Dennis Green, a pioneering head coach who led the Vikings to a consistent run of excellence in the 1990s, died on Thursday. He was 67.
The cause was cardiac arrest, his family announced in a statement posted on the Arizona Cardinals’ website. Green was the head coach of the Cardinals for three years before being fired after the 2006 season. The statement did not say where he died.
When he took over as coach of the Vikings in 1992, Green was only the second black head coach in the modern era of the National Football League; Art Shell had become head coach of the Raiders in 1989. Though he was a consistent winner in Minnesota, Green was let down by his teams’ postseason performances and never made it to a Super Bowl as head coach.
Green was born on Feb. 17, 1949, into a working-class family in Harrisburg, Pa., the youngest of five boys. “We didn’t live in the projects,” he once told The Minneapolis Star Tribune, “but we lived where people who had just moved from the projects lived.”
His father, Penrose, a postal worker, died of a ruptured appendix when Dennis was 11, and his mother, Anna, a beautician, died of cancer when he was 13. Thereafter, he was raised by his grandparents.
He played football at Iowa for three seasons, 1968-70, as a halfback, and graduated in 1971 with a degree in finance. After briefly playing for the British Columbia Lions of the Canadian Football League, Green started his coaching career as an assistant at Dayton in 1973, earning $6,000 a year before moving his way up the ladder to jobs at Iowa and Stanford.
When Bill Walsh, Stanford’s head coach, was hired by the San Francisco 49ers, he gave Green a first taste of the N.F.L., bringing him along as a special teams coach in 1979.
Green landed his first head coaching job at Northwestern, whose teams were perennial losers, in 1981. He coached there for four years without ever winning more than three games in a season. Still, he was named Big Ten coach of the year in 1982 for engineering upsets of Minnesota and Michigan State.
“That’s where I learned to take my ego completely out of it,” Green said. “You weren’t going to a bowl game every year, and you weren’t going to win as many games as you liked. But you could graduate kids and leave every game with 100 percent pride.”
He had more success as the head coach at Stanford, where he turned around a struggling program in three years, culminating in a bowl appearance. When he took over there, he was one of only four black head coaches at the 104 top-division colleges.
That success landed him his first N.F.L. head coaching job, at Minnesota, replacing Jerry Burns.
“I am a product of the civil rights movement and came along at a time when doors were opening,” Green said.
But he played down his distinction as one of the few black head coaches in the N.F.L.
“I don’t think anybody considers me a black coach,” he told The Star Tribune. “I don’t think a player is concerned what my race is. I think he wants someone who will teach him something.”
He took over a Vikings team in a state of malaise, still reeling from trading away five players and eight draft picks for running back Herschel Walker. Green shipped Walker out and brought in a staff that included the future head coach Tony Dungy as defensive coordinator.
In a league with little job security for coaches, Green lasted 10 seasons in Minnesota, making the playoffs eight times and posting a stellar regular-season record of 97-62. He was coach of the year twice, including in his first season. His teams struggled to make a mark in the postseason, though, going just 4-8 in the playoffs.
His crowning achievement was a 15-1 season in 1998. The team’s potent offense, led by quarterback Randall Cunningham and the rookie receiver Randy Moss, scored 556 points, a league record at the time. That team, too, disappointed in the playoffs, losing the N.F.C. championship game at home to the Atlanta Falcons in overtime after leading by 20-7.
When the Vikings slumped to 5-10 with one game left to play in 2001, Green was fired.
After working as a television analyst, Green got another chance in 2004, with the Cardinals. He never managed to get that team on track, completing three seasons without a winning record.
While at Arizona he was reunited with the star wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who was drafted by the Cardinals in 2004. Fitzgerald, a son of a Minneapolis sportswriter, had been a ball boy for Green’s Vikings.
“My whole football career is predicated on what he did for me,” Fitzgerald said on Friday. “He hired me as a ball boy for the Vikings and then he drafted me in the N.F.L. So he’s directly responsible for everything I’ve done in my life.”
Green finished his career with three seasons as a head coach in the fledgling United Football League.
He is survived by his second wife, Marie, and their two teenage children, Zachary and Vanessa; and two children from a previous marriage, Patti andJeremy. He lived in San Diego.
For all his successes in college and the pros, the normally soft-spoken Green is also remembered for a colorful postgame rant when coaching the Cardinals in 2006. After his team blew a lead in a Monday night game to a strong Bears team, Green, visibly agitated, let loose with a tirade that included the oft-repeated line “The Bears are who we thought they were.”
It ended with the emphatic line “And we let them off the hook!” He then stalked out of the news conference.
Green had a sense of humor about the episode, allowing video of it to be used in a beer commercial.