Mike Zimmer: The right fit for the Vikings

  • Article by: MARK CRAIG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 19, 2014 - 6:26 PM

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.

“I think I’m a fairly smart guy and I know he is a smart guy, so I think we are going to try to be smarter than that.”

This also is the first time the Wilf family has hired a coach with the current power structure already established. Spielman has final say on personnel and Zimmer has final say on his coaching staff, schemes and who plays.

“We feel this is the winning structure in the NFL,” Mark Wilf said. “And I think Coach Zimmer understands the structure he’s being hired into. As long as everyone communicates and is forthright, we’ll all have no problems.”

Coaching ‘super powers’

In 18 seasons before Zimmer’s arrival in 2008, the Bengals had one top-10 ranking on defense. With Zimmer on board, they’ve done it four times in the past five seasons.

“If you were to say, ‘What’s Zim’s super powers?’ I would tell you his super powers are finding flaws,” Bengals defensive back Chris Crocker said. “He knows when something doesn’t look right and he knows how to fix it.”

Crocker said honesty, fairness and results are three reasons Zimmer is able to push players as intensely as he does and yet still be so widely adored by those same players.

“And being honest is something I can’t say about the majority of coaches in this league,” Crocker said. “Mike is going to tell you the hard truth. You have the choice to take it, run with it and be successful, or go the other direction.”

‘Calling a spade a spade’

Bill Zimmer said other teams have misread his son in the past.

“He comes across as a crazed, stern guy,” Bill Zimmer said. “Well, he is a stern guy, but only because it’s in the players’ best interest. We were told after one of the jobs he didn’t get that the team said he was too blunt. He says what he thinks.”

Never was that more evident than in 2010 when reporters asked Zimmer for his feelings on Bobby Petrino quitting as head coach of the Falcons 13 games into his first season in 2007. Petrino accepted the University of Arkansas head coaching job while his former Falcons staff, including Zimmer, was left with a 3-10 team and uncertain futures.

“When a coach quits in the middle of the year and ruins a bunch of people’s families and doesn’t have enough guts to finish out the year, I’m not a part of it,” Zimmer said. “And you can put that in the Arkansas News Gazette. … He’s a coward, he ruined a bunch of people’s lives, a bunch of families, kids, because he didn’t have enough [guts] to stay there and finish the job. And that’s the truth. … He’s a gutless [expletive]. You can quote that.”

Crocker was with the Falcons in 2007. He said players loved that Zimmer spoke the unvarnished truth.

“He called a spade a spade,” Crocker said. “You don’t know what that means to players. Zim is always, always about doing the right thing. Coaches don’t always do what they’re supposed to either. Look at Petrino. He’s still doing stuff he shouldn’t. Zim called him out. What he said was the absolute truth.”

Meanwhile, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said the Petrino incident was a valuable learning experience for someone who was trying to convince teams that he not only had the coaching acumen but the tact necessary to be a head coach.

“I don’t think Mike thinks that’s one of his most glowing moments,” Lewis said. “Sometimes, we’re not able to speak everything that’s on our minds. It causes too many ripples. But I have no doubt that Mike will be fine in Minnesota.”

Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson was in Atlanta as offensive coordinator when Petrino left.

“All of us felt the same way Mike did, but you have to be careful,” Jackson said. “He and I talked about things that happened when I was head coach with the Raiders. There are just things you don’t need to say.”

Advice from Parcells

Zimmer worked as defensive coordinator under Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells for four seasons in Dallas. Parcells was a mentor who was always telling Zimmer to “take out a pen and write this down.” Zimmer said he’ll be visiting with Parcells soon to seek more advice.

“I wasn’t trying to shape his personality to mine because I don’t believe in that,” Parcells said. “I did, however, try to make him aware of things I knew he was going to have to deal with that he probably hadn’t thought about.

“As for [the Petrino incident], I have no thoughts on that. But Mike is forthright, candid guy. That’s good. But you occasionally have to pick your spots because that can cause problems. But if I know Mike, he won’t have any problems doing the right thing.”

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