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Bud Grant: Years as Assistant Helping Mike Zimmer Lead Vikings

Posted Feb 27, 2016

The time between the NFL Scouting Combine and NFL Draft is approximately two months each year.

It’s a span that seems to last forever for prospects to wonder what kind of impression they made on members from all 32 teams.

Two months, however, seems to pale in comparison against the backdrop of 20 NFL seasons.

That’s 20 optimistic springs, grinds of summer camp, highs and lows of fall, and disappointing endings for all but one team, followed by the push for better opportunities next season.

Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer wanted a better ending in 19 of those 20 seasons. In just his second year as Cowboys defensive backs coach, Dallas won Super Bowl XXX. Zimmer became Cowboys defensive coordinator in 2000 and was there until 2006. He held the same role in Atlanta in 2007 and in Cincinnati from 2008-13.

As a guest on the 9 to Noon show with “Voice of the Vikings” Paul Allen from the combine, The Monday Morning Quarterback’s Peter King recalled Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells telling him, “He’s going to be a really good head coach. Somebody’s just got to give him a chance.”

As Zimmer gained more and more respect across the league, he pursued opportunities to be a head coach. He responded to disappointment of not being selected by working harder. At last, in 2014, the Vikings hired Zimmer, who maintains close with Parcells and implements a considerable amount of lessons and philosophies learned under Parcells.

King said “nobody paid dues the way he did” and added:

“What I really like about Mike Zimmer is that he reminds me of the old, sort of, the statement Bum Phillips made about Don Shula, [‘He’ll take his’n and beat your’n, and take your’n and beat his’n.’] Just give him players and he’ll figure it out and beat you.”

Zimmer, who steered the Vikings to a 7-9 mark in a turbulent first season to an 11-5 mark and the NFC North title in 2015, is tied with Arizona Bruce Arians, with the most years (20) as an NFL assistant before becoming a full-time head coach. Jets Head Coach Todd Bowles was an NFL assistant for 17 years before New York hired him last year, and Bill Belichick’s 16 years as an assistant before Cleveland hired him in 1991 are the next-most by a current NFL head coach.

Last week at Polaris-Vikings Winterfest, where Vikings Hall of Fame Head Coach Bud Grant was a major star at fan gatherings in Duluth, we asked Grant about how those years helped Zimmer.

“You accumulate a lot of people’s ideas. When you hire a coach, I don’t want to hire somebody that knows what I know,” Grant said. “I’ve got to hire somebody that knows things I don’t know. Zim’ has been with a lot of coaches and he’s accumulated ideas.

“If any situation comes up, he’s very capable of handling it,” Grant continued. “I just had to learn through experience right or wrong. I think he brings all of that to the table. He’s been there, done that, seen the great coaches he’s worked with. He brings all that to one core group here, and I think that puts us in good standing.”

Grant had been highly successful as head coach of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, winning four Grey Cup titles, by the time he was hired in 1967. He retired with a career mark of 158-96-5 in regular season games and after leading the Vikings to 11 division titles, the 1969 NFL Championship and four Super Bowl appearances.

Grant said Zimmer’s background is one “that you can’t replicate.”  

“He’s got an approach, too, that’s good,” Grant said. “He’s no-nonsense. You’re getting paid big money? You better put out. You better do as much as you’re capable of doing, otherwise, you won’t be around.

“That’s why this team is on the up slope,” Grant added.

One thing has become clear in the past two years: Zimmer has the respect of his players, former coaches, contemporaries and the media.

ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio, who has covered the NFL for 25 years, told Vikings.com’s Mike Wobschall, “Mike Zimmer is one of the top three people I’ve ever met in the NFL.”