leading the perennially hapless Wildcats — Green again made waves, this time matching his college feat by becoming the second black head coach in the NFL when he joined the Vikings in 1992.
Green said he’s proud of his role as a pioneer for minority coaches, but he also remains humble about his accomplishments.
“I came along at the right time,” said Green, who coached the Vikings to the best record in the NFL in 1998. “The world was changing and I was riding that wave. Fortunately, I was able to catch on with some truly great coaches who taught me a lot about this game.”
One of those mentors was Bill Walsh, the former 49ers and Stanford coach who twice brought Green to the Bay Area for coaching opportunities. Walsh — an offensive maestro credited with launching the careers of several of his former disciples — first hired Green to his Stanford staff in the late 1970s.
Green moved up with Walsh when the latter took the head coaching job with the 49ers in 1979. He returned to the 49ers to join his old boss in 1986, after Green’s tenure at Northwestern ended. It was during his time in the Bay Area that Green — who was also the head coach at Stanford from 1989 to 1991 — developed an appreciation for the loyal football fans on the West Coast.
“I think people view Californians as generally laid-back and detached,” Green said. “But my time here proved to me that there are some really intelligent, dedicated and involved football fans in the Bay Area, from San Jose to Mill Valley.”
Along with gaining respect for the football acumen of the region’s residents, Green developed a deep admiration for the Bay Area’s bountiful natural landscape.
“I would love to go out to Half Moon Bay and fish and just watch the sunset,” said Green, who last coached in the NFL in 2006. “When I left, I really missed all the natural amenities of the area. I’m looking forward to revisiting them.”
Green is excited about the challenges of bringing the UFL into the public consciousness, but he said he didn’t exactly miss coaching during his latest hiatus.
The University of Iowa graduate taught business classes at San Diego State University in his adopted hometown, called football games for the radio network Westwood One and took advantage of his mostly open schedule to go fishing with his 10-year-old son and play golf with his wife and 12-year-old
And although the UFL has it demands, the day-to-day rigors don’t compare with the commitments of being an NFL coach — a situation that suits him just fine.
“The last three years I’ve been able to do things with my family that I couldn’t in my 34 years of coaching,” said Green, who will split his time between San Diego and San Francisco during the Redwoods’ first season. “It was nice taking my kids to school and being able to see them every day. I’m committed to building a team in the UFL, but I’ve also got enough freedom to enjoy the other things in my life.”
About Dennis Green
College: University of Iowa
Head coaching experience:
- Northwestern University: 1981-85, 10-45 record
- Stanford University: 1989-91, 16-18 record
- Career record: 26-63, .292 winning percentage
- Minnesota Vikings: 1992-01, 97-62 record
- Arizona Cardinals: 2004-06, 16-32 record
- Career record: 113-94, .546 winning percentage
- Named Big Ten Coach of the Year in 1982
- Led Stanford to an 8-4 record in 1991 and berth in the
- Coached the Vikings to a 15-1 record in 1998, the best in the NFL
- Guided Vikings to playoffs in eight of 10 seasons as coach
New pigskin league gives players a second chance at gridiron glory
His latest squad doesn’t feature Randy Moss, Cris Carter, Randall Cunningham or any of the other stalwarts that graced NFL teams he coached, but Dennis Green is still working with some considerable talent as the leader of the California Redwoods.
Former NFL quarterback Mike McMahon, who starred at Rutgers University, leads the Redwoods offense.
Cory Ross, a bowling ball of a running back who played two years with the Baltimore Ravens, powers the team’s rushing attack and wide receiver B.J. Sams played for the Baltimore Ravens and the Kansas City Chiefs.
Green is also grooming some local talent, including former Cal linebacker Worrell Williams and Stanford wide receiver Mark Bradford.
“I think a lot of these guys are just one play or one injury away from being in the NFL,” Green said. “The fans are going to see our roster and recognize a lot of these names from college and the NFL. There are some big-time ballplayers on this team.”
The four-team United Football League began its inaugural season Thursday, with the Redwoods losing to the Las Vegas Locomotives.
The teams will play a seven-week regular season before the top two squads face off in a championship game on
San Francisco football fans will get their first chance to catch The City’s newest sports franchise up close and live Saturday, when the Redwoods take on the New York Sentinels at AT&T Park.
“I think AT&T Park will be a great place to watch a football game,” Green said.
“I know the Bay Area has some great football fans, and I think we can put on a good show for them.”
California Redwoods’ schedule
Who the San Francisco squad will play this season:
Thursday’s result: Las Vegas Locomotives 30, California Redwoods 17
New York Sentinels vs. Redwoods: 6 p.m. Saturday at AT&T Park
Redwoods vs. Florida Tuskers: 4 p.m. Oct. 22 at Citrus Bowl, Orlando, Fla.
Redwoods vs. New York Sentinels: 4 p.m. Oct. 29 at Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J.
Las Vegas Locomotives vs. Redwoods: 6 p.m. Nov. 14 at AT&T Park
Florida Tuskers vs. Redwoods: 6 p.m. Nov. 19 at AT&T Park