PRO FOOTBALL ‘85 : COACHES, PLAYERS, TEAMS AND TRENDS TO WATCH : FOR GRANT, EASY DOES IT AGAIN : Return of the Popular Viking Coach Is a Victory for His Low-Key Style
People who live in Minnesota joke that there are just two seasons in the land of 10,000 lakes: winter and summer road construction.
Last year, the winter might have seemed even longer for Minnesota Viking fans because the team, under Les Steckel, the rookie coach who followed the retired Bud Grant, had a 3-13 record, the worst mark in the club’s 24-year history.
Steckel, the boyish-looking former Marine who had spent a year in a combat unit in Vietnam, said that Grant had been too easy, that he had treated the team like a bunch of recruits. Steckel put the team through a mini-triathlon on the first day of training camp.
There were almost immediate reports of dissension under Steckel. Jerry Burns, who had been the Vikings’ offensive coordinator for 16 years, was demoted. He later resigned midway through the season. Wide receiver Sammy White and running back Ted Brown were suspended by Steckel for leaving a game at halftime while they were injured and out of uniform.
“Steckel came in here and he was convinced that Grant had done everything wrong,” said Sid Hartman, a Minneapolis sports columnist. “The players quit on him. They absolutely quit.”
The Vikings fired Steckel at the end of the season, then persuaded Grant to return from retirement in a move to regain the stability that Grant had so long represented.
“It’s a good feeling,” veteran linebacker Matt Blair said after Grant had come back. “I know what he’s done in the past, and given the opportunity with the players he has here, things can happen once again.
“From my personal view, he’s going to get things reorganized and get players their confidence back and the respect that they had, and that’s very important.”
The players have always liked Grant’s low-key approach to football. The Viking camp was usually the last to open every summer, and whereas other workaholic coaches sometimes slept in their offices, Grant frequently went hunting on the mornings of games. He kept practices short.
Max Winter, the Vikings’ 80-year-old president, lured Grant out of his 11-month retirement by giving him a lifetime contract reportedly worth $500,000 a year.
“The first time they asked me, I said no and I went pheasant hunting,” Grant said. “They asked me again, and I said no. Max entered the picture, and when Les was actually released, I accepted.”
Grant, 58, has been a football coach for 27 years. He has won 283 regular-season and playoff games, 122 as coach of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League from 1957-66, and 161 as coach of the Vikings from 1967-83. He is the second-winningest coach in pro football history. The late George Halas won 326 games with the Chicago Bears.
The Vikings made the playoffs 12 times in Grant’s 17 seasons, and won 11 division titles, three NFC championships and the last National Football League championship before the completion of the merger of the AFL into the NFL. In that period, the Vikings also lost four Super Bowls.
Grant said that the Vikings are like family to him and that he returned because the team was in trouble. He has known Winter since Winter signed him to play basketball for the Minneapolis Lakers in 1949.
When Grant decided to retire in January, 1984, after an 8-8 season, he flew to Winter’s house in Hawaii to break the news to him in person.
“I knew something was up because Bud hates to fly,” Winter recalled. “I cried when he said he was quitting.”
The Vikings paid Grant a reported $300,000 last season while he went duck hunting. He was listed as a team consultant but he didn’t interfere with Steckel. Grant watched the Vikings’ home games with his family from a box in the Metrodome.
He said that he missed the game-day coaching, but didn’t miss the practice.
Grant’s return was big news here. With the possible exception of rock star Prince, who lives in a purple ranch-style house on Lake Riley just down the interstate highway from the Vikings’ headquarters here, Grant is the biggest name in the state.
Even Gov. Rudy Perpich attended Grant’s press conference at the Twin Cities airport. The day after Grant was rehired, the Minneapolis Star and Tribune ran the story across the top of Page 1.
There were numerous other stories on Grant’s return, and a headline in big type on the sports page told the story: “It’s Bud Part II.”
Hartman, who has known Grant for 39 years and who broke the story on Grant’s return to coaching, said: “He is the biggest sports figure in the state. He’s just an amazing guy. It’s tough for a newspaper guy to be friends with somebody he covers, but I consider him one of my good friends.”
Grant was 30 minutes late for his press conference because he was watching his son, Danny, 18, play in a high school basketball game that went into double overtime. Hartman was sitting next to Grant at the game.
