Souhan: Through thick and thin, cheery outlook remains constant with Frazier

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 4, 2013 - 10:53 PM
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Minnesota Vikings Kevin Williams (93) spoke with head coach Leslie Frazier during practice on Wednesday at Winter Park.

Photo: Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

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There is a reason Vikings coach Leslie Frazier is the person least surprised by his team's success. When you grow up poor in a sweltering Southern city without your parents around, and find yourself doing the Super Bowl Shuffle with Walter Payton, believing in yourself does not require a leap of faith.

In the context of his life and career, winning football games, to Frazier, is less miracle than affirmation.

"He's the type of person that you want coaching your football team or doing anything to represent you," Robert Smith said. "He's the type of person we are proud to have representing the city of Columbus."

This Robert Smith is not the former Vikings running back. He is the mayor of Columbus, Miss., Frazier's hometown.

Smith coached and mentored Frazier, who grew up poor, raised by his grandmother in a shack of a house that has since been leveled. Sunday, Smith traveled to visit Frazier, as he has done at each of Frazier's coaching stops, and chatted with him on the sideline.

Frazier calls Smith "Mr. Mayor!"

"He was so pumped up after that game on Sunday," Frazier said. "It's always good to see him."

I met Smith two summers ago, when reporting a story on Frazier.

Frazier used the mayor's office as a meeting point, and Smith gave me a tour of the city.

Like many Southern cities, Columbus is a mixture of historical footprints remindful of slavery and secession, and natural beauty, and gentrification. Smith was overseeing the construction of soccer complexes then. These days, he can't stop thinking about football.

"When I got back from the game, I was amazed at all the people in Columbus who were discussing that game, and how excited they were that coach Frazier won it," Smith said. "Everyone in Columbus is pulling for coach Frazier. They know he will do everything he can to win a championship."

Frazier has been talking about a championship since he replaced Brad Childress in 2010. He presided over the ugly ending to that year, then went 3-13 in 2011.

Losing tends to make football coaches paranoid, cranky, or worse. Frazier's personality has yet to waver. He has remained confident and calm, partly because of his nature and partly because he believes players and fellow coaches need to see stable leadership from the head coach.

"When that team finished 3-13, coach Frazier never sounded worried," Smith said. "He said, 'In due time, things will change.' He just said he had a lot of work to do. He always talked positive about the players, coaches and organization."

Smith has witnessed every step of Frazier's rise. He not only starred in sports, he was so popular among the varied cliques at his high school that he was voted "Mr. Lee High" as a senior.

Unable to interest big colleges, he played at Alcorn State, becoming a star cornerback. Undrafted by the NFL, his agent had to coerce the Chicago Bears into giving him a tryout, telling the Bears they could work out a more highly rated player only if they looked at Frazier.

Frazier became a star cornerback on the Bears team that won the Super Bowl. During that game, he suffered a knee injury that ended his career. During his unsuccessful rehab, he began receiving letters from the president of little Trinity College outside Chicago. After much persuasion, he became the head coach of that school's fledgling football program.

"I remember visiting Leslie at Trinity," Smith said. "He'd have Mike Singletary and Wilber Marshall and Jim McMahon out to help him with his camps."

Frazier became an assistant at Illinois. After Andy Reid hired him to coach the Philadelphia Eagles defensive backs, the Bengals made him defensive coordinator. Despite great success in that position, the Bengals released him after the 2004 season, and the Colts' Tony Dungy hired him as secondary coach and special assistant to the head coach.

They won a Super Bowl together, and Childress, a former fellow Eagles assistant, hired Frazier to replace Mike Tomlin as Vikings defensive coordinator.

Smith watched Frazier grow from a poor, skinny kid to a Super Bowl champion and a leading Coach of the Year candidate in the NFL. Smith is thrilled but hardly surprised.

"Leslie is a quality human being," Smith said. "He has never forgotten where he came from. He is still a very humble gentleman."

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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