Jim Souhan: Rex and the Jets are flirting with their own Pecos River

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 3, 2012 - 1:09 AM

The 1990 Vikings got forgettable results from a team-bonding retreat.

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Jets coach Rex Ryan.

Photo: Ben Margot, ASSOCIATED PRESS - AP

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New York Jets coach Rex Ryan recently sent 19 players to a leadership training seminar in Bedminster, N.J.

If you like Ryan -- the man who, on "Hard Knocks," once followed an inspirational speech to his team, and I paraphrase, with the immortal line, "Let's go eat a delicious snack" -- you have to hope leadership training will end better for him than it did for the 1990 Minnesota Vikings.

In the pantheon of quintessential Vikings missteps, we often remember the Whizzinator and the Love Boat and forget about Pecos River.

Following the 1987 season, the Vikings lost narrowly to Washington in the NFC Championship Game. In 1988, they finished 11-5, and in 1989, they finished 10-6.

At the time, conventional wisdom held that those talented teams lacked two components of a champion: a star running back, and team unity.

Mike Lynn, the Vikings general manager, tried to solve the first in 1989 by trading for Herschel Walker. He tried to solve the second by organizing a team retreat to the Pecos River Learning Center in New Mexico. The latter worked about as well as the former.

Lynn, who recently died, was regarded as a lovable and irascible character to most who knew him well, but his negotiating style did not endear him to many players. When he threw a team party at his antebellum mansion in north Mississippi, at least one player accused him of being a plantation owner.

In an effort to assuage his players and coax them toward a Super Bowl, Lynn organized the trip to Pecos River, where they would learn to trust one another while walking along 160-foot cliffs and navigating adult-sized jungle gyms.

I arrived in Minnesota in 1990 to cover the Vikings for the Star Tribune. The Pecos River trip marked one of the first big stories I covered for the paper.

Lynn didn't mind publicity, but he didn't want anybody from the media to cover the trip itself. When he found out I was in New Mexico, trying to talk my way into the Pecos River facility, he warned me that security wouldn't let me near the place.

We negotiated, and he agreed to conduct an exclusive interview with me if I promised not to make like James Bond and rappel into the middle of a team meeting.

When the Vikings returned from New Mexico and held their first minicamp, players raved about the experience. Most of them developed a new respect for Lynn after seeing him put himself on the line by enduring the same exercises as the rest of them. At that minicamp, coach Jerry Burns hugged members of the media and cornerback Carl Lee predicted that cohesiveness could lead to another victory or two during the season.

"I'll tell you what, after you get done with some of those high-wire drills, you're ready to hug anybody," Burns said.

Here's where Rex Ryan might want to start taking notes.

In the three seasons before they traveled to Pecos River, the Vikings averaged more than 10 victories (including playoff wins), made the playoffs three times and almost beat Washington in the 1987 NFC Championship Game.

In the two seasons following their trip to Pecos River, the Vikings went 14-18 and failed to make the playoffs. By 1992, Lynn and Burns were gone, replaced by Roger Headrick and Denny Green.

At Pecos River, each Vikings employee was handed a safety link, to represent that individual's link with the collective. Turns out, everyone would have been better off with a golden parachute.

"You look at our safety links -- they're a symbol of many things: support, creativity and courage," Vikings running back Jessie Clark said in 1990. "Put them together, and there's strength in numbers."

In retrospect, the only numbers that matter in pro sports reside in the win column.

Sorry, Rex: Team-building exercises are the last resort of a lost squad. You might as well go back to enjoying team snacks.

Star Tribune librarian John Wareham contributed to this report. Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500-AM. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com

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