Oct. 4, 2012
By Todd D. Burlage
Mark Green was just a freshman tailback at Notre Dame when Lou Holtz hit the door in December of 1985 to introduce himself as the man who would replace Gerry Faust as the new Irish head coach.
Holtz offered no rah-rah speeches, and Green walked away from that initial meeting with no feelings or indication that the new boss would need just three seasons to turn a floundering 5-6 football team into a national champion.
“We really didn’t know what to expect,” Green said. All I knew was that you were going to have to perform at a very high level because of his high expectations.” But it didn’t take long for Green and the rest of the Faust holdovers to realize that priority No. 1 for Holtz was to wipe clean the nice-guy feelings that had infiltrated the Irish football program during a five-year stretch when the team went 30-26-1 from 1981-85.
“In terms of the way (Holtz) handled his business and his players, there was a very noticeable difference between him and Gerry Faust, especially in terms of the expectations. It became obvious Coach Holtz was very, very different, much more demanding,” Green said with a laugh. “Once we got started, Holtz made one thing clear, `you better buy in immediately.’ If you didn’t buy in right away, you were going to have a tough time, so that part was easy to figure out. He was very hard-nosed.”
Not surprisingly, new coaches are typically polar opposite from their predecessors, and Green said the contrasting styles between Faust and Holtz couldn’t have been greater. Where the door to Faust’s office was always open and players were treated almost like sons, Holtz kept his players on edge.
“You never really got too close to him,” said Green, who still marvels at how dramatically and quickly Holtz changed the culture of the Irish football program. “The position coaches often had us over to their houses for dinner and things of that nature. But Coach Holtz wanted to maintain a distance because if he had to make a tough decision, he didn’t want it to be personal. “
The rest, as they say, is history.
Green was part of the last recruiting class Faust brought Notre Dame in 1985, but he immediately jumped headfirst into a new regime and direction, becoming a senior tri-captain for the undefeated 1988 national championship team, and part of a turnaround not even the Irish players could have seen coming when the diminutive but spirited new coach came to campus.
As a senior, Green split his carries at tailback almost evenly with then-sophomore Tony Brooks that title season. But Green still managed 646 rushing yards and seven touchdowns, while adding another 155 receiving yards to lead all Irish with 801 total yards from scrimmage.
“You’ll just never forget that season and how things changed. It was very special,” Green said. “We won it back in 1988, and Notre Dame hasn’t won it since. And to be quite honest with you, every time that they don’t win it, it makes ours a little sweeter. Not trying to be selfish or anything, but it’s a special thing, and it also indicates how difficult it is to achieve it.”
Growing Up Fast
Much has changed for Mark Green since he and his Irish teammates beat West Virginia in the 1989 Fiesta Bowl to claim the last national title Notre Dame has won. Green parlayed his fine playing career at Notre Dame into a fifth-round selection in the 1989 NFL Draft, a five-year stint with the Chicago Bears and a successful business career in the Chicagoland area beyond that.
As a Bear, Green became a special teams star and scored 13 touchdowns in his five seasons, the most memorable being a 37-yard scoring dash on his first NFL carry. Playing alongside Chicago teammates and former Golden Domers Tom Thayer, Dave Duerson and classmate George Streeter provided Green with a comfort level at his new professional football home.
“You tend to gravitate towards people with sameness, people that you know and have shared similar experiences,” Green recalled. “That helped me adjust.”
But culture shock still ruled during Green’s transition from college to pro ball.
“The NFL really is a business. Guys come to work, and after work, they go home,” Green said. “Whereas at Notre Dame, we were all very close friends. There were guys that I played with from the Bears that I knew, but I really didn’t know. And there is not a person on our football team at Notre Dame that I didn’t know, because you spend so much time together doing everything.”
And those lifelong friendships from days gone by are what Green cherishes the most from his time at Notre Dame. In fact, every year he and three former teammates – Streeter, D’Juan Francisco and Cornelius Southall – take an annual golf vacation to get away and revisit the old times.
“We kind of shaped each other because we spent so much time together,” Green said.
“In those four years at Notre Dame, we came in as 18-year-old kids and walked out grown men and responsible adults. I think there is a certain camaraderie that we will always have.”
Green’s affinity for both his former Irish teammates and his time at Notre Dame is easy to understand because of how hard they all pushed each other on the practice field, and through a unifying influence Holtz instilled in the locker room.
The Irish roster became so loaded with top-level talent, 21 of the 22 offensive and defensive starters on the 1988 National Championship team became NFL Draft picks, meaning a Notre Dame practice through the week typically provided more competition than almost any opponent on Saturday could dream of.
“We worked together, competed every day against each other, and spent so much time together during those important years of our lives, you couldn’t help but become closer,” Green said. “We all often mentioned the whole idea of growing up together.”
The only Irish player who wasn’t drafted from the 1988 team? All-American quarterback Tony Rice, arguably the best player on the Irish after finishing fourth in the Heisman Trophy race in 1989.
From Green’s five-man NFL Draft Class in `89, through the 10-man Notre Dame class in 1994, 51 Irish players were selected in the draft through those six years.
“I was fortunate that every single pro football game I played in, I had at least one of my Notre Dame teammates on the other team,” Green said.
As if the intense practice competition wasn’t enough to bond a team together, Green said another dynamic also served as a clear rallying point during his three years playing for Coach Holtz from 1986-88.
“(Holtz) created a culture in which he allowed everyone to have a commonality. And when you have a commonality, you’re more likely to play and perform as a team, not as individuals,” said Green.
Green has steadily climbed the corporate ladder since his professional football career ended in 1993, currently working as the National Director-Business Development for food service giant Aramark, in charge of deal management for a variety of large school districts throughout the country.
Before Aramark, Green spent much of his time in the workplace, helping businesses implement and improve diversity initiatives, including those for two Fortune 300 companies.
The Riverside, Calif., native has two high school age children, daughter, Haley, and son, Cameron, who is a standout wide receiver at Stevenson High School outside of Chicago.
Green rarely gained the notoriety or attention of championship teammates such as Ricky Watters, Raghib “Rocket” Ismail, Anthony Johnson, Rice and Chris Zorich. And that was always fine with him, because in terms of steadiness, leadership and example, Green realized his contributions were equally valuable.
“I always tried to teach the younger guys how to do things, and I always did things the right way,” he said. “I would tell them, `if you want an opportunity to make a name for yourself at this university, follow me. If you want to do it your way, go right ahead. But I have this thing figured out. I have the formula for success.”
Then, and now.