“I was very surprised when Bud returned and I was pleasantly surprised when he decided to return,” said Jim Marshall, former Viking defensive end. “He still has so much more that he can do for the Vikings.
“I think Bud has a unique ability to deal with people on a one-to-one basis. A lot of coaches are dehumanizing. But Bud is one of the fairest coaches I played for. I think I’m a better person for playing for him.”
Why did Grant return after he had retired to hunt, fish and watch his youngest son grow up? Grant said he has tired of answering the question, and that he sticks by an answer he gave in the Vikings’ preseason prospectus:
“I remember at the press conference I was asked if I felt rejuvenated after being away from coaching for a year. My answer is that I never felt ‘unjuvenated.’ And I still feel that way, which is to say that my personal situation had absolutely nothing to do with the decision to come back into coaching.
“The reasons are probably two-fold. First, seeing what happened to the Vikings last year was not something any of us enjoyed. Second, I didn’t miss a lot of the things about coaching, but I did miss some of them.
“I think that if the team had been going well and the coach had left for another job or something, I don’t think I would have considered returning. But when Max Winter and Mike Lynn (the general manager) asked me to come back, you have to understand two things: One, the relationship I’ve had with those two people and with this organization and, two, the fact they put it to me in such a way as to suggest I could be involved with turning this thing around.
“As far as the coaching is concerned, I think you have to realize that the most competitive people in this business are the coaches--and I’m not just talking about the head coach, but the assistants, too. I definitely missed the competitive aspects. I missed Sunday afternoon, the game itself; I missed the strategies, the preparation, the analyzing, the mental and emotional parts of the game. Did I miss training camp? No.”
The Vikings, in keeping with Grant’s tradition, didn’t start practicing until Aug. 1, just nine days before their first exhibition game.
Grant’s first major decision involved the white shoes that the Vikings wore last year. Grant prefers black shoes, and for years the Vikings were the only team in the NFL that wore them. But Grant chose to keep the white ones, saying it would be a waste to throw away the 600 pairs Steckel had ordered.
During training camp, Grant’s wife, Pat, said: “He told me he’s pretty pleased with the way things are looking. I think it’s terrific that there are so many things going on that it’s keeping him from his nap. I haven’t asked him, but I think he’s glad he’s back coaching.”
Said Dave Casper, the former tight end who played for Grant’s Vikings in 1983: “He keeps the atmosphere a lot fresher. He might be the best coach I’ve played for.”
Assistant coach Paul Wiggin said: “His subtle command is incredible. I tried to make more out of football than it was. Bud treats everybody as a man, and everybody in the league wants to work with him. He doesn’t make more out of football than it is.”
Grant spends most of the summer at his cottage in Gordon, Wis., about 40 miles south of Lake Superior and 120 miles northeast of the Twin Cities, and, an avid outdoorsman, he hates to cut short his vacation for training camp.
Grant was born in Superior, Wis., on May 20, 1927, and bought the 60-acre property for $1,500 when he was discharged from the Navy in 1946. He said he paid for it by scalping football tickets while he was attending the University of Minnesota.
Grant didn’t build a house on the land until 1968 because, he said, he couldn’t afford it. He has a phone there, but even Viking publicist Merrill Swanson doesn’t have the number, and Swanson has known Grant for 20 years. Occasionally during the off-season, Grant drives to the Viking office in his white four-wheel-drive truck to pick up his mail and messages, then heads back to Golden Pond.
“I don’t need a refuge,” Grant said. “I don’t feel that hassled that I need a place to get away from it all. It’s just where I’m from.”
Grant had a five-minute radio show last year--"Outdoors with Bud Grant"--that was carried on 50 stations throughout Minnesota, and there are those who suggest that Grant, the great outdoorsman, decided to retire because the Vikings were moving their games indoors to the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome.
Grant recently criticized the stadium commission for the condition of the artificial turf at the Metrodome, which he said led to injuries.
The stories about Grant’s glacial stare got started when the Vikings played in snowstorms at the old Metropolitan Stadium in suburban Bloomington. Opposing teams would bring sideline heaters, but Grant would not let his team to use them and set an example by standing on the sideline, peering out at the action on the field with his icy blue eyes, wearing his purple parka and a headset that seemed glued on.
