GREEN BAY – He liked piña coladas. But he loved football. And he missed it.
And so, after his NFL playing career ended in 1999, Kevin Greene spent the next nine years trying to figure out what to do next.
There was his brief professional wrestling phase, a continuation of what he’d started while still playing in the league. But the idea of being the next Randy “Macho Man” Savage, despite his flowing locks and showman’s flair, didn’t excite him.
He dabbled in real estate for a few years – in Destin, Fla., on the so-called “Redneck Riviera” of the Florida Panhandle – but found his heart wasn’t in that, either.
PACKERS BLOG: Greene said nothing about plans to step away
The son of an Army colonel who was a captain in the reserves during his 15-year playing career, he volunteered as honorary commander of the 60th Fighter Squadron known as the “Fighting Crows” at Eglin Air Force Base near his home. That, he enjoyed – but it wasn’t enough.
“It all came up short when it came to the release of the energy and the passion I had in my heart about football,” Greene explained in a lengthy, previously unpublished interview during the Green Bay Packers’ training camp last summer. “So there came a time where I realized, ‘Here I am, drinking entirely too many piña coladas, kicking back and really doing nothing with all this passion and fire in my heart.’”
Coaching? Now that intrigued him. But even after he did training-camp internships every summer – six in all, with five different teams – Greene never tried to parlay his summer work into a full-time job.
Until January 2009, when Packers head coach Mike McCarthy hired defensive coordinator Dom Capers – Greene’s coordinator with the Pittsburgh Steelers and head coach with the Carolina Panthers – to install the 3-4 in Titletown. That’s when Greene put down his piña colada and picked up the phone.
“So I reached out to Coach Dom, and Coach Dom didn’t promise me anything. All he said was, ‘Look, I’m going to get you in front of Coach McCarthy, that’s all I can do,’” Greene recalled. “Coach McCarthy interviewed me, and the next thing you know, I get the job, they let me have the outside linebackers and I start.”
McCarthy would later admit that he had reservations about Greene’s thin coaching résumé, but so many coaches vouched for him – including Capers – that he decided to give him a chance.
“I think at that point in time, he really, really wanted to do it,” said Capers, who gave Greene one of those internships while working for the Miami Dolphins and coach Nick Saban – then went to bat for Greene with Saban, only to see Greene decide not to get into coaching at the time.
“I sat down and had a long talk with him, because I knew Kevin as a player and I knew the approach he took as a player. He used to take more film home and study than any player we had.My conversation with him was, ‘Now, you want to make sure. Once you do it, you’re into it and it’s going to consume all of your time.’
“I think he’s gotten better every year and I think he does a really good job with these guys. He’s unique in that he can put on tape from when he was doing it and show the exact techniques these guys are playing. As a player, he had a way of bringing out the emotion in the guys around him, and he brings those same qualities here coaching these guys.”
On Friday, that coaching career ended. Or at least was put on pause.
After five years as the Packers’ outside linebackers coach, Greene resigned, saying in a news release from the team that he wanted to spend more time with his family: Wife Tara, and the couple’s two teenage children – son Gavin and daughter Gabrielle. Greene left the door ajar to return after his kids go off to college, but for now, he’s finished.
“Kevin approached me recently to express his desire to step away from coaching so that he could spend more time with his family,” McCarthy said in a statement of thanks released by the team’s PR department. “Kevin provided an incredible amount of energy, passion and knowledge each and every day he was with us. The dedication he showed to maximizing the potential of his players was clearly evident to anyone that worked with him, and he will be missed. I want to wish Kevin, Tara, Gavin and Gabrielle nothing but the best in the years ahead.”
The decision ends a five-year run during which Greene tried to draw nothing but the best out of his players – whom he called his “kids.”
A few months after he was hired, the team drafted Clay Matthews, whom Greene helped to four consecutive Pro Bowl selections his first four NFL seasons. But Greene has often said that Matthews has more God-given ability than he ever has, even though he is a finalist for Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement for the third straight year and retired with the most sacks (160) of any linebacker in NFL history.
