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Happy 90th Birthday to Minnesota Icon Bud Grant

Posted May 19, 2017

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. – If you’re an NFL fan, you’ve likely heard of Vikings Head Coach Bud Grant and his success in the league that led to his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

If you hail from the Land of 10,000 Lakes, however, the name “Bud Grant” evokes even more than that.

He’s an icon. A personification of Minnesota who has impacted our heritage.

By the time I was born in Anoka – and long before I was old enough to understand the game of football and fall in love with the Purple and Gold – Grant was three years retired. His career had come to an end, but the hanging up of his coach’s whistle couldn’t erase Grant’s legacy.

It’s funny – I don’t remember an exact moment when I learned of Grant. I do know that my dad talked about him, in the same way that he taught me about Carl Eller, Alan Page and the rest of the Purple People Eaters. It was impossible to tell those stories without Grant.

To my dad, who was 4 years old when the Vikings hired Grant in March of 1967, and others who watched him coach from the sidelines of Metropolitan Stadium, Grant was characterized by his ability to be seemingly unmoved by the moment.

“You couldn’t tell if they were winning or losing; he kind of just had this stoic look to him all the time,” Dad tells me now. “I kind of feel like he gave the team a sense of stability, because he never seemed to get too high, he never seemed to get too low, he never let his emotions get away from him.”

Whether Grant actually enjoyed the Minnesota winters or not, he wasn’t fazed by frigid winds and snow. For thousands across the state, he embodied the robust reputation that Minnesotans pride themselves on.

“Back then, it kind of gave us the, ‘We’re the tough guys that can handle the cold, play in the cold,’ ” Dad said. “I remember many players playing without long sleeves. Bud Grant himself, I can’t ever remember him wearing a stocking cap. I mean, he may have, but it seemed like he always had a ball cap on.

“Bud just seemed like somebody who was from the rugged North,” Dad added. “That kind of became our image.”

Vikings Senior Manager of Content Mike Wobschall had a similar experience. Born in 1983 in Waseca, he fondly recalls hearing about the storied coach from his parents and grandparents. And as his interest in the game grew, much like mine, Wobschall recognized how widespread Grant’s impact really was.

“Whenever you watched a game, or you watched the Hall of Fame [inductions], or you watched anything with the NFL, a lot of times the TV would show a graphic of Bud Grant or the Purple People Eaters,” Wobschall recalled.

Grant led the Vikings from 1967-83 and again in 1985 after returning from a one-year retirement stint. During that time, he established a regular-season coaching record of 158-96-5. Grant led the Vikings to 11 divisional championships (1968-71, 1973-78 and 1980) and the 1969 NFL Championship.

The Vikings under Grant played in Super Bowls IV, VIII, IX and XI. Grant was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1994 and into the Vikings Ring of Honor four years later.

But it’s more than just the championships, stats or longevity that make Grant as memorable as he’s been over the past five decades.

Wobschall said he believes Grant drew the perfect balance with players and the outside world.

“Media and fans characterized him as a disciplinarian, a nose-to-the-grindstone type of coach. But if you talk to the players who played for him, they swear that he was a players’ coach,” Wobschall said. “So to those two groups of people, he was the ideal – but he was actually both. And so that’s why I think he’s so revered.

“Because fans view him as someone who got the players in line, wouldn’t take any grief from anybody, and players view him as the best coach he ever played for,” Wobschall continued. “When you can draw that balance, I think you’ve created a perfect persona. And I don’t think he was interested in creating a persona; I think he was interested in being himself. But I think that’s why he’s so great.”

I first met Grant almost exactly three years ago, more than a year before I worked for the Vikings. Like most Minnesota fans, I saw his annual garage sale as an opportunity to come face-to-face with a legend. After purchasing an antique pocket knife for my dad and spending a few brief moments speaking with Grant at a card table in his driveway, I walked away feeling star struck for one of the first times in my life.

In 2015 I returned to the sale, this time as a writer for Vikings Territory and with a sit-down interview pre-arranged. The entire exchange lasted probably 15 minutes, but I could have listened for hours to Grant tell stories about Vikings lore.

Fast forward one more year, and Wobschall and I made a stop at the sale – this time five months into my full-time position with the team – to deliver a card and cake for Grant’s 89th birthday. I remember the camouflage-style Vikings cap he wore, the nearly full smile he offered us – a rarity for Grant – and the way he eagerly lifted the cake box lid to investigate the frosting flavor.

Photo taken by Joe Lemke

I’ve since had a number of opportunities to speak with Grant in his Winter Park office, surrounded by various plaques, Vikings mementos and hunting paraphernalia.

He’s iconic for sure but is always personable to me.

Born May 20, 1927, in Superior, Wisconsin, Grant survived the Great Depression, starred at the University of Minnesota and made an impact in the fledgling NBA before beginning his legendary run on the football sidelines with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

After 10 successful seasons there, Grant became the second head coach in Vikings history and was instrumental in one of the NFL’s most impressive runs by a franchise.

Fifty years since he was first hired, Grant still influences people in the organization.

Between moments at work and my fourth visit to Grant’s sale just this week, I appreciate each opportunity to learn as much as I can from the celebrated coach who defines Vikings football.  

“The NFL has such a rich [past] and is so popular right now, that more and more history is being made all the time,” Wobschall said. “So the fact that Bud can remain a pivotal piece of history tells you how great he is.”

Happy 90th Birthday, Coach Grant.