My friend Gerry Fraley has a knack as a sportswriter, whether as a reporter or columnist, that differentiates him from many of us:
If he chooses to make a case against a general manager, manager, coach or an athlete, he invariably does so with facts rather than opinions.
That shouldn’t be taken to mean that Gerry is a fellow lacking in strong opinions. In conversation, Fraley has high standards for the people that he covers, and he is not frequently vague in what he thinks of an individual.
Fraley spent considerable time dealing with the Cowboys for the Dallas Morning News during Zimmer’s 13 seasons there. The Vikings’ new head coach was in charge of the defensive backs from 1994-99 and then was the defensive coordinator from 2000 through 2006.
I called Fraley on Wednesday morning to get an assessment of what the Vikings were getting in Zimmer. Knowing it wasn’t being sugarcoated, I was surprised at the enthusiasm of Gerry’s assessment:
“He’s a complete straight shooter. He never lies. He’s so honest that he called me once to say, ‘I think I told you something that was incorrect,’ and then clarified. That hasn’t happened for me often with any coach, in any sport.
“Darren Woodson said to me Zimmer, ‘He’s consistent. What he tells you one day doesn’t change the next. If something goes wrong, he’ll stand up.’
“From what I’ve seen, NFL players appreciate that about an assistant coach more than anything.’’
Les Frazier, fired after the Vikings’ 5-10-1 flop, felt obliged to stand up and tell the lie that the team had gone back to Christian Ponder at quarterback because he offered “the best chance to win.’’
What might Zimmer do in a situation like that?
“This is a different deal, head coach, and I don’t know how Zimmer would handle it,’’ Fraley said. “But I don’t think you would see him offering such obvious B.S. When asked about a player who had a lousy game, he often would say, ‘You saw it.’
“I always interpreted that as Zimmer’s way of saying, ‘You saw it. Write it. He was a horse ….’ ‘’
Zimmer and his fondness for profane adjectives and adverbs was well-documented last year when the Cincinnati Bengals were the team on which the 2013 version of HBO’s “Hard Knocks’’ was based. Zimmer was the defensive coordinator in Cincinnati for the past six seasons.
“He is a cussing son of a gun,’’ Fraley said. “It’s such a part of his coaching language that I worry about Zimmer getting through the press conferences that are required of a head coach.
“But even with the hollering and cussing he does at the players, he never loses them. Even when he had a substandard collection of players, his defenses consistently played hard.’’
Fraley was asked why it would take 20 years as an NFL assistant – including the last 14 as the coordinator for mostly effective defenses – for Zimmer to get this shot as a head coach?
“I would guess that he’s a terrible interview, in the sense of talking his way into a job,’’ Fraley said. “He has no political skills. He lives to coach. He’s not a a self-promoter.
“He’s not a guy who looked for the spotlight. He was a coach.’’
Fraley then broke out his highest praise:
“He was almost like dealing with Bobby Cox. With Bobby, nobody got a free pass. And that’s what made for a great clubhouse and made him a great manager. My guess is the Vikings are going to find out nobody gets a free pass in Mike Zimmer’s locker room.’’
Fraley covered Cox as a Braves’ beat writer in Atlanta and then in endless postseasons. Through the years, Gerry probably has had more praise to offer for Cox than any sports figure that he’s covered.
To put Zimmer in the same sentence as Bobby Cox … that’s a hard-to-achieve, full-blown Fraley endorsement.