Call it the new sheriff’s first showdown. Dennis Green was 43 years old on Sept. 6, 1992. He was also on the eastern sideline of Lambeau Field, preparing to make his National Football League coaching debut against the Packers’ Mike Holmgren, who, like Green, was another acorn of the Bill Walsh one-Super-Bowl-win-after-another coaching tree.
For Minnesota management searching for a successor to Jerry Burns, the choice teetered between Green and Pete Carroll, then serving as the defensive coordinator with the New York Jets. Green was the head coach of the Stanford Cardinals, and Green had turned that program around. The school wanted him to stay; they offered Green a five-year extension. But the Vikings offered Green what Stanford could not: a chance to be a head coach in the National Football League.
With his hiring in January 1992, Green became the fifth head coach in Vikings history and just the second African-American head coach in the league. Unlike the first African-American head coach, Oakland’s Art Shell, who had played for Raiders and owner Al Davis, Green had no history with the Vikings and knew few people in the Twin Cities. The pressure of Minnesota history was ever-present, but Green never showed it. The man was a mountain.
At his first press conference, Green told Minnesota fans that “a new sheriff was in town.” He meant it. Green got rid of underperforming pillars of the dreary past—Keith Millard and Joey Browner. An astute judge of players and coaches, Green fired some long-standing assistant coaches and brought in teachers like Tony Dungy, Brian Billick and Tyrone Willingham. During training camp, the team planned to bus to La Crosse, Wisconsin for two days of practice with the Chiefs. However, when the team buses pulled into Mankato, Chris Doleman walked over to Green and complained about the transportation. “Tell you what, Chris,” Green said. “You’ll get on the damn bus and you’ll like it or we’ll get someone else to ride it.”
Green played his starters a lot in the preseason—the Vikings went 4-0 and outscored opponents 140-6—and that built confidence in a team that had gone 14-18 in the previous two seasons. The Packers were also making a fresh start with Holmgren: Green Bay had gone 10-22 in Lindy Infante’s last two years and had two playoff appearances in the previous twenty-four years.
This writer covered the game as a member of the working media. The day was steamy—the same kind of hot, wet air that rises into your face when you open the dishwasher in mid-cycle. The high that day at Lambeau Field was 87 degrees, and the humidity was higher. Rain and mist took turns making the ball slippery and the sultry air left players gasping.
The Packers took the opening kickoff and went on a lengthy, inchworm-like drive, burning 10:07 of clock while traveling 87 yards in 14 plays. There was suspense along the way: On fourth-and-1 at the Vikings 39, quarterback Don Majkowski gained two yards on a sneak. He finished the drive with a 12-yard toss to Sterling Sharpe.
Vikings defense coordinator Dungy made adjustments after that drive. He told his linebackers to take shallower drops to negate swing passes caught by Green Bay running backs. “They had a nice drive to start the game,” linebacker Jack Del Rio later said. “After that we stuffed them.” It was true. The Packers only gained 184 yards during the rest of the game.
The Vikings scored early in the second by way of Fuad Reveiz’s 50-yard field goal. The Packers matched that with a Chris Jacke 25-yard field goal, the score set up when Packers’ defensive lineman Lester Archambeau walloped Minnesota running back Roger Craig, who fumbled.
Rushing production flipped after halftime. The Packers ran for 82 yards in the first half but only 34 yards in the second half. The Vikings rushed for 39 in the first half and 138 after the break.
THE SECOND HALF
Doleman, who decided to take that bus to La Crosse, got stronger in the Lambeau Field sauna. Midway through the third quarter, Doleman whacked Packers running back Vince Workman hard enough to cause a fumble. Doleman recovered the ball. The led to Reveiz’s 38-yard field goal with 1:37 left in the third. The Vikings led for the first time, 13-10.