No, a walk-on at Auburn and a 1985 fifth-round draft pick (No. 113 overall) by the Los Angeles Rams who played for four different NFL teams, Greene seemed to find the most joy in coaching underdog undrafted players, helping develop Frank Zombo, Vic So’oto, Dezman Moses and Andy Mulumba into contributors. He particularly seemed to revel in his pet project this season, helping converted defensive end Mike Neal become a functional outside linebacker.
“He understands, as with every great coach, the type of coaching that goes into different players. He understands a rookie cannot be the same way that I’m treated, or vice versa,” Matthews explained late in the season. “I think I’ve earned his respect, as well as he has my respect. We have a great relationship. You get to the professional level, guys are at different points in their careers. They might have different needs. A guy might be better in the classroom than on the field (in practice) as far as learning something, or vice versa. A guy might do well with you staying on him than giving him freedom. He does a great job of differentiating but staying on all of us.”
While 2012 first-round pick Nick Perry continues to struggle with his transition, and former Pro Bowl defensive end Aaron Kampman seemed resistant to the scheme change in a free-agent contract year, Greene never harshly criticized either player publicly and was more likely to point out his undrafted kids’ improvements than their failings.
“I know this: I’m never going to belittle my kids. I know I’m never going to degrade, I’m never going to demean my kids. I’m going to show all of them that I love them and I want to do everything I can for them,” Greene explained. “Within that context, some kids need a little more coaching on fundamentals and technique than others.
“The way I kind of look at it is, all the kids that they’ve given me have really been diamonds in the rough. All I’m doing is polishing here and taking an edge off there. Or saying, ‘Let me show you something that really worked well for me as a player. And if you do it this way, you might find a measure of success with it.’
“I don’t know if I view myself as being a phenomenal athletic talent with tremendous raw athletic ability. I see myself more as a walk-on working man, scratching and clawing. And so the things I was able to do as a football player, a lot of the stuff, it was hit or miss and I kind of developed on my own. Because I knew I was somewhat limited as a player athletically. These guys are so athletic, but I can teach them some of the things I did as a player and it’ll work even better for them because they are more athletic.”
Now, the Packers must find someone else to develop them. Greene, who’ll turn 52 in July, will not be easily replaced – not his knowledge, and not his energy.
“To me, there’s certain traits that people have that make them excel at what they do. First of all, they have to have a real passion for it,” Capers said recently. “As a player, I can remember him leaving Three Rivers Stadium with a stack of tapes because he was going to study those offensive tackles, and he could normally tell by their stances whether it was a run or a pass. We used to call ‘Hawk’ or ‘Rabbit,’ and in some games he’s give us an advantage because off the offensive tackle, he’d be calling ‘Hawk, hawk!’ if it was a pass or ‘Rabbit, rabbit!’ if it was a run.
“He has a real feel for his guys, in terms of he gets real personally involved with them. They sense his passion. I’ve always felt that within a staff you have to have certain guys that have that passion. On the practice field, you can’t have everybody out there going crazy every down, you have to have people that complement the other guys. The fact that he played the game at a high level, the fact that he really cares about his guys, and he knows what he’s talking about, he just brings the same passion to coaching as he had when he was playing.”
Or, brought it. On the day the Packers introduced their new defensive coaches in February 2009, Greene sat at a round table in one of the swanky Legends Club rooms at Lambeau Field, anxiously fiddling with the crisply pressed white tablecloth. He didn’t know what the future would hold as a coach, but he knew what his approach would be.
“I'm just going to coach the way I played the game,” he said that day. “I truly loved playing football. I loved hitting people. I think you have to. It's a brutal thing, but I really enjoyed it. I had a great time doing it. I think as a linebacker, you really have to enjoy hunting people. And that's the case. I'm just going to let the love flow. Let the love flow. But I think my players, it'll be pretty evident to them early on in this thing that I'm very, very serious about the game of football. I enjoyed playing it, and it'll come across that way.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.