Mike Zimmer is becoming our guy. Which is a rare thing.
His NFL head coaching record is 13-11. He is clearly not “one of us” by birth or accent. He nevertheless has a chance to become one of the most beloved coaches in Minnesota history, where no matter what we say we want we really prefer older and crustier, blunter and bluer.
Last Sunday, Zimmer’s Vikings beat the cheap-shotting Rams at TCF Bank Stadium. After the game, he stood by the podium as Vikings PR executive Bob Hagan told him that he would be the only person speaking because of Teddy Bridgewater’s concussion. Zimmer took a slug of water and murmured, “Can I say I have a concussion, too?”
Zimmer moved into position and let it be known with short words and short sentences that he thought the Rams had intentionally injured Bridgewater and that he wasn’t happy about it.
Zimmer noted the Vikings have committed fewer penalties than any team in football, a fact that speaks more to his belief in how the game should be played than in his ambitions, since the past three Super Bowl champs have all ranked near the league leaders in penalties.
He lauded his players. He said he loves his team, and his players often use that word regarding him.
That is unusual in a monetized blood sport featuring short playing careers.
Zimmer replaced Leslie Frazier, who also earned the affection of his players but lost his status as “players coach” when the team began losing and players found his promises to be hollow if well-meaning.
Unlike Frazier, Zimmer does not appear set up to lose, and he is so blunt in his initial conversations that there is no room for misunderstanding.
Zimmer has performed a neat trick by not performing any tricks. He has won over players and fans by not telling them what they want to hear. In a world saturated with marketing finesses, Zimmer has little time for spin. That’s why many players who feared playing for him now swear by him even if he is swearing at them.
He is part Tom Kelly, the Twins manager who won two World Series and could be difficult in pack media settings, in part because he rarely offered the answers he thought people wanted to hear.
He is part Jerry Burns, who would cuss a blue streak while defending coaches and players.
He is part Bud Grant, not so much because he glares like Harry but because of the rare air of calm he has brought to a frequently dysfunctional organization.
He is part Bill Musselman, a coach’s coach, a teacher of the smallest technical details.
Zimmer is also adaptive enough to employ new-age philosophies in keeping his players fresh and attentive.
I asked him if being direct was a strategy or “just him.”
“Hmmmm,” he said. “I think it’s from my dad. I think it’s just who I am.”
Has he said things he regrets? “Oh, yeah,” he said. “You know, when I said that about Petrino, and then I walk upstairs to my office and it’s all over the Internet already.
“There’s a lot of things I shouldn’t say. Sometimes I say things so my team can hear it.”
Zimmer was Atlanta’s defensive coordinator in December 2007 when coach Bobby Petrino resigned without talking to his staff or players. Zimmer called him gutless, while adding adjectives that would have made Burnsie proud.
Maybe that’s why his daughters tell him to be careful. “They do that quite a bit,” he said. “Because I usually give them the real version of things.
“I’ve talked to Parcells a lot about players. Not so much about the media. He was very eloquent. He could speak really good and very intelligent, but he was fairly direct.”
Bill Parcells became one of the greatest football coaches ever. He liked to be combative. You get the sense Zimmer speaks in short, simple, sentences so he can quickly get back to teaching cornerbacks how to jam a receiver at the line of scrimmage.