College football owes Dennis Green a debt of gratitude it’s still repaying in 2016, the year of Green’s passing at 67.
Before the 1981 season, Iowa alum and former Hawkeye assistant coach Green resurfaced in the Big Ten after a brief stint as an assistant at Stanford. His hire as head coach of the Northwestern Wildcats made history, as Green became the first black head coach in the Big Ten Conference.
Of course, Northwestern had just come off making history of a much more dubious kind, enduring a three-year run of futility that ranks among the worst in major college football history.
Whether the two things are related is speculative. However, logic dictates it’s far easier for a program languishing in the depths to make an unprecedented hire than it would be for a program with expectations to do so.
The unfortunate and perhaps unfair flip-side to that: a coach just seeking an opportunity is set up for failure. And given the Wildcats’ 1-31-1 record prior to Green’s arrival, he certainly entered into a position where failure wouldn’t just have been understandable; it was to be expected.
But Northwestern and Green didn’t fail; not like before, anyway. Despite an 0-11 mark in 1981, the Wildcats won at least two games each of the next four seasons, and avoided a goose egg in Big Ten play.
That might not seem like much, but given the status of Northwestern football in the 1970s, Green worked a minor miracle.
His tenure at Northwestern prepared Green for his return to Stanford, where again he was the conference’s first black head coach. And again, he took over a disastrous situation and improved upon it vastly, leaving the Cardinal after an 8-win campaign in 1991.
Green performed some magic in the college game, but the trick more difficult than winning some football games was parlaying his own success into more opportunities for other black head coaches.
Thirty years after Green broke an important barrier in the Big Ten, the conference remained largely homogeneous. Only in recent years, with Penn State hiring James Franklin, Purdue tabbing Darrel Hazell, and Illinois this March turning to Lovie Smith has the league diversified.
The same is true in the Pac-12. At the same school Green coached, Stanford, David Shaw is the conference’s lone, black head coach. Shaw’s father, Willie, was a Green assistant.
Meanwhile, Colorado’s Jon Embree was fired after just two years on the job. UCLA released Karl Dorrell after the 2007 season. Dorrell’s only losing record with the Bruins was in his first year.
College football at large has made some progress since Green’s landmark hire at Northwestern 35 years ago, but the process is painstakingly slow.
In a sport where roughly 54 percent of the Division I players are black, less than 10 percent of coaches are, as well.
It’s not as disproportionate as 1981, when the only other black was Wichita State’s Willie Jeffries — a Hall of Famer for his wildly successful tenure at South Carolina State — but it’s much too close.
As those around the game of football eulogize and remember Dennis Green in the days after his passing, one of the best ways the sport can honor his legacy is improving opportunities not just for black candidates to land head coaching positions, but have success as well.