Reusse: Coaching staff will speak volumes about Zimmer's path with Vikings

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE
  • Star Tribune
  • January 18, 2014 - 12:48 AM

A new sheriff has arrived. Again.

Mike Zimmer made his first public appearance as coach of the Vikings with an introductory news conference Friday morning at Winter Park. Vikings fans who have been reading the accounts of his approach to coaching, or who watched him in action as a Cincinnati assistant on HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” understand that Zimmer might as well be wearing a badge.

And those fans also can be hopeful that Zimmer can succeed as quickly as did Dennis Green, the original New Sheriff, back in 1992.

The Vikings were 6-10 and then 8-8 in Jerry Burns’ final two seasons of 1990 and ’91. Burnsie retired and CEO Roger Headrick chose Green’s head coaching experience at Northwestern and Stanford over Pete Carroll, then an assistant with the New York Jets.

This weekend, Carroll will be leading Seattle onto its home field in the NFC title game vs. San Francisco, while Green will be coaching the American team in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl in Carson, Calif.

Yet, if you go back to 1992 and look at what Green brought to the task, it would be folly to suggest Headrick made the wrong choice.

The Vikings improved by three victories, to 11-5, in ’92 and won the five-team NFC Central. They did this with an unsettled quarterback situation, in which Rich Gannon started 12 games and Sean Salisbury four.

Green made the unfortunate decision to go with Salisbury in the playoff game. He went 6-for-20 for 113 yards in a 24-7 loss to Washington at the Metrodome.

Bad decision there, but Green had given the Vikings a first-year turnaround. Eventually, he took the Vikings to eight playoff appearances before resigning in order to avoid being fired near the end of the 2001 season.

If you’re looking for a reason for the Sheriff’s fast start in Minnesota, consider the coaching staff he assembled:

Defense: coordinator, Tony Dungy; line, John Teerlinck; inside linebackers, Monte Kiffin; outside linebackers, Richard Solomon; secondary, Willie Shaw.

Offense: coordinator/quarterbacks, Jack Burns; running backs, Tyrone Willingham; wide receivers, Tom Moore; tight ends, Brian Billick; line, John Michels.

Special teams: Tom Batta.

Dungy. Kiffin. Moore. Michels. Willingham. Billick. Shaw. On the same 11-person coaching staff.

“How did Green pull off hiring a crew of assistants such as that?”

Billick was asked that question in a phone interview Friday.

“Denny had an excellent vision of what he wanted to do with his staff,” Billick said. “He wanted diversity on his staff — diversity in the sense of veteran coaches such as Moore, Michels and Shaw, and younger coaches such as Willingham and myself, a quiet, effective guy such as Dungy, and a fiery guy such as Teerlinck.

“The only guy in the group that Denny didn’t have some type of previous relationship with was Burns.”

That was the hire that didn’t work out. Green and Burns clashed early in the 1993 season, Denny fired him as offensive coordinator, and promoted Billick, an assistant with a modest résumé.

That worked well for all parties. Billick was in charge of a record-setting offense in 1998 and landed as coach of the Baltimore Ravens. He won a Super Bowl with a spectacular defense in his second season.

“The assistants that you hire as a first-year coach establish what you want to do with your program,” Billick said. “You saw that with Denny in Minnesota, and with me in Baltimore.

“I had Marvin Lewis, Rex Ryan, Jack Del Rio and Mike Smith on my first staff. They all became NFL head coaches. I also would have Mike Nolan, Mike Singletary and David Shaw [Stanford], other head coaches.

“It is well-established that Mike Zimmer is a tremendous defensive coach. Yet, as a head coach, you can’t say, ‘I’m going to concentrate on my area and let someone I hire take complete charge of the offense.’ ”

Even if Zimmer is successful in hiring Norv Turner as his offensive coordinator?

“Norv is one of the great coaches, and if you’re trying to develop a quarterback — as they will be in Minnesota — there’s none better,” Billick said. “But Mike’s also been around long enough to know that a head coach has to be involved in every aspect.

“Offense, defense, special teams … the coaches you hire are working on your program.”


Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500. •

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