Bill and Suzanne O'Connell's son, Kevin, was the quarterback at San Diego State, and sometimes when they knew his Sunday night was free, they would make the 35-mile drive south from Carlsbad, Calif., for dinners meant to lift his spirits.

He missed spring practices after his freshman season because of shoulder surgery. Tom Craft, the coach who'd recruited Kevin O'Connell to San Diego State, was fired after his sophomore year. The thumb ligament surgery he had after his first game as a junior raised concerns he'd never throw again, and meant he'd have to regain his starting job as a senior.

But after the dinners, his parents would always make the drive back up Interstate 5, amazed their son had flipped the script on them.

"He was always the one to cheer us up," Bill O'Connell said. "He'd say, 'Mom, Dad, I got this.' Now, there were very serious, testing times for him. But he'd talk through it, and at the end of the conversation, he had a whole new optimism."

There is what Bill O'Connell calls a "family stubbornness" coursing through the O'Connells' two children: Kelly, a lawyer, and Kevin, the 10th head coach in Vikings history. He uses this term not to imply intransigence, but indefatigability. The kids learned from his 24-year career in the FBI, and from Suzanne's life in education, to forge ahead, to meet a problem with a plan.

"I think he accepted that as a little boy," Bill O'Connell said, "and he exemplifies it now."

It has been eight months since the Vikings started talking about a cultural reset they believed was overdue and badly needed. If that change succeeds, it will be because of a stubbornly cheerful quarterback who took a short-circuited NFL career and became, at 37, the Vikings' youngest head coach in 60 years.

When San Diego State hired Chuck Long to replace Craft, O'Connell was the first player to greet him on campus. When the Patriots cut O'Connell in his second year, he made himself indispensable to the only Jets team to beat Tom Brady in the playoffs. He adjusted blitz packages and prepped starting quarterbacks well enough that Jets teammates called him "Coach O'Connell." He networked with coaches, Bill Belichick among them, who told him how well he'd do in their ranks.

Mike Pettine, the Jets' defensive coordinator whom O'Connell wowed with his presentations, hired him as a quarterbacks coach in Cleveland at age 29. O'Connell's next job, doing special projects for Chip Kelly in San Francisco, introduced him to future Vikings General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, whom O'Connell had impressed in a couple of lunch-line conversations.

"I told our ownership this when they asked me about him: He would say the smartest things about quarterback play that made it so relatable," Adofo-Mensah said. "I always think the test of somebody who's really intelligent and a great communicator is somebody who could make complex ideas simple."

After nine months with O'Connell as his quarterbacks coach in Washington, Kirk Cousins signed a jersey for him that read, "I hope our paths cross again." Wes Phillips, who'd coached two years with O'Connell in D.C., pitched Sean McVay to hire him as Rams offensive coordinator in 2020.

The interview that sold the Vikings on O'Connell came a day after the Rams won the NFC championship in January. By then, he'd spent two months synthesizing observations from McVay, Belichick, Kelly, Josh McDaniels and Rex Ryan and writing ideas about his philosophy and staff for three to four hours each night after he'd finished his Rams work.

"By the time I went to interview, I didn't have to read a whole lot," O'Connell said. "Everything was coming from my heart. Everything was coming from what I really believe in. That's when I truly felt ready — when I was able to articulate who I wanted to be as a head coach."

In his first offseason with the Vikings, O'Connell shortened players' days at the team facility, made practices less physical and rested nearly all of his starters in the preseason, following patterns that McVay and others established in an era that's both empowered players and asked more of their bodies over a 17-game regular season.

He carries Belichick's emphasis on "the why" behind schemes, believing clear discussions about a play's intent will help players execute better. He rarely screams on the practice field or criticizes players publicly; he's capable of sternness, coaches say, but uses it selectively, believing many problems require simple corrections, not shows of force.

The Vikings, at least for 2022, seem to be following the same mindset.

They made few major changes this offseason, committing to veterans like Kirk Cousins, Danielle Hunter and Adam Thielen after briefly considering a roster reset. Ten of the Vikings' 11 offensive starters return from 2021; seven defenders former General Manager Rick Spielman signed or drafted are expected to start Sunday against the Packers.

