The handwritten letter, on Notre Dame stationery, arrived on the
desk of embattled Minnesota Vikings coach Dennis Green a few
days before Thanksgiving. Of all the strange events in this
strange Vikings season, Green thought this one took the cake.
"Dear Denny," the letter read. "I am resigning the coaching job
at Notre Dame because it is the right thing to do.... I know how
frustrating it must be for you to read that I am waiting in the
wings for your job. This is unfair to you and totally untrue....
I have not spoken to owners for any NFL team since last
March...." On it went, in a tiny scrawl, for a full page. It was
signed by Lou Holtz.
Holtz had been tied, through his longtime relationship with some
of the Vikings' 10 owners, to the Minnesota job before he
announced on Nov. 19 that he would quit his Notre Dame post,
effective at the end of the season. And even before he received
the letter, Green, 47, believed that Holtz was angling for his
job through owners Jaye Dyer and Wheelock Whitney. But the
letter gave Green new reason to wonder why his job security was
even an issue. Minnesota is 9-6 this year, and in five seasons
under Green it has never finished with a losing record. With
their 21-10 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the Metrodome
on Sunday, coupled with the Washington Redskins' 27-26 loss to
the Arizona Cardinals, the Vikings locked up a playoff spot for
the fourth time under Green. Not bad for a team many expected to
finish at the bottom of the NFC Central.
As the clock wound down on Sunday, Minnesota defensive end
Fernando Smith handed Green a game ball. "This is for you,
Coach," Smith said. "You deserve it, with what you've been
through this year."
In September the Vikings seemingly had cause to replace Green.
Citing a copy of a sealed lawsuit it obtained, the Twin Cities'
KSTP-TV reported that in 1992 Green paid for an abortion for a
woman he'd had an affair with, and that $5,000 had been put in
her bank account by the Vikings' chief of security. A team
investigation followed to determine the origin of the funds, and
the club found no evidence that its money was used to pay the
woman. (Green, citing a confidentiality agreement with the
woman, refuses to discuss the episode.) Then came Holtz's
resignation, at about the time Minnesota's record slipped to
6-6, and Whitney said to the press that Holtz would be a fine
candidate if the Vikings were going to be shopping for a coach
in the off-season, reigniting speculation about Green's job
On the field Green's fortune hasn't been much better. Starting
running back Robert Smith was lost for the season after
suffering a knee injury in an Oct. 28 loss to the Chicago Bears.
Quarterback Warren Moon, plagued by ankle injuries, gave way to
the untested Brad Johnson on Nov. 10. Johnson is a fifth-year
player who was a backup at Florida State and who had never
started an NFL game until this season. He plays behind a line
that in the past four years has lost Gary Zimmerman, a
seven-time Pro Bowl player, Brian Habib and Kirk Lowdermilk
through free agency or trades. Star running back Terry Allen and
defensive line starters Roy Barker and Henry Thomas have also
left through free agency since Green arrived. Defensive end
Chris Doleman was traded. Nevertheless Minnesota is 47-35 during
"And they say this guy's job is in jeopardy?" middle linebacker
Jeff Brady asked after Sunday's game. "Why should it be? It's a
joke. I've played for six coaches in the NFL, and I don't want
to play for anyone else. The grass is greener here."
Not in every sense. Green is 0-3 in the playoffs, including two
home losses. He won't win any popularity contests in Minneapolis
either. The extramarital affair was Green's second alleged
incident involving a woman while he was still married to his
first wife, Margie. In a '93 lawsuit in which a woman accused
assistant coach Richard Solomon of sexual harassment, the
Vikings' director of team operations, Dan Endy, contended in an
affidavit that two women said they were sexually harassed by
Green. The charges against Green were never substantiated.
Now he is trying to put his life in order. He married Marie Law
in December 1995, and the couple is expecting their first child.
"Baby Green is coming Feb. 6," says Dennis, "and I'm happy as
can be about that."
But there's no doubt Minnesota fans have become disenchanted
with the Vikings, and Green's personal life has likely been a
contributing factor. His weekly TV show was canceled after
Minnesota went 8-8 last year. Season tickets are down from
56,000 in 1991, the year before he arrived, to about 41,000 this
year. With a playoff spot on the line, there were 14,733 empty
seats for the home finale on Sunday. "In this town, you're
better off being accused of murder than sexual harassment," said
longtime Minneapolis Star-Tribune columnist Sid Hartman on
Sunday. "Denny's done a terrific job, considering that the
Vikings have 10 millionaire owners who won't spend any money."
Minnesota is unique if for no reason other than the way its
ownership is structured: Ten local businesspeople each have a
10% share. The Vikings are under an NFL order to comply with a
league rule that states each team must have one owner with at
least a 30% stake. That means one of the owners, perhaps
president and chief executive officer Roger Headrick, will buy
out two of his partners. Headrick, a former Pillsbury executive,
was elevated to the Vikings' top position in 1991. After Jerry
Burns resigned following the '91 season, one of Headrick's first
moves was to hire Green from Stanford. In so doing he bypassed a
more popular choice, New York Jets defensive coordinator Pete
Carroll, who had served in the same capacity with Minnesota from
'85 to '89. Now, says a source close to the owners, "Roger is
waffling on Denny because when the other nine owners go to
cocktail parties, all they hear is, 'When are you going to get
rid of Denny Green? He's not the kind of coach we want for our
Listen to Headrick talk about the Vikings' coaching situation,
and he sounds like a man who is waffling. He said last Saturday
that he's proceeding as though Green, who has two years left on
his contract, will return next season. But he also said, "I'd
like it to be clear-cut, with no doubt from anyone he should
return. I'd like to win the next two and a playoff game. If we
don't, that's a decision we'll make after the season."
