Everyone was on the same page, as everyone always is the day an NFL franchise changes course with the formal introduction of a new head coach who is nothing like his most-recently fired predecessor.
Never mind that once upon a time, that fired predecessor stood in that very same spot under that very same shower of accolades and hopeful promises that everyone will fit perfectly onto that magical page. Truth is no one knows if that new page will be filled with the smiles of a Super Bowl victory or another stretch of gameday frowns that will lead to yet another coach being introduced.
On Friday, Mark Wilf, Vikings owner and president, introduced former Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer as the team’s new head coach by saying, “We have selected a head coach who will be a great leader for many years to come.” Three years, 14 days and fewer than 50 games earlier, Wilf stood in the same spot and said, “Clearly, Leslie Frazier is the right man for the job.”
At first, Frazier and Rick Spielman, who was then vice president for player personnel, shared equal strength over personnel. Zygi Wilf, Vikings owner and chairman, said it was the “proper system,” yet the team changed course a year later, elevating Spielman to general manager with final say on all personnel.
Eventually, Spielman and Frazier ended up on opposite pages, particularly at two of the most critical positions: quarterback and cornerback. For example, last October, as Frazier was practically begging for cornerback Antoine Winfield’s return, Spielman was using $2 million to sign quarterback Josh Freeman. No other team signed Winfield, but Freeman played in only one game for the Vikings.
Coaches’ sons, kindred spirits
To portray Frazier as a “yes” man isn’t entirely fair. But it’s safe to say his most candid public criticism of Spielman, particularly the latter’s own admission that he hasn’t fared well at picking quarterbacks, came once it was obvious that Frazier’s exit was imminent.
Zimmer, on the other hand, enters the picture having built a 35-year coaching reputation on excellent defenses and an honest, outspoken personality that’s as blunt as a sledgehammer between the eyes. It’s a reputation enhanced or some would say distorted by the HBO series “Hard Knocks,” of which Zimmer has been an expletive-filled part in three different seasons.
“I know that type of person,” Spielman said. “I took quite a few of those hammers to the forehead from my dad. I’m used to it. I think it will be good for us. I’m looking forward to that relationship when it comes time to discuss the roster.”
Spielman’s late father, Sonny, was a blue-collar high school coach whose honesty often came wrapped in a verbal punch to the nose. Spielman and his younger brother, Chris, both played for Sonny when he was an assistant at Massillon (Ohio) Washington High School.
Zimmer’s father, Bill, sounds like the same person, only he coached his son at Lockport (Ill.) Township High School.
“My father was the quarterback and my granddad was the coach,” said Adam Zimmer, the Bengals’ defensive backs coach. “My father tells the story of how he threw an interception and came over to the sideline and my granddad punched him in the stomach. So, yeah, my granddad was a hard-nosed guy, too.”
It’s that kindred spirit that Spielman and Zimmer drew comfort from during an initial interview that lasted 10 hours and a second interview that lasted almost as long.
‘You just know’
Spielman had interviewed six other candidates during a three-week search. But it was Zimmer, who had gone 0-for-5 in five previous head coaching interviews, who stole the show before any other candidate gained a second interview.
“It’s like when I met my wife,” Spielman said. “You just know.”
Zimmer also said the bond with Spielman feels right. He also said his bluntness won’t keep the two from staying on the same page.
“We will be fine,” he said. “I can get mad at people. I’m sure he can get mad at people, but we understand that both of our butts are responsible for each other. So the first time we say the heck with you and we go in the other room and we don’t come back out [to reach a consensus], it’s over.