For decades, when you left the Vikings’ Winter Park facility, you needed a long shower. Maybe even a luffa.
You were constantly confronted with the ugly realities of an ugly business, from ownership and management infighting to angry and sometimes felonious players. Paranoia often ruled, and often for good reason. The Vikings had a lot to hide.
These days, the franchise that brought you such great hits as Denny Green’s Basement Tapes, The Love Boat, the Original Whizzinator and “Straight Cash, Homey,’’ has become the kind of place you wouldn’t mind bringing your children.
Wednesday, while enjoying 100 percent player attendance at an OTA for the first time in memory, the Vikings played host to a bunch of Special Olympic athletes, kids who are competing in Punt, Pass & Kick. While that’s not exactly a new development — Green pushed players to be active in the community — the atmosphere at Winter Park has changed.
It used to be like “Game of Thrones.” Now it’s more “Cheers,” with Jared Allen as Norm.
Winter Park has become a place of genial professionalism. The organization has achieved remarkable stability among key employees on all levels, and the team’s best players also tend to be their most gracious representatives when dealing with the public and media. Leslie Frazier might be the friendliest coach in football, and Adrian Peterson might be the friendliest superstar in sports.
“I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum numerous times throughout my career,’’ Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman said. “I don’t care how much money you’re making, if you’re not happy going into work, how productive are you going to be? We want people to enjoy coming into work.’’
Frazier said he was walking down the hall after the playoff loss to Green Bay last year when a longtime female employee stopped him. “I was bummed out, like we all were,’’ he said. “She said, ‘Leslie, I know it was a tough loss, but this environment that’s here now is way better than it’s ever been. People look forward to coming to work here.’
“What we’re trying to do here is affecting more than just our players. The culture is changing here. We’re still early in the process. But it’s definitely going in the right direction.’’
There’s a certain cognitive dissonance when you hear NFL bosses speaking this way. This is the league of brutal injuries, unguaranteed contracts, ruthless personnel moves.
Within the team’s hierarchy, though, ownership and management emphasize stability. Spielman’s top assistant, George Paton, has turned down chances to interview with other teams. Vice president of football operations Rob Brzezinski, reputed to be one of the best salary-cap managers in the game, remains in the fold. Spielman said he’s had key scouts turn down good opportunities with other teams as well.
“I think this comes from ownership, Leslie and myself being on the same page,’’ Spielman said. “Not only is Leslie a very good football coach, I think he may be the nicest human being to deal with and to be around. He treats everybody with class.
“I feel that I’m very much in step with him, as well. I feel very strongly about that. I think with the structural change in our front office, and coming up with the philosophy of how we were going to go forward, this is how we wanted our organization to be looked at. I think that goes a long way with our players, too, in trying to establish a specific culture where players want to come here and be a part of this.
“Leslie believes in this very strongly, that when players leave here, we want them to leave as men, and quality human beings. Which is kind of unique.’’
Kevin Williams is the Vikings’ longest-tenured player. He played for the bombastic Red McCombs, who presided over the decline of the franchise in the early 2000s before selling to Zygi Wilf.
“If you were here when Red McCombs owned the team, of course you’re going to say it’s changed,’’ he said. “The Wilfs have done so much to the building, and Zygi preaches a family atmosphere. He wants everybody to feel that way while they’re here.
“It’s a nicer place now, and people are a lot happier. When your owner is happy and not always looking like he’s mad at the world, that brings a different atmosphere.’’
Spielman sat in his office overlooking the practice fields on Wednesday. It’s a nice view, but the digs are spartan. “There are no egos,’’ Spielman said. “We’ve had a couple of new players come in and say it’s completely different, to see the coach and the GM walking side by side, just chatting, and being the same way with the people who run our cafeteria.
“We want it to feel like family. Everybody knows how hard this business is, but you want people to want to come to work every day and be part of something we’re trying to build, on the field, and off the field, and in our building.’’