Vikings Are Far More Than Just a Hobby to Max Winter

Times Staff Writer

It's early Monday morning, and Mr. Minnesota Viking, Max Winter, all 5 feet 5 inches of him, sinks into his chair and disappears behind a desk the size of a football field in his office at Winter Park.

By 8 a.m., Winter, dressed neatly in suit and tie, already has done 100 push ups. He used to do 400 a day but, at 81, he figures it's time to quit acting like Jack LaLanne.

By 9 a.m., the knot is starting to form in his stomach, the same one that always appears six days before his team's next game.

Winter already is wearing his game face.

"I don't know if we're a match for the Rams," Winter said of Sunday's opponent at Anaheim Stadium.

Winter sounded worried, but you could tell that, deep down, he was loving every minute of it.

It was time to start another week in the life of the Minnesota Vikings. His Minnesota Vikings.

It seems only fitting that a man named Winter should be founder, president and part owner of the Vikings, a team so long associated with frostbite.

Winter has been at his desk nearly every morning since he was granted a National Football League franchise in 1960. He built this team from scratch and has seen it grow through the dreary days of Coach Norm Van Brocklin and the the glory years with Fran Tarkenton and Bud Grant.

There have been highs, four Super Bowl appearances, and lows, four Super Bowl losses. He's seen the game and the league change dramatically.

Winter runs his organization with a firm hand. The Vikings, through the years one of the most successful NFL franchises, have always had one the league's lowest payrolls. Last season, the Vikings were one of the NFL's biggest moneymakers, despite a 3-13 record.

But another thing you should know about Max Winter is that he isn't anything like the tyrannical owners we have come to know these days.

Amazing Stories:

--In 25 years, he's never fired anyone.

--In 25 years, he's never stormed into a locker room and offered a pep talk.

--In 25 years, he's never chewed out a coach from a car phone or ordered a trade while sailing a yacht. And how many football coaches can say they really like their owners?

After 17 seasons, 4 Super Bowl appearances and 11 division titles, Grant retired as coach of the Minnesota Vikings in early 1984. He wanted to spend more time with his family. It scared him that Alabama's Bear Bryant coached until he was 67 and died a month after his last game.

Grant was 57 at the time and there was so much left to do.

But when the franchise plummeted to a 3-13 record last season under Les Steckel, Grant came back.

It wasn't because he grew tired of duck hunting. Nor was it his undying love for the game. He returned because of Max Winter.

"I didn't think he'd come back until I said that we had to have him back," Winter said. "He felt he owed me something. He really didn't. He gave me so many good years of his life."

The relationship between Grant and Winter is an unusual one in sports.

"In all the years, we've never had a heated discussion," Grant said. "Really."

No, this isn't Martin and Steinbrenner. Or even Martin and Lewis.

It isn't much of a secret why Grant and Winter get along so well.

"He's not the kind who has to be up front and taking the bows," Grant said of Winter. "And that's important. Sometimes, it's a matter of who's going to get the credit. And sometimes there's not enough credit to go around. Max has never addressed the team, he's never been to training camp. Yet, he has an office here."

Grant and Winter go way back. It was Winter, then the general manager of the Minneapolis Lakers of the National Basketball Assn., who signed a multisport star named Bud Grant from the University of Minnesota to a contract worth $4,500. That was in 1949. They've been friends ever since.

"I respect him so much," Winter said of Grant. "But we talk only about three or four times a month, that's all. He's the same way every day. I like to be like Bud. I like to emulate him. I don't get heated up at anybody."

And that's why everyone likes Max Winter. Around the office, you never hear employees saying "Mr. Winter, sir." They call him Max. His office door is always open. The Viking offices and training complex, completed in 1981, were named Winter Park in his honor.

Winter was embarrassed.

Those around him can trace his success to his humble roots and genuine love for the Vikings. He's truly one of the last of a breed of owners whose livelihood depends solely on the success of the franchise.

He and Pittsburgh Steeler owner Art Rooney are the two remaining owners who have run their teams from the beginning.

To Winter, the Vikings weren't a toy bought with the interest of a bulging savings account.

And that is important, linebacker Scott Studwell said.

"The team is his primary source of income," Studwell said. "It's his bread and butter. This is not just a hobby with Max. This is not something he has because it's a tax write-off."

In a day when there is talk of NFL franchises being worth as much as $100 million, it's hard to believe that Winter and a group of partners bought an expansion franchise in 1960 for $600,000.

"And you could pay for it in monthly payments," Winter said. "Today's owners have to come from the oil fields, because it's an ego trip now. You don't buy a franchise with your last million. You usually come in with $500 million and then have $70 million to play with."

The Vikings joined the league in 1961, a year after Dallas had been awarded a franchise. Winter remembers that Dallas lost $500,000 in 1960 and was wondering how he could possibly absorb such a loss.

But Winter was lucky. The league's television package paid each team $1 million in 1961--it's $17 million today--and the Vikings made a profit in their first year and have made money every season since.

