As I spent this week talking to those who worked with Mike Zimmer during his 13 years in Dallas, I was repeatedly struck by one theme: The same things that could make him hard to work with were the same reasons his biggest admirers said they loved him so much.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones — who talked about his love for Zimmer for more than 20 minutes on the phone this week — went so far as to say the NFL needs more people who do things the way Zimmer does.
“This business needs some of the edge-to-edge, it needs some of the challenges that Mike is outstanding at creating with his relationships — and he’s outstanding,” Jones said. “And this game needs that, and has to have it, really. You really are adding to your relationships, whether it be a player, a coach, or in my case, even an owner; you’re adding to it to be a part of those challenges. You’re misleading them if you’re not. For him to have had this long run here [in Minnesota] says everything about the quality of the individual.”
Zimmer’s fiery approach often produced nose-to-nose arguments that nearly progressed to blows (or temporarily took players to the point where they were not on speaking terms with him, as safety Darren Woodson outlined this week). But during an era where the Cowboys carried as bright a spotlight and were comprised of as many big personalities as any team in sports, Zimmer earned respect as a young coach by his willingness to challenge alpha males.
“He could be a complete [expletive] — a complete, like, ‘I don’t like you’ [expletive],” Woodson said. “And I don’t know how many times we were on the sidelines, like face to face. He wouldn’t back down, and we’d get to a point where he was like, ‘Just get your [expletive] on the field.’ And I’d do exactly that. We wouldn’t get to blows, but we’d get into an argument — and he’d love you to death afterward. Sometimes, he just needed to get that fire in you, get you motivated to play, and then he’d laugh and joke about it after you walked off. He knew how to push those buttons.”
Here are some of the stories that didn’t make it into my Sunday piece on Zimmer’s time in Dallas — either because of space or language — from the people who worked with him there.
The Cowboys owner is featured prominently in the story, so I won’t repeat too much of what he had to say here, but it’s worth delving into some of the relationship Zimmer maintains with both Jerry and Cowboys CEO Stephen Jones, who considers Zimmer a close friend.
“It really created quite a kinship there, because my dad was such a role model for me, and was also a tough-love guy,” Jerry Jones said. “Mike’s daddy was a tough-love guy, and Mike’s a tough-love guy. I immediately liked what I saw in that relationship, and of course, the fact his dad coached football as a career really made all the sense. I think the best of us come from people who have had osmosis from families in football.”
Jones couldn’t recall if he’s gone hunting at the same time as Zimmer and his son Adam (the Vikings’ linebackers coach), but they’ve bonded over their love of the sport, and the Zimmers have hunted on the Jones’ land for years.
“The fact he’s much of an outdoorsman as he is, is appealing,” Jones said. “That’s what I did for fun before the Cowboys, and really have enjoyed, for years and years and years, that Mike and his son would, more often than not, every year, be a part — and still are a part — of what we do hunting. We've got several places around the country that we hunt, and I enjoy the fact he's got football in his blood and hunting in his heart. That's created quite a kinship.
He would go in, and sometimes just have his son with him, and they'd hunt. We hunt ducks in Arkansas, quail in south Texas, deer in Missouri. We have the guides and the facilities and of course the leases and the places to hunt.”
Jones also had a front-row seat to Zimmer’s relationship with Bill Parcells, who remains perhaps Zimmer’s closest mentor. Their relationship, though, was forged through some of those same heated arguments that Woodson had.
“Of course, Mike really is a strong-willed person, and he pushes back,” Jones said. “Bill came from a family whose father was a labor negotiator, and Bill, one of his mottos was, ‘When you’re in a debate’ — and I’m not calling working for Bill a debate, but obviously, they worked to put the best team on the field, and in this case, the best defense on the field. But Bill’s own deal was, when there’s issues, you’ve got to both get tired at the same time. For Mike, who was the coordinator, not the head coach, and Bill being the head coach, well, it just shows you what Mike’s made of, to sit there and advance his ideas. And Bill certainly has his ideas, and is a great coach, but for Mike to advance his ideas, that’s an exhausting time. But it’s a productive time. And so I would say that his time [with Parcells], it really was an intense time of advancing his career, which probably was one of the best things that’s ever happened for him. But he really did expend huge amounts of energy to come up with mutual things that worked there with Bill, and we benefitted from it.”
Zimmer has called the five-time Pro Bowler perhaps the best safety he’s ever coached, and has connected Woodson with Harrison Smith over the years to discuss the particulars of playing safety in Zimmer’s defense. Woodson, who worked at ESPN for 14 years, said he made a successful transition to television in large part because of Zimmer’s teaching style, which Woodson hasn’t experienced anywhere else.