A home win over the Bucs is one thing, but if Green must win two
more games to keep his job, that means he has to beat the 12-3
Packers in Green Bay next Sunday and then win a road playoff
game in Dallas (10-5), San Francisco (11-4) or Carolina (11-4).
As for the Holtz rumors, Headrick says, "I think that whole
thing was prompted by Lou. I'm not paying any attention to it.
But there certainly is no deal of any sort with him. I've never
talked to him."
Headrick has another problem that plagues him more than Green's
status: an unprofitable stadium lease, which threatens the
continuation of the NFL in Minnesota. Because they pay $2.6
million a year in rent to a commission for the use of the
Metrodome and get little in the way of stadium income, the
Vikings can do no better than break even in stadium revenues.
The lease runs until 2012, but next month Headrick will plead to
the Minnesota legislature for relief. "I keep hearing [from
politicians and businesspeople] to wait my turn," Headrick says.
"Art Modell waited his turn, and look where he ended up."
Headrick will propose to the legislature ways for the Vikings to
make as much as $16 million annually off the stadium without
drastically reducing the commission's cut. And if the
politicians don't buy his ideas? Headrick says he won't make
threats, but if the issue isn't addressed, don't be surprised if
the Vikings try to break their lease and move to Cleveland or
Without a lucrative stadium deal Minnesota doesn't have the
capital to offer the big signing bonuses needed to keep its own
free agents or to woo others. Barker is a perfect example. A
quick 6'5", 290-pound defensive end, he spent four years in
Minnesota, and then last spring, as a 27-year-old free agent, he
discovered the difference between the NFL's haves and have-nots.
The Vikes' $1.2 million signing bonus paled in comparison with
the Niners' $3 million offer. Because the signing bonus is the
only guaranteed money in most NFL contracts, Barker's decision
In the past five seasons Minnesota has paid top dollar to keep
four players: Moon, wideouts Cris Carter and Jake Reed, and
defensive tackle John Randle. Johnson and eight-time Pro Bowl
guard Randall McDaniel are eligible for free agency after the
season, and both could follow Barker out the door. Johnson and
the Vikings are significantly apart in negotiations, and he says
he'll test the free-agent waters if he doesn't sign by the end
of this week.
The more Johnson plays, the more his stock continues to rise. On
Sunday he completed 25 of 35 passes for 231 yards and one
touchdown. Waiver pickup Leroy Hoard, signed on Nov. 5 to
replace Smith, ran for 101 yards and two touchdowns. Brady led
the no-name defense with eight tackles and a jarring sack of
quarterback Trent Dilfer.
Most of the credit for Minnesota's success of late goes to
Johnson, who ranks third in the NFC in quarterback rating. A
ninth-round pick in 1992, he had been an understudy to Casey
Weldon at Florida State, where he started only six games. The
Vikings took a chance on him only after he had a decent
performance at the scouting combine. "I'd love to stay, because
this is the perfect system for me," Johnson says. "I know it so
well, and I'm just beginning to scratch the surface. But if the
money isn't there, I'm going to free agency. I have to, even as
good as Denny and the coaches have been to me."
Johnson threw four interceptions in the Vikings' preseason
finale against the New Orleans Saints but remained the No. 2
quarterback on the depth chart. That prompted him to tell Green,
"Denny, I appreciate your not giving up on me."
"Are you kidding?" Green said, slapping Johnson on the back.
"You've been here five years. You're our guy. We know you. And
we all have bad days."
Green has often had to play Norman Vincent Peale. The most
recent occasion came in the wake of a last-minute, 21-17 loss to
the Denver Broncos on Nov. 24, which dropped the Vikings to 6-6.
When the players gathered for a meeting three days later, the
playoffs seemed miles away. Green put a graphic on the overhead
projector, showing Minnesota's December schedule: Arizona, at
Detroit, Tampa Bay, at Green Bay. "All four of those teams
aren't playing that hot right now," Green said. "So you know
what? Our destiny's in our own hands. We're going to run the
table, and we're going to make the playoffs."
They did just that on Sunday, and the prospect of facing a
formidable foe in the wild-card round of the playoffs doesn't
faze Green. "Whoever it is, we'll fight 'em and lay it on the
line, like we've always done," he says. "My lineage is clear.
[African-Americans] aren't supposed to get fed up with things.
We're supposed to fight and try to make things right."
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER Just as Green walks a fine line with team owners, Hoard tiptoed down the sideline to a touchdown against the Bucs. [Dennis Green; Leroy Hoard and others in game]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER Johnson, who has thrown for 16 TDs this season, couldn't stay in the starting lineup at Florida State. [Brad Johnson and others in game]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER Martin Harrison and the Vikings defense got to Dilfer for three sacks and two interceptions. [Martin Harrison tackling Trent Dilfer]