As seen in the St. Paul Pioneer Press on 3/20/16
When the Minnesota Vikings take the field next fall in the new U.S. Bank Stadium, Mike Zimmer will be on the sidelines for his 24th season in the NFL, his third as Vikings head coach. Football is a Zimmer family passion – and occupation. Zimmer’s father Bill coached for 34 years. His son Adam is a linebackers coach with the Vikings.
Zimmer became a student of the game at a young age, accompanying his father to practices (and later playing for him) in Illinois.
Relishing the role of teacher, he followed his father into coaching. He honed his defensive expertise with several college teams before working in the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys, Atlanta Falcons, and Cincinnati Bengals.
Why did it take so long for him to earn a coveted head coach job? He is neither a politician nor a networker, he says. He assumed that if he worked hard and did a good job the opportunity would come his way.
Perhaps his experience explains why he cites perseverance as a head coach’s most important quality.
Many head coaches become overseers of the program. Zimmer says. He didn’t want to do that in Minnesota. “It was important to me when I came here that the players believe I am a really good football coach and that if they listen to me we can do some good things.”
Zimmer came to Minnesota with a reputation for using colorful language. He’d appeared on the HBO/NFL collaborative show “Hard Knocks,” which broadcast his uncensored interactions with the Cincinnati Bengals.
When we met at his office last week I found a soft-spoken, thoughtful man who offered insight into his own persona and how he approaches a high-stakes job. Where was the man with the fiery tongue, I wondered? He only appears when he’s working with the team, he said.
To do his job effectively he must understand how to communicate with 53 team players and 10 practice players. There’s no cookie cutter approach. Some need to be told very directly what he expects of them. Others recoil from the frontal assault. He realized, for example that a Bengals player needed a softer approach or he’d clam up. So he’d put his arm around the man and speak to him quietly.
Listening to him describe how he works with the players it strikes me there is a lot of psychology involved in coaching.
“How can I get this player to play better, however that is? How can I get this team to play better?”
The challenge is to get players to understand that everyone earns more if the team wins. Everyone will play better. Everyone will look better. “Getting that buy in is probably the biggest thing,” He says.
Zimmer doesn’t stress individual awards, though locker room walls bear photos of players with awards. It’s all about the team, Zimmer says. It’s not about him. It’s not about individual statistics.
“My players need to understand that I can’t do it without them and they can’t do it without each other. I try to explain why you need to do this so the person next to you can be successful. It’s not about you being successful. It’s about you helping the guy next to you being successful.”
Monday morning quarterbacking is inevitable. There’s never been a game where he’s said it was perfect and he did everything right. Every game produces thoughts of “I wish I had” or “I should have.”
As a younger coach he tended to blame players when things didn’t go well. He learned an important lesson in Dallas, he says, when he realized the players couldn’t always be at fault. Communication was often at the core of the problem.
“I either was too complicated or I didn’t explain it well enough to them or I didn’t get my point across well enough so I blame me a lot more than I blame the players.”
Zimmer is focused on legacy on and off the field. Recently he and his three adult children launched the Mike Zimmer Foundation. After his wife Vikki’s death in 2009 he’d resolved that if he secured a head coach job he’d start a foundation to give back to the community and to honor her legacy.
With his daughter Corri at the helm, the foundation will focus on kids, healthy lifestyles and education. The family wants to promote the things that have been good for them, he says, be it football or dance (Vikki Zimmer’s passion).
Describing himself as a “glass is half empty” guy, Zimmer admits he is motivated by fear – fear of losing, fear of being fired. It’s hardly unwarranted. In a business that pays a lot and expects a lot, head coaches often have short tenures. The NFL’s 32 head coaches typically spend a handful of years with a team before they’re shown the door.
Months before he landed the coaching job in Minnesota Zimmer purchased land in northern Kentucky where he could hunt, fish, and relax. A getaway home is taking shape there. Come June, when many Minnesotans head north, Zimmer will head south.
Will it be his retirement home? It’s too soon to say. In coaching you never know where you’ll end up or where you’re going to be, he says. The Super Bowl, of course, is the ultimate destination.