It was the summer of 1992. In the wake of the Herschel Walker trade and two mediocre seasons, the Vikings had transformed their organization.
Rascally Mike Lynn was relieved of his duties and replaced with the officious Roger Headrick.
Jerry Burns retired. Had Lynn remained in charge, Burns probably would have recommended his heir apparent, Tom Moore, to become his replacement. Instead, Headrick chose Denny Green over Bud Grant favorite Pete Carroll.
By the time the Vikings held their draft and began offseason workouts, Green had assembled one of the greatest coaching staffs in modern NFL history. Which led to Vikings defensive linemen being introduced to John Teerlinck’s signature hand gesture and motivational device.
A young defensive end began looking sluggish during drills in the summer heat on the practice fields of Winter Park. Teerlinck, the Vikings’ new defensive line coach, nodded to catch the players’ attention, then made a squeezing motion with his right hand.
Later, I asked Teerlinck what that meant. “It’s my way of telling a player that if he doesn’t perform, he’ll be pumping gas in a month,” Teerlinck said.
Teerlinck died on Sunday. He was 69. He spent just three seasons with the Vikings, but I consider him one of the great characters and coaches in a franchise history filled with high achievers and great characters.
He arrived at an ideal time for the franchise. The Walker trade had depleted the roster. During Teerlinck’s first practice, he worked with a young, undersized defensive lineman who went undrafted out of Texas A&I.
John Randle made zero starts and collected one sack as a rookie, in 1990. In his second year, he added weight onto what had been a 244-pound frame and started eight games, collecting 9.5 sacks. In 1992, Teerlinck began coaching Randle. Eighteen years later, Randle chose Teerlinck to drape a gold jacket over his shoulders at the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony, speaking to Teerlinck’s magnetism as well as his expertise.
Teerlinck’s symbolic hand squeeze was typical of that 1992 coaching staff. Green had hired Tony Dungy to be his defensive coordinator, and Dungy never raised his voice. Once I asked him how he commanded players, and he said, “You don’t have to yell if they know you’re willing to cut them.”
Dungy would become an important figure in NFL history, but in 1992 he was in the midst of reinvigorating a stalled career. The Pittsburgh Steelers had fired him as a defensive coordinator and he was coaching the Kansas City Chiefs’ secondary when Green hired him.
Under Dungy were Teerlinck, inside linebackers coach Monte Kiffin (who would become one of the most celebrated defensive coordinators of his era), secondary coach Willie Shaw (who would become defensive coordinator for the Raiders).
The offensive staff included future Ravens Super Bowl-winning head coach Brian Billick, who coached tight ends, future Notre Dame head coach Ty Willingham, who coached running backs, venerable offensive line coach John Michels and Moore, who would become famous as Peyton Manning’s mentor in Indianapolis under Dungy.
That coaching staff helped that ’92 team, supposedly ravaged by the Walker trade, finish 11-5 and host a playoff game at the Metrodome against Washington, which had won a Super Bowl at the Metrodome the previous January.
Green put together a tremendous staff, but his decision to stick with backup quarterback Sean Salisbury instead of reinstalling Rich Gannon when Gannon was healthy led to the Vikings losing, 24-7, to a battered Joe Gibbs team.
What I remember most about that ’92 coaching staff was a sense of fun that doesn’t always survive the hyper-seriousness of the NFL.
The assistant coaches on that staff were as affable as they were ambitious. Dungy displayed the charisma that would make him a Hall of Fame head coach, and Teerlinck became one of his most important lieutenants.
When Dungy became head coach of the Indianapolis Colts in 2002, he hired Teerlinck as his defensive line coach, and Teerlinck finished his coaching career there, staying until 2012.
Teerlinck finished his career with three Super Bowl rings, having coached in 32 NFL playoff games, with the likes of Randle and Chris Doleman praising him as a human and a coach.
The NFL gives an award every year to the league’s best defensive lineman. It’s called the John Teerlinck Award. The trophy should be a bronzed gas pump handle.