Grant’s purple-carpeted office at Winter Park, the Vikings’ new state-of-the-art training complex, looks like a set for the “Wild Kingdom.” There are no team pictures. Instead, the wall behind his desk is decorated with pictures of ducks in flight. They are actually prints of federal waterfowl stamps.
A bronze bust of one of Grant’s hunting dogs, Cork, who died at 15, sits on a table behind his desk. Grant trains his own hunting dogs and said that there isn’t anything as loyal as a good hunting dog. There’s also a picture of Grant holding a prize trout caught on a trip to a remote island in Canada. Grant said that he had to get to the island in a helicopter.
The Vikings held Bud Grant day during a game last season and gave him a 17-foot fishing boat worth $20,000. When the Vikings asked him to return as coach, Grant jokingly asked if he would get to keep the boat. He said that was the only condition to his contract.
Although Grant is an enthusiastic freshwater fisherman, he is not taken with deep-sea fishing. “I went once and got seasick,” he said. “I guess it’s a carry-over from when I was playing. We used to fly in those planes that couldn’t climb above bad weather, and I’d get motion sickness.”
Grant has reinstalled the bird houses and deer feeders that Steckel had removed from around the practice field. Although the Vikings practice in a suburban industrial park, deer wander onto the practice field in the winter. He proudly showed a reporter pictures of a herd of deer that had walked through the snow to find food on the field.
Grant hunts ducks and pheasants. A network TV crew accompanied him on one of his hunting trips last season, and the footage was shown during halftime of a game.
“I think it’s something you’re born with,” said Grant, when asked to explain his love of the outdoors. “I don’t try to see how many animals I can kill. I like to observe the wildlife. City people come up to my cabin and say that it’s eerie because it’s so dark at night up there.
“Hunting and fishing is my recreation. Some people like to be entertained, but I like to entertain myself. I don’t like to sit and watch TV or read books and I’m not big on going to the movies.”
Although Grant had to schedule his hunting around football in his first hitch with the Vikings, he was free to hunt full time last fall, and he took advantage of it. “Last fall I had an opportunity to go duck and pheasant hunting up north,” he said.
Grant’s family is his other big love. Bud and his wife, Pat, have six children and six grandchildren. All of his children live within a 20-minute drive of the family home in Bloomington.
Grant’s youngest son, Danny, was an all-metro high school basketball star last season. He graduated from high school last June and will be attending St. John’s College in Collegeville, Minn., this fall.
“He was recruited by the university (of Minneapolis) here, but I don’t think affluent kids make good Division I players,” Grant said. “Affluent kids have too many options. Division I can be a heartbreak, but it’s worth all the risks for a kid who doesn’t have much.”
Another son, Mike, is a football coach at Forest Lake High School. Bruce Grant played quarterback at the University of Minnesota Duluth. He tried out for the Vikings last season but was cut in training camp.
Someone once wrote that Grant is so stoic that his face should have been carved on Mount Rushmore.
“I never watched myself on TV so I don’t know what my image is,” Grant said.
Mostly, his image is one of a man who knows what he likes, and he likes having things done his way. For instance, he won’t allow anyone to smoke cigarettes around him, including Lynn and Swanson, and he caused a stir this summer when he outlawed chewing tobacco at training camp.
But according to those who work for the Vikings, Grant is not above playing practical jokes. “No one is safe around here on April Fools’ Day,” said receptionist Irene Erdman.
In fact, Grant outdid himself this year, putting pigeons in the women’s rest room. He also removed all of the toilet seats.
Said Erdman: “I was the first one in the office and when I went to the ladies’ room, I turned on the light and all I saw were those pigeons. We didn’t get any work done until after lunch.”
Besides disliking tobacco, Grant also believes that drinking coffee is harmful, so he removed all of the coffee machines from the Vikings’ offices and put them in the back of his truck as part of the prank. One other year, he disabled the coffee machines by putting tape on the electric plugs.
But Grant was also victimized this year. Office workers borrowed a bear cub from the Minneapolis zoo and put it in Grant’s office. The bear did what bears normally do in the woods on the carpet. And someone also put a foul-smelling fish odor in the mouthpiece of Grant’s telephone.
The only sports pictures in Grant’s office are team pictures of the Minneapolis Lakers’ world championship teams of 1949 and 1950, for which Grant played guard. His teammates included George Mikan and Vern Mikkelsen.
“Mikan was one of the great competitors I’ve ever been associated with,” Grant said. “They widened the lane because of him. He wasn’t as graceful as some of the players today, but he carried a lot of bulk.”
