Brad Childress chuckled when asked when he first sensed his time as Vikings head coach was coming to an end.
"When Mark and Zygi were standing in my doorway at Winter Park at 7:45 in the morning on a Monday," Childress said.
It was Nov. 23, 2010. The Vikings were 3-7 after losing to the Packers 31-3 at home the day before. The Wilf brothers were not there to chit-chat. The team owners were there to fire the first head coach they hired 10 months after he took them to the NFC Championship game.
What's that like?
"It's hard," Childress said. "But there were emotions on both sides. Mark and Zygi, it was hard for them. As hard, I think, as it was for me to pick up and walk out."
Eleven years later, every sense of how the NFL works strongly suggests another difficult ownership decision looming over coach Mike Zimmer and possibly general manager Rick Spielman as the team enters the season's final five weeks still alive in the soft NFC playoff race.
The Vikings are 5-7. They're coming off a humiliating loss to the winless Lions. And they're staring at the possibility of a hostile prime-time home crowd as the Steelers (6-5-1) visit U.S. Bank Stadium for "Thursday Night Football."
Zimmer has stiff-armed the NFL's impatient hiring cycle into his eighth season in Minnesota. Only six coaches have been with their teams longer. All six — Bill Belichick, Sean Payton, Mike Tomlin, John Harbaugh, Pete Carroll and Andy Reid — have won at least one Super Bowl while Zimmer has two playoff victories, a 12-16 record since his last postseason game, and needs a late-season surge to avoid missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time with the Vikings.
"I feel pressure every year," Zimmer told the Star Tribune in August. "So I don't look at it like I'm coaching for my job. I've always felt like I'm going to put my resume out there on the field just like the players. And if people don't think I'm good enough to do it, so be it. Somebody does … so I don't really worry about all that stuff."
Unhappy Purple Nation
Of the NFL's 32 head coaches, 25 have been hired since 2017. Chicago's Matt Nagy was hired in 2018. He won NFL Coach of the Year that first season. Today, Odds Shark, a sports gambling website, ranks him as the favorite to be the next head coach fired. Zimmer ranks second.
Childress laughed when it was suggested the Vikings had better start fast against the Steelers or risk facing the full-throated wrath of an unhappy Purple Nation that's had an extra 7 hours, 20 minutes of drinking time.
"Hey, they were chanting, 'Fire Childress!' as we were kicking a field goal to beat the Lions [in 2008], so I know what it's like," Childress said. "You hurt for the head coach, but he knows what it is when he signs up for it. Unfortunately, the family is involved, too.
"Thinking of Matt Nagy and hearing the things his kids have to go through at school. I had two high schoolers out at Holy Family. It's a mob mentality. You got 80,000 people and, unfortunately, we see how they can act. But if they aren't in those seats, we don't have a sport."
Another embarrassing possibility Thursday night is Steeler Nation and its Terrible Towels taking control of U.S. Bank Stadium the way it did at the Metrodome in 2005, the last time the Steelers visited.
Coach Mike Tice ripped Vikings fans after that 18-3 loss, estimating that several thousand of them sold their season tickets, putting 15,- to 20,000 Steelers fans in the building.
"Maybe, in their defense, they sold the tickets when we were 2-5," Tice said after his team had fallen to 8-6. "Maybe they said, 'The heck with it, I'm not going to that.' Maybe that's the case. Or maybe Pittsburgh fans are just a little more diehard than our fans are."
The Steelers, of course, have won six of their eight Super Bowls as the epitome of continuity and consistency. Since Jan. 27, 1969, the Rooney family has hired three head coaches – 37-year-old Chuck Noll in 1969, 34-year-old Bill Cowher in 1992 and 34-year-old first-year Vikings coordinator Mike Tomlin in 2007.
Noll won four Super Bowls, retired and is in the Hall of Fame. Cowher won a Super Bowl, retired and is in the Hall of Fame. Still only 49 years old and in his 15th season, Tomlin became the youngest coach (36) to win a Super Bowl and ranks 20th in regular-season wins with 151, three short of Joe Gibbs and seven shy of Bud Grant.
'The way it should be'
Tomlin's meteoric rise to the top of the profession might not have happened as quickly had Andy Reid not initially blocked Eagles linebackers coach Steve Spagnuolo from following Childress from Philadelphia to Minnesota as Vikings defensive coordinator. Reid changed his mind a few days later, but by then Childress had already chosen Tomlin.
Childress wanted someone whose personality could command the defensive room while he focused on the offense. Tomlin's demeanor impressed him, as did his reputation as the Buccaneers' defensive backs coach.
"He replaced Herman Edwards down there [in 2001] so he had to walk into a room looking at John Lynch, Ronde Barber, even Dwight Smith, so he wasn't going to be intimidated," Childress said. "He came up here and he's got guys looking back at him like Pat and Kevin Williams."
A year later, Childress told Tomlin he'd likely get some interest as a possible head coach. Tomlin initially told Childress he wasn't interested because all he wanted to do was focus on improving a defense that ranked seventh in points allowed despite the team's 6-10 record.
Childress told him to take a day to really think about it. Tomlin changed his mind. He went to the airport to interview with Wayne Huizenga while eating a steak on board the Dolphins owner's jet. Then he went to Pittsburgh to interview with Art Rooney II.
Thirty-eight years to the date after Art I hired Noll, Art II hired Tomlin.
Zimmer was asked this week for his thoughts on the Steelers hiring only three head coaches — and firing none of them – in the last 52 years.
"That's the way it should be," he said with a laugh.
The reality is quite different. The rest of the league has had to hire 314 head coaches and use 49 more as interim head coaches since the Steelers hired Noll. Cleveland leads the way with 20, including four interim coaches.
"It kind of makes your mouth hang open when you hear those numbers," Childress said. "People usually get tired of their new toys in a hurry. It's a steady churn year after year for most teams."
Zimmer is fully aware. He's also savvy enough to know Thursday night most likely kicks off a five-week fight for his head coaching life.