What Adofo-Mensah termed a "competitive rebuild" will hinge on O'Connell and his staff coaxing more out of a veteran team that missed the playoffs by a game in 2020 and 2021.

Before he ever delivered his approach to players, O'Connell practiced it on his own for years.

"He never looks at a situation and says, 'This is going to be a disaster. This is going to be a dumpster fire,'" Bill O'Connell said. "He basically says, 'This is what it is, this is my plan, and I'm going to work my butt off.'"

'It starts with the smile'

Bill O'Connell grew up going to Eagles games at Franklin Field, and starred as a defensive back at Philadelphia's St. James High. When a neck injury ended his career as a junior at Villanova, he threw himself into his criminal justice studies, passing the FBI exams in 1983.

His career took the O'Connells to Phoenix and then to Knoxville, Tenn., where Kevin O'Connell was born. The family moved to New York, where Bill O'Connell was involved in the 1990 capture of mob boss John Gotti; and then to San Diego, where he worked against drug trafficking at the U.S.-Mexico border. The FBI deployed him to Africa after U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed in 1998.

About Kevin O’Connell

Age: 37 (born May 25, 1985, in Knoxville, Tenn.)

College career: Captain at San Diego State from 2004 to 2007. Played 40 games and started 21, finishing with 7,689 passing yards and 46 touchdowns. His 1,312 rushing yards were the most by a QB in school history.

NFL draft: Third-round pick (94th overall) of the Patriots in 2008.

NFL numbers: Appeared in two games as Matt Cassel’s backup in New England in 2008, going 4 of 6 for 23 yards. Spent time with the Lions (2009), Jets (2009-10, 2011), Dolphins (2011) and Chargers (2012) but didn’t appear in another NFL game.

Coaching stops: Cleveland (quarterbacks coach, 2015); San Francisco (special projects, 2016); Washington (quarterbacks coach, 2017-18; offensive coordinator 2019); Los Angeles Rams (offensive coordinator, 2020-21).

Family: Wife, Leah; sons, Kaden and Kolten, and daughter, Quinn.

When Kevin was 3 or 4, he would park himself in front of the TV for hours to watch college football games. Bill O'Connell fondly recalls watching his son throw a football to himself and call his own play-by-play while the ball was in the air. At Kelly's soccer tournaments, Bill and Kevin would sneak off to the back of the field to throw.

Kevin shifted from running back to quarterback in middle school. As a sophomore at La Costa Canyon High in Carlsbad, he ended a 10-year state playoff drought. His high school coach, Darrin Brown, still recalls O'Connell's 50-yard run as a senior when the Mavericks played De La Salle in the middle of its national record 151-game win streak.

O'Connell was the star athlete who seemed able to connect with everyone.

"Everybody feels like he's a close friend of theirs," Brown said. "It starts with the smile on his face, and then it goes to him looking you in the eye. He listens, and then you see the emotion. You leave, and you're like, 'What a great kid.'"

After 21 starts at San Diego State, O'Connell was drafted by the Patriots in the third round in 2008. He headed east two days later, to back up Brady and Matt Cassel for a team that was a game from going 19-0 the year before. McDaniels, now the Raiders' head coach, was his position coach.

On Tuesdays, Cassel said, the Patriots' QBs met individually with Belichick to scout opposing defenders. During training camp, quarterbacks called their own plays during two-minute drills without defenders, to learn which options worked best. Rather than watching their offensive plays during offseason meetings, they'd be quizzed on how to manipulate certain coverages.

From backup QB to coach

O'Connell is 17 months younger than Aaron Rodgers and was a higher draft pick than Kirk Cousins. There is an alternate universe in which the strong-armed 6-5 QB, who'd run a 4.6-second 40-yard dash and led San Diego State in rushing as a senior, turns his Patriots indoctrination into a long NFL career.

But as quickly as he learned "the why" of the Patriots' offense, he started hearing suggestions he might be best applying the knowledge as a coach, not a player.

"I never miss an opportunity to be hard on myself about my playing career, and maybe what could have been that wasn't," O'Connell said. "But I never missed an opportunity to take great notes. I would leave the building, it seemed like every day, with one more bullet point in the notebook."

