Of all the names currently being bandied about for next Vikings head coach, Mike Zimmer may be the most intriguing. Not so much for what Zimmer might bring in terms of Xs and Os, but for what his presence would represent in terms of the Vikings’ overall culture.
Since Rick Spielman jumped aboard as general manager in Minnesota, the Vikings’ culture has been characterized by a certain tight-lipped, some might argue anal-retentive approach as regards media relations and selling the product to the fans. All teams are of course image-conscious to some extent, but Spielman and his PR people seem extra-sensitive when it comes to shaping the message that’s put out by coaches and players.
We’ve seen multiple examples of Spielman exercising inordinate control over the flow of information, none more striking than the ludicrous incident last season when, during Josh Freeman’s introductory conference call, Spielman could be made out whispering into Josh’s ear what to say in answer to reporters’ questions.
It’s also been rumored that Spielman responded to the controversy over Antoine Winfield’s curt dismissal by ordering his players not to say Winfield’s name in interviews. For the entire season, whenever Winfield was brought up by the press, Viking players would refer to him as “our leader from last year.”
This super-controlling approach manifested itself most consistently – and annoyingly – in how Leslie Frazier related to the press. It became sort of a joke after awhile, the way Frazier would repeat the same stock responses week after week. It got so the fans could recite Frazier’s cliches before they even left his mouth: “correctable mistakes,” “we’re going to look at the tape,” “got to get that fixed,” “we’ll sit down this week and talk about it.”
It wasn’t just that Frazier was awkward with the press, it was that he was clearly being coached by Spielman to speak without really saying anything, and the result was naturally clumsy and ultimately ridiculous. This led to the perception that Frazier was little more than a Spielman stooge.
Given the way Spielman has run things since becoming GM, it’s natural for fans to assume the next coach will just be a Spielman mouthpiece, a cliche-machine who never speaks out of turn or goes against the message being dictated from the bowels of Winter Park.
This is what makes Mike Zimmer so intriguing as a Vikings head coach candidate. Mike Zimmer does not strike one as the kind of guy who will just go out there and say whatever the GM tells him to say. He does not seem like the kind of coach who will just Leslie Frazier dope-dee-dope his way through every press conference.
Mike Zimmer seems like the kind of guy who will speak his mind no matter what.
If you’re not familiar with Zimmer’s history: This is the guy who called out Bobby Petrino after Petrino bailed on the Atlanta Falcons in the middle of his first year as head coach, calling Petrino “a gutless bastard” and “a coward.” This is the guy who missed out on a chance to be head coach for the Miami Dolphins because he was just “too blunt” for Miami’s leadership. The Dolphins ended up hiring Joe Philbin, who contributed to creating that wonderful culture they now have in Miami.
With the Bengals out of the playoffs, Zimmer is reportedly set to be interviewed by the Vikings. How I would love to be a fly on the wall for the sit-down between Spielman and Zimmer.
On the surface at least, a Spielman-Zimmer pairing would look like a real Odd Couple situation. The ultimate image-conscious control freak and a guy noted for not putting up with a lot of BS. Would a GM like Spielman even seriously consider hiring a coach with Zimmer’s reputation for take-no-prisoners honesty?
If Spielman did hire Zimmer – and by all appearances we’re a very long way from such a decision being made – it would in my eyes represent a major philosophical change for the GM, a seismic culture shift in Minnesota. It would signal that Spielman is no longer so concerned with controlling the message and just wants the best coach he can find.
Not that Zimmer would go all “loose cannon” on the Vikings and start spilling Winter Park secrets left and right. Zimmer, like all coaches, would be willing to play the PR game to a certain extent, and get with the program as dictated by Spielman and his flaks. But Zimmer strikes me as the kind of guy who would have a pretty low threshold for baloney, especially if things started going wrong.
I couldn’t see Zimmer gritting his teeth and reciting the company line up to the bitter end the way Frazier did. I couldn’t see Zimmer allowing himself to be cast as Baghdad Bob.
I can’t look inside Spielman’s mind, but just going on what I know of Spielman, his history as a spin doctor, I have to believe Zimmer’s reputation for honesty at least gives Spielman pause here. The question is how much that honesty might play against Zimmer in the process. It already reportedly caused his candidacy in Miami to be derailed, so you know teams are aware of it, and that it matters to some executives.
I assume it matters a lot to Spielman. If Spielman can overlook that and hire Zimmer in spite of the danger that Zimmer will go off-script and maybe even rip Spielman himself? I would consider that a huge thing. A major shift in Spielman’s thinking. A cultural earthquake, almost.
I for one am ready for such a shake-up in Viking Nation. Judging by the Twitter enthusiasm for Zimmer, I’m not alone in that thinking. There are lots of fans who would view Zimmer as a refreshing shift away from the Frazier era of lame excuses and delusional spin-doctoring.
The question is: Would Spielman welcome such a shift, or does controlling the message mean too much to him? Is the Zimmer interview more about form than substance? Is Zimmer even really being considered in Minnesota, or is this just to help create the appearance that a thorough search is being undertaken when in fact Spielman already has a guy lined up? A guy who is much more of a “Spielman guy?”
We shall see.