Mike Zimmer doesn’t want to answer questions. P.J. Fleck all but interviews himself.
Zimmer usually wears sweats, except that on Vikings gamedays he wears his gameday sweats. Fleck showed up for his weekly Gophers news conference on Tuesday wearing bright-blue pants, matching tie, side-buckled brown shoes that looked Italian-ish and a snazzy checked sports coat that would have gotten most of us beaten up if we wore it in high school.
Zimmer is fluent in grumbling, and in his second language, eye-rolling. Fleck speaks in aphorisms and slogans and could sell you undercoating on a glass-bottomed boat.
There have been coaches, managers and front-office personnel in Twin Cities sports history who handled their public duties with grace, sometimes even eloquence. Paul Molitor does it. Leslie Frazier, Flip Saunders, Terry Ryan and Dwane Casey represented themselves and their organizations with class and good humor.
On the local football scene, there currently is no middle ground. Zimmer has become a grump, and Fleck is exactly the salesman we expected him to be.
Which do you prefer in a football coach?
For all of their differences, Zimmer and Fleck are mired in similarities. Both have enjoyed recent seasons that raised expectations — Fleck winning big last year, Zimmer going to the playoffs in 2015 and failing to beat the Seahawks only because of … well, you know.
Both are 3-2 heading into a weekend home game against a superior team from the East that wears green.
Both have quarterback problems. Fleck’s best options at the position are still in high school; Zimmer erred by playing Sam Bradford on Monday and now will rely on journeyman backup Case Keenum.
Both are dealing with public pressure simply because they are high-profile football coaches, and that comes with the paycheck. Fleck joked that he has received plenty of feedback in his actual mailbox. Hate mail at home? Fleck claimed he loves the fans’ “passion,” a deft way to spin harassment.
Minnesotans often prefer the grump to the song-and-dance man. Tom Kelly became lovable over time, but in his prime could melt a minicam with a stare over his stogie. Bud Grant’s stare was colder than an International Falls February.
Minnesotans also feel burned by hype. Lou Holtz told them he loved them, then he told them, “It’s not me, it’s you,” and left for the prettier girl from South Bend. Tim Brewster ruined Minnesota for scam artists, scorching the earth with nonsense.
Me? Having attended enough Fleck news conferences to identify patterns, and enough Zimmer pressers to realize they are a waste of time, I’ll take the salesman.
In the Gophers’ team room on Tuesday, you could see his sayings and motivational ploys in play. “The Ball is The Program” was written in large letters above the podium. One sign read: “Route 3: How-Way to Success.” There were crossed oars and fake geese and if you love the English language, you cringed at the simplistic psychology and forced phraseology.
But this is football. It’s a simple game that adults try to pretend is complex, and in college it’s played by 19-year-olds who might or might not care to crack a book.
A year ago at this time, if you’d asked whether I’d prefer Zimmer’s gruffness or a college coach’s shtick, I would have taken Zimmer 100 percent of the time. Back then he was gruff in a good way — dismissive of pandering or presumptuous questions, but willing to talk football and give straight answers.
Now he has fallen into the NFL fallacy that he works for a football equivalent of the CIA, that his work is so intricate and important that he can’t be bothered by laypeople.
Fleck is headed for a lousy season and is likely to receive many more insults in his real and virtual mailboxes, but he is aiming high and selling his program every day.
Fleck’s spiels can be hokey. But at least he’s trying.