“He gave you a complete understanding of the strengths and weaknesses within a defense,” he said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever been around a coach that’s said, ‘Hey, look, we’re going to play this coverage, this is how we’re going to run it, and in the second half, this is probably how they’re going to attack us. If we run this blitz, this is what we’re probably going to see.’ And I think it gave me a really good understanding of what the strengths and weaknesses were in our coverages, and that really helped me. Because now I knew, we’re playing Sean Payton; he’s probably going to see we’re playing Cover-4 and say, ‘This is what we’re going to do; we’re going to run a switch post over the top.’ And lo and behold, I’m telling you: We would see it at some point. I think that’s one of the things that really helped me when I went to ESPN as an analyst, is to be able to break down film and say, ‘OK, they’re running Cover 3, or 3 Buzz, and this is how they’re going to attack it.’ Zim taught me those things.”
“Bill Parcells came in, and he went to war and argued with Bill. They would fight and argue in front of everybody — ‘[Expletive] you and blah, blah, blah’ — and he would not back down. From the players, you rally behind a guy like that. He’d get you ready for these games and say these certain things that you could absolutely relate to. I think that’s why Deion [Sanders] loved him so much, and why I loved him so much: You knew where you stood. There was no gray area. You were either a [expletive] that week, or you weren’t. I needed to know where I stood, and he told me where I stood. And I can tell you, I’ve played with many coaches where you were in a gray area. With Mike, whatever criticism he gave the coaches [about you] when they were in the coaches meeting, it was the same [expletive]. You knew where you stood. Some coaches wouldn’t do that.”
Woodson said he could tell fairly early in Parcells’ tenure that Zimmer and Payton were being groomed for their eventual head coaching jobs, and Woodson talked in the piece about how Zimmer eventually adopted some of Parcells’ famous mind games with players (which Harrison Smith said Zimmer still uses from time to time). Here’s a little more detail on how Zimmer’s approach with players changed.
“Zim could be very harsh, and still is at times — very, very harsh,” Woodson said. “One of the things that Parcells would do is, he’d play these mind games, and it was always some kind of mind game. I saw how Zim took some of those little things from him. Because for the most part, he would just be in your face at practice. I’ll give you an example, and he’d grab me or grab another guy and say, ‘Hey, look — you’re really [expletive] up. You’re not doing this, you’re not doing that.’ He’d be right there in your face. Parcells would play this game a little differently. It was like, he had this patience about him. Yeah, he’d mess with you during practice, but then he would say things like, ‘You’ve got Ben Coates this week, he’s an All-Pro tight end,’ or, ‘You’ve got Tony Gonzalez this week — he’s going to kill you. You ain’t ready for this.’ Zim was moreso like, on the opposite side, like, ‘I’ve got nothing but faith that you’re going to take this guy down. You’re going to shut his [expletive] down.’ He was that guy, ‘[Expletive] that mother-[expletive]. You know his mouth — it doesn’t stop.’ Parcells was a little more on the negative side: ‘Oh, you’re not even going to show up for practice this week. Are you even going to show up?’ I started to see how Zim would take some of that and started to apply it later on with his players on the field, and I thought, ‘OK, that’s a different wrinkle.’ I really didn’t notice it until I was ending; I had a back injury my last season, and Roy Williams was a guy he was really trying to get to be more involved. He worked hours on Roy, to try and change the mentality of Roy. He was trying to apply some of those Parcells tactics, and that’s where I really saw it, and I thought it was funny.”
Zimmer talked this week about how fond he was of the north Texas area, where he was able to raise his family without having to move the way most coaches do. Woodson, though, said he wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a chip on the coach’s shoulder heading into tonight’s game.
“His kids grew up in Dallas; I loved his wife and that entire family,” Woodson said. “I’m telling you, I’ve known that family since those kids were babies, and to run around in Dallas and be a part of that — he had a lot of success in Dallas, but also went through a lot of emotional times, too, where he felt like he should have been a head coach and kept getting overlooked for a lot of jobs — even the job being the Cowboys head coach. I think there’s probably a little bit of both — some good, and there’s probably some resentment, as well. Because this is a guy who could have been, or should have been, the Cowboys’ head coach, and he was right there for the taking. He was right under their nose, and he was overlooked, or he felt like he was being overlooked. So I think you get a little bit of both. Would he love to come down and kick the Cowboys’ [expletive]? Absolutely.