Vinnie Clark picked off Gannon on the Vikings’ next possession, and Clark ran it down the sideline to the Minnesota 11. Two players later, Majkowski hit Sanjay Beach from four yards out and it was 17-13 Packers with 11:49 left in regulation. Confidently, Gannon and the Vikings went on an energized five-play, 80-yard drive, with 51 of those yards delivered by Terry Allen, whose weaving run ended at the Green Bay 4. Gannon hit Jones from three yards out to make it 20-17 Vikings.
From their own 47, the Packers went on their last march, moving down to the Minnesota one-yard line. Two minutes and change remained. A touchdown and conversion meant Green Bay would be up by four points with fewer than two minutes left. That didn’t happen. On third-and-1, tackle Henry Thomas and linebacker Kenneth Christopher “Skip” McClenden ran over Packers center James Campen and the duo threw Workman for a three-yard loss. Jacke’s short field goal tied the game at 20.
The Vikings won the toss, went nowhere and punted. Majkowski threw an interception, Allen fumbled possession back to Green Bay. The teams then traded punts—a field position chess match. The Vikings eventually took over near mid-field. On a draw play, Allen sprinted 45 yards down the soggy, western sideline to the Packer 4-yard line. Gannon gained two yards on a sneak. By that time, each team had turned the ball over three times. Green took no chances and Reveiz ended the game with a 25-yard field goal with 4:40 left in overtime. “It was a great run,” Holmgren said of Allen’s shifty sprint, which led to the winning points. “One team was going to pop something and they popped something before we did.”
I headed to the visiting team’s media center. Green was happy—and he tried to arrest the adrenal joy he was feeling. But in the few times I had been around the man in training camp, I could tell he was amped with pride. Denny had a curious voice—a kind of squeaky husk. It sounded like it formed high in his diaphragm and was labor to free it from his lungs. But that voice always cut a path in a crowded room.
In the moments after his first NFL win, Green didn’t want to talk about what it meant to him, but what it meant to his men.
“I’m not nearly concerned with my first win … as our team winning their first game of the 1992 season to keep alive our goals that we want to accomplish this year.”
The Vikings were dinged with 90 yards in penalties, many were head-scratching. Despite that, defensive coordinator Tony Dungy said the Vikings were unfazed: “We won, on the road, in a regular-season game, in the rain. We made a lot of bad plays and we had terrible calls go against us and we still won.”
Green didn’t want to talk about the officiating, but he did want to talk about his defense, who, he said, dominated the middle of the game. Green’s defense was on the field for 40:19 and made the big stop in the last two minutes of regulation. “It was a great National Football League game,” I have Green saying in my faded game notes. He said “National Football League” about five times in four minutes. It was one of the best days of Denny Green’s life.
Sauntering into the Vikings locker room, I spotted Doleman standing in the middle of the room, naked and powerful. Eavesdropping, a Vikings stat guy quietly told Doleman how he had done against Packers left tackle Ken Ruettgers: “Nine total tackles, two and a half sacks, three forced fumbles, one recovery.” By this point in his career, Doleman had stopped talking to the media. I took a shot anyway. “You had a great game, Chris. It doesn’t seem like you were fazed by the heat and humidity.” He turned to me, smiled and politely said, “I don’t have anything to say. Thank you.”
EXTRA POINTS: The Vikings went 11-5 in Green’s first season and won what was then the NFC Central Division. His Vikings made the playoffs in eight of ten seasons in Minnesota but two conference championship games (1998) and (2000) did not go Minnesota’s way. With the Vikings at 5-10 in 2001 (Green’s only losing campaign in Minnesota), the team fired him with one game remaining in the season, a decision that looked ungracious at the time and seems churlish in 2018. As Vikings head coach, Green went 97-62 in the regular season and 4-8 in the playoffs. The ownership and management who disrespected Green in 2001 are long gone. The Vikings organization plans to pay tribute to Green by enshrining his legacy into their ring of honor at halftime of their Sept. 23 game against the Buffalo Bills.
The people who loved Dennis Green the most will represent him. Green, 67, died of heart disease on July 22, 2016.
Roger Dier is the managing editor of National Hockey League content at Fullpresscoverage.com. Dier also covers the Vikings for Fullpresscoverage.com.