Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer
Good morning. It's good to get back out here on the field. It takes a little bit of sting away of losing a great friend, a great coach, a good man. Unfortunately I've been through this about eight years ago when I lost my wife, so we're hoping that this is the last time. Tony was a very good friend of mine, an excellent football coach and mentor for me to be able to go in and talk to about things in the office. He was always here very, very early in the morning as I usually am. We were able to sit down and talk about not just football, but talk about life, talk about kids and things like that, so it will be hard for a few days, but we'll get through it and we'll get back to work and do the things that we do. That's what he would want us to do.
Q: Was he your sounding board, given his head coaching experience and your background?
A: I have lots of sounding boards, and I need them. Especially with offense, Tony was a guy I could go in and talk to a lot of times, talk about game plans and things like that, because we've been together for quite a while so we've had quite a relationship. His wife, Jeanette, I told her the other day, she reminds me a lot of my wife. She's the sweetest lady ever.
Q: People described him as an intense coach but with a soft side behind him. What did you know about him that the media didn't get to see?
A: Yeah, he was always grumpy. He was a lot like me. He was probably the only grumpier person in the building than I was, but he really cared about his players. I've sat in with him in offensive line rooms a lot, and he had a way of poking a stick at the guys and then putting his arms around them.
Q: How would you describe his relationship with his players? Several offensive linemen have described him as a father figure.
A: Yeah, I mean he always had a player in his office talking to him, not just football. They were always in there. I think you probably saw by the comments from his former players when this all happened how much they cared for him.
Q: Throughout his career Tony showed adaptability and innovation, particularly through the wildcat formation. How did he embody that throughout his two years spent here in Minnesota?
A: Tony was very confident in his ways. He believed in doing things a certain way. That's why I love coming out here and watching these guys work so hard. He would grind them, he was tough on them, and he probably had more sayings than any coach I've ever been around. Every day he'd have a different saying, so that was fun. He was exactly what I was looking for in an offensive line coach when I hired him, because he had that toughness and that mentality that we were trying to develop with the offensive line.
Q: What were some sayings of his sayings that stick with you?
A: I mean he had all kinds of them. We would talk about a play and he'd say, "It's a horse apiece." Instead of saying it's one or the other, it'd be, "It's a horse apiece". He had the Italian and East Coast background in him.
Q: How do you balance getting your football team ready and respecting and honoring Coach Tony Sparano?
A: It's a fine line. I know when the vets come in and we all go to the funeral it'll be a tough day, but we're professionals. This is what we get paid to do, go out here and play. If Tony was here he would tell us, "You got to get there and get to work." That was Tony. Tony was going to be a guy that was never going to take a day off. He's going to come in here and grind, and that's what he would tell us to do. We got to go grind. We got to get better. We got to improve where we're at each and every day.
Q: In this professional, the people you work with become your family. How will you find balance moving forward? Will you compartmentalize it or just let it happen?
A: I think a little bit of both. We're obviously going to talk about it, and I've gotten a couple of texts from a couple of the players and basically I've told them that we're going to get through this together. That's how we do things here, and we're going to continue to fight and try to get better. That's what he'd want us to do. I think we'll handle it that way.
Q: He sounds an awful lot like you when you describe him. Did you see that?
A: Yeah, we are both grumpy. I don't know. He was a good football coach, a good man, loved his grandkids, his kids. We are all really fortunate to get the chance to be around him, everybody and all of the players. Unfortunately the time came too short.
Q: Is there one area where you really find a Bill Parcells part of him, kind of under that same umbrella?
A: Every part of him was Parcells. I mean half the sayings he would come in and say, "Hey the old man would come in and tell me this." Or, "He called me this morning - have you talk to the old man lately?" Stuff like that.
Q: Can you talk about the relationship assistant coaches have with a group because they spend so much time with them throughout the season?
A: They take on the personality a lot of times of the assistant coach. The assistant coach is with them so much more than I am. I'm able to get this group or that group, but they spend so much time together. They text each other, they communicate in the meetings and after practice and in the cafeteria, all those places. The trainers deal with everybody, the strength coach deals with everybody, the assistant coach deals with their group, and that's why having great assistant coaches is so important.
Q: One on one, Tony was very kind, open, and candid. Do you think that is surprising to people? He had a crusty exterior, but inside, not so much?
A: Yeah. He comes in early in the morning, and he walked by one of the coaches one morning, head down, walked by and didn't say anything. One of my coaches came up and said, "What's wrong with him? He's not going to disrespect me." I said, "That's just Tony, relax. It's no big deal, that's Tony." But when you get to know him, we were playing in Rick [Spielman's] golf tournament one time, and his house was in Bear Path as you all probably know by now. We get to whatever hole he was on and he had a big cooler out there with beer and wine. He gave me a bottle of wine so we could play the rest of the course. That's Tony. He was a genuine person that cared an awful lot about a lot of people.
Q: How much do you expect Clancy Barone to run the offense?
A: I don't know. I'm still working through the process. Quite honestly, I don't think today is the day to worry about that stuff. There is such a fine line. You are trying to let him rest in peace and let his family handle through the arrangements and all those things, yet we know we have a football season coming up and we have to get to work on things we have to do. When I can I'm working through the process. When we know something I'll let you know but I have not decided what I am going to do yet.
Q: Do you take extra care with the younger guys on the offensive line that felt he was a father figure?
A: I tried to be like Tony today and gig them a little bit. [Pat] Elflein was out there giving them a hard time and that's how Tony was. I am going to be myself, too.
Q: Did Tony Sparano take care of himself?
