In the beginning, there was Norm Van Brocklin, and he was angry. So angry that he would scream at Fran Tarkenton when Tarkenton scrambled. So angry that Van Brocklin unwittingly became the Vikings’ cussing precursor to their current coach, Mike “Bleep” Zimmer.
That Norm couldn’t get along with a future Hall of Fame quarterback foretold decades of Vikings history, in which owners, coaches, star players and team executives would scheme to seize influence within the organization.
Today, the Vikings appear to have all of their key decisionmakers on the same page and, for once, that page is not a legal brief.
There have been good times, and calm times, in Vikings history, but rarely were the Vikings good and calm at the same time when anyone other than Bud Grant was in charge.
Grant employed problem players and his team lost big games, but with ol’ Steely Eyes in charge, the Vikings took on the appearance of a lake unruffled by whitecaps.
Since Grant retired, the Vikings have not been the same. They have not returned to a Super Bowl. They have not enjoyed a multiple-season stretch of anything that could be labeled as tranquil.
Les Steckel replaced Grant, and quickly got himself fired by mistaking the NFL for a special forces training center. Grant returned for one season, but finished 7-9. Grant’s longtime protégé, Jerry Burns, another coach who could swear with creativity and stamina, took over and advanced to the brink of a Super Bowl, but retired before new executive Roger Headrick could push him out.
Headrick had replaced Mike Lynn, whose time as the team’s top football executive included feuds between him and the ownership group known as the Gang of 10, members of which spent more time suing one another than watching football. Headrick, a corporate type who mistakenly showed up for a practice in coaching shorts and wearing a whistle, replaced Burns with Denny Green.
Green won right away and for a long time, but by the end of his first season he was the subject of reports about numerous non-football allegations, and soon he would be writing a book threatening to sue for ownership of the team.
Owner Red McCombs fired Green following the 2001 season and replaced him with the best affordable alternative in the organization, Mike Tice, who tried to scalp his NFL-issued Super Bowl tickets, presided over the Love Boat scandal and eventually was fired by Zygi Wilf, another ambitious owner unfamiliar with the operations of an NFL team.
Wilf brought in Brad Childress, who honored Van Brocklin’s memory by feuding with a Hall of Fame quarterback, Brett Favre. Childress also honored Vikings history by reaching the brink of a Super Bowl before being pushed out.
Wilf chose defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier to replace Childress, and while Frazier is a calm man, he was set up to fail. He was working for an owner who expects a Super Bowl and a general manager, Rick Spielman, who didn’t hire him.
Last winter, Spielman fired Frazier and hired Zimmer. A couple of weeks into Zimmer’s first training camp, the Vikings, for the first time in decades, offered the promise of multiple-season stability.
Zimmer will have to win, of course, and if he does, the Vikings will have an owner, a general manager, a coach, two coordinators and a talented young quarterback set up to keep their jobs for a long time, with little doubt that all parties can get along.
The owner hired the GM. The GM hired the coach. The coach is grateful for the opportunity to become a head coach at 58. The star assistant, offensive coordinator Norv Turner, isn’t vying to be a head coach anymore. The defensive coordinator, George Edwards, is a Zimmer protégé. All hands are determined to develop Teddy Bridgewater into a winning quarterback.
Even with Zimmer awaiting his head coaching debut, there is a sense of order in the organization that has rarely existed since Grant retired the first time. For once, the Vikings may not only be set up to eventually win, their key figures may be set up to peacefully coexist.