Winter uses the word lucky a lot when describing his climb to success. He said things just happened to him, that fortune just plopped itself down right at his feet.

Of course, it wasn't as simple as that.

Winter, in fact, started at the very bottom.

His family emigrated to Minneapolis from Austria in 1913. His father made money by selling apples on street corners.

Young Max Winter went to work early. And even when he was 11, it was apparent that he was going to be a shrewd businessman.

He started selling papers for a Minneapolis scandal sheet, the Twin Cities Reporter. He also found a way to cut out some of the work.

"I used to wait by the small office that printed the scandal sheet every week," Winter said. "The headline was usually about some prominent doctor or lawyer who was caught up in some love nest. I'd buy 50 or 75 of the papers, carry them to the guy's office and tell him I had bought up all the papers.

"Of course, it wasn't so. But he'd buy all the papers and I wouldn't have to hustle."

Winter later worked in a factory that made cardboard boxes and eventually found his way into boxing. He managed a lightweight named King Tut, and later promoted a comeback tour by Jack Dempsey through the Midwest.

But Winter didn't like the violence of boxing.

One day in 1932, while walking down the street, Winter said he walked past a restaurant that was for sale. Winter and a partner bought it and turned it into one of the most successful restaurants in Minneapolis.

In the late 1940s, Winter again was just walking to his garage when a friend stopped him and said that he had bought an interest in an NBA franchise and he wanted Winter as general manager. The first player Winter drafted was George Mikan, and the Minneapolis Lakers won five NBA championships in seven years.

"I was just fortunate," Winter said. "I was always in the right place at the right time."

Winter was convinced that he wanted a football franchise one day when he saw Sid Luckman play for the Chicago Bears.

He later applied for a franchise and was promised one by former NFL Commissioner Bert Bell, but only if Winter sold his interest in the Lakers. Winter did, but then Bell died.

In 1960, Winter went to the NFL meetings in Miami to again lobby for a franchise for the Twin Cities.

But first, the NFL had to appoint a new commissioner.

"It took them 13 days," Winter said. "Me and Tex Schramm (who was looking for a franchise for Dallas) just sat there in the lobby and waited for them to elect a commissioner. We played cards with guys from the press."

When the owners emerged, they had elected Pete Rozelle. Rozelle, in turn, announced that Dallas would be awarded a franchise in 1960 and Minneapolis in 1961.

Winter immediately thought of Bud Grant as a coach, but his partners talked him into hiring Van Brocklin, who as a quarterback had just led the Philadelphia Eagles to the NFL title.

It would be six years before Winter could make Grant his coach.

In his 25 years as Viking president, only once has Winter interfered with front-office negotiations, he said.

He was instrumental in bringing quarterback Fran Tarkenton back to Minnesota after Tarkenton had been traded to the New York Giants in 1967.

Through the years, Winter has pretty much seen it all. Some of his memories and reflections:

--On Fran Tarkenton: "The greatest player I was ever associated with. Just a super fellow, smart, capable. Everyone just went crazy when he went on the field.

--On Carroll Rosenbloom, the late owner of the Rams: Although the Vikings and Rams were bitter rivals on the field, Rosenbloom was one of Winter's closest friends. They were an odd couple, though. Rosenbloom was a dominant owner who hovered over the daily operation of his club. Winter was neither.

"Carroll was a very astute fellow but he was not liked by a lot of people because he was a success. But I liked Carroll a lot. But right or wrong, he always forced himself and his opinions on people. I still think the biggest mistake he made was moving the team to Anaheim because I think there was some greed connected. But he was a dominant figure.

"Carroll used to call me and always wanted to know if he could get a heated bench-warmer behind his bench (when the Rams had to play in the sub-freezing temperatures in suburban Bloomington's Metropolitan Stadium)," Winter said. "But I just told him we didn't have that kind of stadium. It we would have put a machine in there, 30 people wouldn't have been able to see the game.

"He thought I did it on purpose. But he made a mistake by bringing his team here two or three days ahead of time to get acclimated to the weather. You don't get acclimated to cold or heat. Eskimos still wear the biggest parkas. They can't stand the cold any more than you and I. So the Rams used to come here three days early and freeze to death."

--On the Raiders' Al Davis: "He's probably one of the sharpest men I have ever met. I don't like many of his moves, but I respect his ability. He's not the darling of the league, of course, because he took us to court. He's tremendously interesting and knows what he's doing, but, I might add, he might be ruthless in his way of doing it."

--On escalating player salaries: "Money has never won a championship. The fact that you pay a player $50,000 more doesn't make him a better player. A good player plays the game as well as he can all the time. You have to keep salaries down in order to keep everyone on the team happy. You can't play one guard $200,000 when the guy next to him is getting $100,000. That's dissension."

--Winter on Max Winter: "I haven't changed in 35 years as far as putting myself up on a pedestal. I still walk around with my head down, hoping to find a pocketbook on the ground, like I used to when I was a kid."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
65°