A: Yes, when we left for the break, he said this is the best health he has felt like he's been in. He was walking all the time. He was enjoying himself. His daughter just got married a couple weeks ago in Dallas. Obviously it was down there. I'm not a doctor so I won't get into any of that.
Q: How long do you expect Pat Elfein to be on the physically unable to perform list?
A: Until he gets healthy and the doctors say he can go. He is getting better every day. It shouldn't be too long.
Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman
We open up this training camp with very heavy hearts. To be out there on the practice field for the very first time without Tony's presence, I know it effects each individual differently. Tony was such a great coach and a great family man and so strong in his faith. In his short time here with the Minnesota Vikings, Tony was such a critical part of our success, not only as a football coach, but what he stood for as a man and the values that he gave to us. I know in this business that we are judged on wins and losses and coaches are judged on wins and losses, but I think the one thing that gets overlooked is how these coaches have such a big influence on their players and the relationships that they build, not only on the field between those white lines, but the relationships they built with these players and their coworkers off the field as well and the guidance they give these players. I hope with everybody in all the tweets and all the condolences that came out in the media that the fans and everybody understands what a special person he was, and how much Tony meant to everybody that he touched. The Minnesota Vikings pride ourselves on being a family. Being with his wife, Jeanette, and his family and seeing the strength that they have to go through these very tough times, from our ownership and our entire organization I want to make sure that they know that they are our family and that we are there by their side and we will support them any way we can. And as difficult as it is, we have to move on, and we will under the leadership of Coach Zimmer and getting this team ready for the season. So before I open it up for questions, it's been a pretty tough week, I also want to send out my condolences and the organization's condolences to the Grant family, Bud Grant and his son Bruce passing. Also, to the Merry family, Dr. Jean Merry and Dr. Bruce Marry who have been long associated with the Vikings as our team dentists, and the tragic death of their son, Graham, which happened last week. A lot of hard things going on, but through your faith and strength and the support we have for each other here we know we have to move forward, and we definitely will.
Q: What has the process been like dealing with this situation?
A: Players are coming in. We reached out to all of our players. One thing I know what will be difficult is tomorrow night and through the services on Friday. We will go there as a team. Les Pico and Don Patterson are here on our staff for people that need counseling. From our ownership group also we have grievance counselling which will always be available. But I think the most important thing is you have family, family is who helps you get through this.
Q: Has there been a lot of people around the NFL contacting you in support?
A: I can't even tell you how many. I got a phone call this morning from Dan Quinn. They've been coming in continuously. I know for Coach Zimmer as well. I spent some time with [Coach Sparano's] wife and with the family. It makes you appreciate the time we have and the time we have together. You don't know when your time is called. It puts life in perspective and what is actually important.
Q: In the two and the half years that he was here, what did you appreciate the most about Tony?
A: He was one of those coaches that I can just tell you from coming in the morning and here late at night, he was so driven to be a successful coach, and so driven to have our football team be successful in his role. Even as we went through the draft process and the free agency process and everything he did helping out from a personnel standpoint, I've never been around a coach who puts so much time and energy into everything he did. That was Tony. Everyone described him as a grinder and the work ethic was unmatched, but when you were fortunate enough, and I was fortunate enough, to have those two and a half years working with him and seeing how important everything was to him. There was nothing left to give. I remember sitting in draft meetings, Tony says, "Well I went back to 2015 and watched these guys play guard", and that was how detailed he was in everything he did.
Q: Can you talk about how the team will manage grief, but also realize that this is training camp?
A: I know Coach Zimmer will address the full team when they get in here. We've had our fair share of adversities that we've had to get through, but I think with the atmosphere and the culture that we have in this building, and how close knit we are as a group, as a coaching staff, as a front office staff, as a business side, our ownership, that we're here to support each other. Everybody grieves differently, and everybody goes through the process differently, but everybody has to have the respect for each other as we try to get through this. But I know one thing, and I was just thinking about it, that if Tony knew we were having this kind of talk about him, that I can just hear, in his very endearing way, what his opinion about all this would be.
Q: What was he like to sit and talk with?
A: It's funny because of the outside perception of people and who they truly are, and when you actually sit there and get a text at six in the morning from Tony, not even talking about football, "Hey, how's everything going, I know that this is coming up." He would come into my office if there was something on his mind even unrelated to football that was bothering him. I would describe him as a very caring and sensitive man, which people don't see that side of him. The conversations that me and him had meant a lot and helped me grow a lot. When you have people like that and you work with people like that, you're pretty fortunate in this business when you can come across people like Tony Sparano.
Q: Will the organization be doing anything publicly to honor Tony?
A: We're in the process of doing that right now. We're taking it one step at a time with the family. I want to respect the family's wishes, and we're working directly with his wife on everything. Just getting through this week is the most important thing, and as we progress down the road there will be other things announced, but they will all be with respect of the family's wishes.
Q: Have you looked at who will coach the offensive line?
A: With all due respect, I prefer not to go down that road today. I think in due time when it's the right time we'll address that, but for today, with respect, we hope that you can understand.
Q: Is this more difficult knowing how close Tony was with is players?
A: I think as we've built that room, that group of players were a lot of Tony Sparano's vision. Not only what he envisioned for his players from a physical trait standpoint, but his vision on the makeup of this offensive line and what he truly believed in. Over the past two years we've really focused on bringing in, and I used to kid him all the time that it's like watching a bunch of Tony Sparanos running around the building. They're all in that mold, but I do think the group that we have will rally. I know they will want to make him proud as we move forward.