“I know, competitive spirit, he would love to come in, and not only beat the Dallas Cowboys, but beat a NFC team that’s one of the best teams in the league, and has one of the best offenses in the league. I know he’s going to be really motivated to win this football game coming up this weekend.”
The Vikings’ defensive line coach spent three years with Zimmer in Dallas, after working with him at Weber State and Washington State. Patterson has been with Zimmer for all six of his seasons in Minnesota, and is one of his closest confidants on the coaching staff. When Zimmer had to miss the Vikings’ game against the Cowboys in 2016 because of emergency eye surgery, Patterson said the coach’s emotions weren’t stoked any further because it was his old team.
Why not? Coaches move around enough that they’re not able to treat matchups against their old teams with the same kind of visceral reaction that players do, Patterson said.
“I would think he’s appreciative of that; you got to see your kids start elementary school and graduate high school in one place. I mean, my son and daughter didn’t get to do that. I can’t speak for him, but I don’t think there’s a deal where, in his head, he’s going home. I don’t think it’s anything like that. It’s, ‘Hey, they’re another team on our schedule that we’ve got to go play well to go beat,’ and that’s all it is. I just think that’s the life of a coach. Players, you hear about it all the time — like, when we played Case [Keenum] and the Redskins, you’ve got Case and Adrian [Peterson]. It’s different as a player than it is as a coach — because you know as a coach, you live a gypsy life. If you’re going to be in this business, you live a gypsy life. You’ve got one color hat one year, and three years later, you’re wearing another color. So you never get tied in, like, ‘This is my high school; I’ve got the pride of my high school,’ or, ‘This is my college; I’ve got the pride of my college.’ It’s not like that in this business as a coach.”
When do coaches learn that?
“Oh, you learn it back in college,” Patterson said. “If you worked your way up from college coaching to the NFL, you learn it in college. It’s the same thing: ‘I’m going to work my tail off for this university.’ And whether another comes university comes after you, and you make another move, or you get let go, and you make another move, you understand that’s part of this business. You can’t get so tied in like you did when you were a high school player or a college player. It’s, ‘I’m going to work real hard, do the best job that I can, but I understand that, in most cases, movement is coming.’ … I told my wife before we got married, ‘If you’re going to get married to me, these are my goals. This is what I want to do, and it means we’re going to move a lot.’ I already knew this was going to be part of the road that you travel if this is the profession that you chose.”
Patterson’s son, AC, is an offensive quality control coach with the Vikings — after many unsuccessful attempts by his dad to talk him out of entering the business.
“My son, I can’t tell you how many states he lived in. He was born here — no, he was born at Washington State in Pullman. My daughter was born here [during Patterson’s first stint with the Vikings], and then all over the place. Back when he told me he wanted to coach, I tried to talk him out of it. I said, ‘You don’t want to do that.’ He said, ‘Yes I do.’ I said, ‘No you don’t — look how many times you moved. One day you’re going to have kids; do you want to do that?’ He said, ‘Well, Dad, I turned out alright.’ I couldn’t fight it after that. But i tried to talk him out of it for just that reason. … You’ve got to have a good strong woman at home, that’s helping you, and you’ve got to do the best job, when it’s not football season, to be all in as dad and husband at home. Because for six months of the year, she is a single mom. And with the hours we work and the time we’re away, the whole family makes the commitment to do this — not just the person that’s coaching.”
Patterson also told a great story about what it’s like to be affiliated with the Cowboys in Texas, where fans are more rabid about football than just about anywhere else.
“You learn real fast that being a Dallas Cowboy is different than being anyplace else — and that the fans know everyone who is affiliated with the Cowboys. I can go around town here, unless you’re just a die-hard Viking fan, people wouldn’t recognize who I am. But I learned real quick in Dallas — it was my first Christmas, and I went to the mall to go shopping. I’m standing in a jewelry store, looking for some stuff for my wife, and one person recognized who I was. He came up to me and said, ‘Hey — are you Andre Patterson, the D-line coach for the Cowboys?’ I go, ‘Yes, sir.’ OK — gotta get an autograph. The next thing you know, I’m there 45 minutes. So I go back to work the next day, and I talk about it in the locker room. The guys are like, ‘Hey, ‘Dre, you’ve got to realize you can’t do that; you’ve got to start shopping online.’ That’s the only place I’ve been that’s been like that. That’s where that place is a little different. If somebody recognizes me here, they are a die-hard Viking fan. In Dallas, it’s not like that. I just think that star means the world to the state of Texas. There’s nothing bigger than being a Dallas Cowboy in the state of Texas.”