Grant played football, basketball and baseball at the University of Minnesota, choosing pro basketball after graduation.
“He was a great rebounder and a tough competitor,” Winter said of Grant as a basketball player. “But he would not make the Hall of Fame in basketball. . . . He was a great football player, but he had problems signing (with the Eagles).
Grant played a total of 17 games for the Lakers, averaging 3.2 points.
“I had my moments, but I wasn’t a starter,” he said. “The game has really changed. Look at those pictures. There wasn’t a single black on the team. I still follow the Lakers. Now it seems like all the players are on pogo sticks. They should raise the baskets.”
Grant, who earned nine letters in football, basketball and baseball at Minnesota, also played semipro baseball.
He once had a tryout with the St. Louis Cardinals. Friends say Grant had to hitchhike and ride freight trains to get there.
“Every little town in Minnesota had a baseball team, and it was well supported. I made my living playing baseball. I was a gun for hire. I would hire out and pitch for whoever needed me. I could pitch three times a week and I would get $50-$75 a game. I made more money doing that than I would have if I’d played in the American Assn.
“I must have played in every little town. It was a big deal. There would be two pages of agate on the games in the sports page.”
The Eagles’ No. 1 draft choice in 1950, Grant finally signed with the NFL team in 1951. He played defensive end as a rookie and was moved to offensive end in his second season. He led the league in 1952 with 57 catches.
But, after that, when he couldn’t come to terms with the Eagles, Grant jumped to the Winnipeg Jets of the Canadian Football League.
“I was making $7,000 playing for the Eagles,” he said. “I made the Pro Bowl, and they offered me a $1,000 raise. But I went to Canada for a $3,000 raise. A lot of players were jumping to Canada then because they paid more money than the NFL did.”
Grant was the Blue Bombers’ leading receiver for three seasons, and also played cornerback.
In 1957, Grant was named coach of the Blue Bombers. He spent 10 years coaching in Winnipeg, leading the team to four Grey Cup championships and six Western Conference titles. “I enjoyed it tremendously,” Grant said of his days in Winnipeg. “We won a lot of championships and two of my children were born there.”
Grant was Winter’s first choice as coach when the Vikings were created as an expansion team in 1961, but his board of directors picked Norm Van Brocklin.
“I had him hidden in a hotel room waiting to be named coach,” Winter said. “But at the board meeting (to pick a coach) my general manager, Bert Rosen, came storming in and said he had a chance to sign Norm Van Brocklin. Van Brocklin was a big name so they decided to hire him, and I had to tell Bud the bad news.”
Grant finally was hired in 1967, when Van Brocklin was fired, and turned the Vikings into the Purple People Eaters.
“Bud hasn’t changed, not one bit, since I’ve known him,” Winter said. “I don’t believe there’s a nicer fellow I’ve ever met. I have the utmost respect for him. He’s as good a coach as there ever was.”
“Back To The Future” is one of this summer’s popular movies. Grant hopes the Vikings can go back to the past this fall.
But it might not be easy.
The Vikings ranked near the bottom of the NFL in almost every statistical category last year, including total yardage allowed.
Grant decided to go all out during the exhibition season, when the Vikings posted a 3-1 record.
The Vikings also have acquired players with troubled histories, such as running back Chuck Muncie, who has had drug problems, to turn things around. General Manager Mike Lynn recently sent Grant a painting of the Statue of Liberty, saying the Vikings will now take in homeless players.
Grant says that such players deserve second chances.
But what will it take for the Vikings to become a good team again?
“We need to improve in all areas with the possible exception of field goal kicking,” Grant said. “I don’t think there is an area that we can’t get better at. And when you’re 28th in defense, where do you start?”
BUD GRANT’S RECORD
Year Record Division Finish 1967 3-8-3 4th 1968 8-8 1st 1969 14-3 1st* 1970 12-3 1st 1971 11-4 1st 1972 7-7 3rd 1973 14-3 1st* 1974 12-5 1st* 1975 12-3 1st 1976 11-4-1 1st* 1977 10-6 1st 1978 8-8-1 1st 1979 7-9 3rd 1980 9-8 1st 1981 7-9 4th 1982 6-5 2nd 1983 8-8 4th 17 years 161-101-5 * Reached Super BowlEB