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The Historic Pairing Of Dennis Green And Rod Graves

Cardinals just wanted proven coach with first Black Head Coach-GM duo

Head coach Dennis Green (left) and GM Rod Graves teamed for the Cardinals from 2004-2006.
Head coach Dennis Green (left) and GM Rod Graves teamed for the Cardinals from 2004-2006.

In his current job as executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, Rod Graves knows his shared time with the Cardinals when he was general manager and Dennis Green was head coach – the first Black GM-coach combination in NFL history – was meaningful.

When he was going through it, back in 2004, Graves wasn't thinking about it in the same terms.

"Today in the role I have promoting diversity and all of that, if you can ever think about the impact of two minorities working together," Graves said, "it definitely has a lot more added significance today than we recognized back in that time."

As Black History Month commences and the hiring cycle for coaches continues, the moves Bill and Michael Bidwill made resonate. Graves was already in the front office making decisions, but Green's arrival changed the equation – even if Graves acknowledged that at the time, "I don't recall thinking a whole lot about it."

"Dennis was a highly successful coach who had succeeded in the college and pro level and I was having a chance to work with somebody who was truly an icon in the business," Graves said. "I can say with all honestly having been involved in the interview process and sitting with Mr. Bidwill and Michael that Dennis was chosen because we felt at the time he was the best man for the job. Color was never anything that was talked about in our meetings."

Green passed away in 2016 at the age of 67.

By the time Green and the Cardinals played the Bears and head coach Lovie Smith in the infamous 2006 Monday night game, seven NFL teams had Black head coaches.

"I think the game has changed," Green said then, adding, "you are hoping you would be given the same opportunities as everyone else."

Diversity in the coaching and front office ranks remains a large issue, however, which goes back to Graves' job now with the Fritz Pollard Alliance. Michael Bidwill, now the Cardinals owner, also serves on the NFL's Workplace Diversity committee.

"That (Green) was a person of color was a great motivation of many of us," Graves said. "Dennis did it at a high level of success when there weren't many minorities at that level, both in management and coaching, so for many of us he was a great inspiration even before he came to the Cardinals."

The three seasons the two were together didn't produce the wins expected – 16-32 overall – but Graves recalled fondly of the impact Green had in his time in Arizona.

On Tuesday nights, he and Graves would meet and Green would go over the game plan with Graves, discussions Graves called "fascinating" with Green's depth of knowledge and ability to teach.

The Cardinals' draft room changed when Green arrived too. Previously, players would be graded and then grouped by position. It was Green who brought the "Top 100" board to Tempe, a way to line up the top 100 players in the order the Cardinals would draft them regardless of position, allowing the debates on what player would be drafted ahead of another to take place in the days before the Cardinals were on the clock.

The team still uses a version of that idea, and at the time helped produce arguably the best draft in franchise history: Larry Fitzgerald, Karlos Dansby, Darnell Dockett and Antonio Smith in 2004.

Then there was the way Green would motivate players, especially in training camp. Green made sure the Flagstaff accommodations were "bare bones," Graves said, small rooms with hard mattresses and a simple chest of drawers.

It isn't surprising, given that one of Green's favorite sayings was "don't feel sorry for players."

"His philosophy was to put players in the worst and most challenging conditions for that three or four weeks we are in camp and they will learn to live with each other and overcome adversity," Graves said with a chuckle.

Graves said when it came to choosing Green as coach in 2004 the Cardinals "were color-blind in this process."

"I'd like to think they were getting their money's worth at GM too."

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