After Brady tore an ACL in Week 1, O'Connell earned Cassel's trust by helping him prepare for the starting job, not undercutting him in hopes of stealing it.

"He was a guy you always knew was in your corner," said Cassel, who attended O'Connell's wedding and played golf with him the day before the ceremony. "We just developed a great relationship. Guys always felt comfortable around him."

The Patriots released O'Connell in 2009 after two disappointing preseasons. He would be out of the league by 2012, but not before using five stints with four other teams to make an impression.

Before the Jets would play the Patriots, O'Connell would correct their scout team cards to reflect how Brady would react to their blitzes. The Jets named a pressure package after him.

"It hit — we got a sack on it. I still have the card," Pettine said. "It was similar to something we had, but he just tweaked it, like, 'This guy needs to stay deep until he's already been identified [in the protection scheme]. Then, he can creep down there.' It was very detailed, like everything else with Kevin."

A year after Pettine became the Browns' head coach in 2014, he needed a quarterbacks coach who could mentor Johnny Manziel and connect with veteran Josh McCown. O'Connell was 29, calling college games for CBS Sports Network, and had worked with Manziel as part of George Whitfield's QB school before the 2014 draft.

Pettine was so confident O'Connell could handle all of it, he went to Browns management and argued O'Connell should be paid like an experienced coach.

"I got some pushback," Pettine said. "It was like, 'Why wouldn't we bring him in as a quality control [assistant]? This guy's never coached before.' I was like, 'Listen, you're just going to have to trust me on this one.'

"Everybody that pushed back, once they spent five minutes with Kevin, they were like, 'OK, never mind.'"

Five years later, Wes Phillips pitched O'Connell as the kind of forward-thinking, people-savvy coach McVay was after with the Rams. "He's one of us," Phillips told McVay in January 2020. They won a Super Bowl together 25 months later.

"I think they share some things, as far as having great knowledge of how to attack coverage — not just run plays," Phillips said. "And then, he's a really good communicator, like Sean."

Is he too nice?

Ask Vikings officials about the Jan. 31 interview with O'Connell in Los Angeles, and they'll say it was clear almost immediately the coach and the GM were a fit, even if Adofo-Mensah was too dialed in to sense it right away.

"Because I'm running the interview, right? So I don't necessarily know the vibe," Adofo-Mensah said. "I'm like, 'Man, I love how this guy talks about players and high-level things.' But everybody else in the room knew it five minutes in."

The Vikings wanted to see if coaches could be "multilingual" and connect with everyone from the GM to salary cap manager Rob Brzezinski to people in other departments. O'Connell, Adofo-Mensah said, "knocked it out of the park."

"He always likes to call himself, like, this blockhead football [guy], but he's so incredibly talented," Adofo-Mensah added. "He quickly understood how I saw the world and then translated it to his worldview."

O'Connell talks about the Vikings owning a collective vision; he gives other coaches opportunities to address the team, as McVay did, so players hear more voices than just his. It creates "almost a competitive atmosphere within the staff," Phillips said. "We all care about each other, but you don't want to be the guy that gives a dud of a presentation."

Unprompted, Pettine brings up the question about O'Connell that his skeptics might raise more than any. It's one Pettine had to ask himself when he hired O'Connell in 2015.

"The only issue I potentially had is, Kevin's such a nice guy," Pettine said. "You meet his parents, you meet his wife, I don't know if you'll meet nicer people. So you almost get to the point, like, 'Is he too nice? Can he have the hard conversation when he needs to have it?'"

Pettine quickly saw O'Connell answer that question with the Browns. Phillips doesn't worry about it, either.

"Kevin has an edge to him," Phillips said. "It's not all, 'Hey, everyone's doing a great job.' If things are going well, he will say it. But he's not afraid to let someone know when things aren't the way he wants them."

When problems arise, though, O'Connell isn't likely to sulk in front of the team. The reason he's in front of them at all is because he wouldn't let his mind go there.

"He's just a positive, happy person," Adofo-Mensah said. "He talks about growth mind-set, collaboration — those are things he just lives. He wakes up in the morning, and that's who he is. Every team meeting, you see it: who he involves, how he interacts with his coaches. I wish I could tell you it's, like, some cheer we do, but it's not that specific. It's just a reflection of who he is."