1980 It was Easy Being Green
By Don Leypoldt
The University of Pittsburgh is a “city school” by any definition. But from 1977 to 1980, the Oakland campus morphed into Green Acres.
32 seasons ago, the defending national champion Pitt Panther defense plunked a true freshman into a starting role. Hugh Green left four years later with the 1980 Maxwell Award and one of the most laudable resumes in college football history.
A three time consensus All-American, Green was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1996. Pittsburgh retired Green’s number 99 less than one year after he graduated, the honor that Green considers one of the most meaningful to him.
The DE/LB hybrid registered well over 400 tackles for Pitt; Green’s 49 career sacks have stood as a Panther record for three decades and are just three shy of the NCAA career standard.
Green closed out his career in the 1980 Gator Bowl, where he and his Panther defense smothered South Carolina and their Heisman-winning running back George Rogers 37-9.
“I played against the Pac 10, the Big 8, the SEC, ACC, Southwest,” recalled Green when asked about favorite memories from college. “I played against different teams and conferences during my career. They were great games and competitive games because at that time everyone was comparing conferences.
“That was a thrill, playing different teams in competition, in different conferences and seeing that level of where they played. Those were the memories that I have from the past.”
Green’s claim on the Maxwell Award marked an end of an era. The Natchez, Mississippi native would be the sixth defensive player to earn the accolade from 1965 to 1980. No defender has won it since.
“We went through an era where technique was probably the most key thing in fundamental football,” Green feels. “It always compensated for a lack of size. When you look at the great defensive players during that period of time, they weren’t huge guys. We had an era where you produced the more physical hitters, and that was the result of being more (fundamentally) sound.
“This era, it’s about speed or size whether you have the talent or not. Hopefully your guy can develop over a period of time.”
Tampa Bay selected Green with the seventh pick of the 1981 draft. While that draft may have been highlighted by the second (Lawrence Taylor) and eighth (Ronnie Lott) picks, Green completed a strong 11 year pro career as a starter.
ESPN brought a film crew to Green’s house on Draft Day. It foreshadowed the media event that the NFL Draft would eventually become.
“Even on Draft Day I told two teams no. I flew into Green Bay in January with Coach Bart Starr and said ‘No Coach! Please don’t do that! (pick me)’”, Green laughingly remembers. “I wanted to go somewhere mild or warm.”
Number 99 paid his cold weather dues as a Panther, which raises the specter of how Green chose Pitt in the first place. The Panthers came to New Orleans for the 1977 Sugar Bowl, needing to replace 1976 Maxwell winner Tony Dorsett. An All-American running back prospect lived nearby in Southern Mississippi; Green faced him twice in high school. When the runner’s game tape against Green landed in Panther hands, they became enamored with the defender trying to stop him.
It didn’t hurt either that Jackie Sherrill, a Mississippian, would be replacing then-Pitt coach Johnny Majors.
“We had a class where we started as freshman and sophomores. This era now, the guy gets redshirted and is there for five years. We were four and out. And when you hop that over to the NFL, a high percentage of guys in my class started as rookies,” Green offered. “They didn’t sit out.”
Green made his first of consecutive Pro Bowl appearances in 1982; the outside linebacker’s two “pick-sixes” the next season led the NFL. Twice, he recorded 7.5 sacks. The first time Green did so was in 1985, the year that Tampa Bay traded him to Miami in midseason for two first round picks. He repeated the feat four seasons later.
“When you talk about ‘our era’, we were committed to the team and vice versa,” compared Green, whose rookie year preceded the NFL’s first players’ strike. “Now, players aren’t committed to the team and teams aren’t committed to the players. In my era, if I played 12 or 15 years I might have played on two teams. Now today if I played 12 or 15 years I might play on seven teams.”
Green- a firm believer in the 3-4 defense- thought about coaching after his playing days ended. But the “politics” of the game turned him off. He now works in marketing for Legends Sports Experience, a company that builds sports facilities for young people and complements it with instruction from elite athletes.
A very appropriate calling for a man who, thirty years ago near the confluence of three rivers, produced a Legendary career of his own.
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