It wasn’t long before Mike Zimmer departed, his interview complete, that the four men began discussing it.
They worked in the front office for an AFC team, charged with hiring their next head coach following the 2012 season. So one by one they gave their opinions: Zimmer’s coaching had never been in question – he was the longtime defensive coordinator with Dallas, Atlanta and now Cincinnati – and neither was his ability to lead. But his reaction to that one question had been . . . odd.
“We gave him such a way to weasel out of it,” said one executive who was closely involved in the team’s hiring process. “It was such a shocking answer, we were all taken aback.”
Actually, a more accurate way to describe him is former executive who, like representatives from nearly a half dozen other franchises, once interviewed Zimmer for a head coaching job and, for some reason or another, passed on him in favor of someone else. Games were lost, and eventually so were jobs, while Zimmer – the quirky, no-nonsense football man – finally hooked on, at age 58, with the Minnesota Vikings in 2014. It doesn’t make things any easier that in his third season Zimmer has his team at 4-0.
It’s not just remarkable that the Vikings are good. It’s that they are one of the NFC’s best teams after quarterback Teddy Bridgewater suffered a season-ending knee injury, star running back Adrian Peterson tore ligaments in his knee and Minnesota General Manager Rick Spielman went all-in shortly before the season on a trade for, of all people, Sam Bradford.
Somehow the Vikings are better, and the most understandable reason is Zimmer: that mastermind whose defense is ranked seventh in the NFL. But that’s unsurprising to several of the executives who once interviewed him. They knew even then Zimmer is at his best during a crisis.
“Mike has always been one of those guys who does more with less, and then when he gets some players, the sky is the limit,” said another personnel man whose now-former team once interviewed Zimmer but ultimately passed on him.
Minnesota has shaken off the injuries to surprise Green Bay and Aaron Rodgers, Carolina and reigning MVP Cam Newton, and the New York Giants’ star tandem of Eli Manning and Odell Beckham. The Vikings are the story of the season’s first quarter, with one question perhaps hanging over the NFL’s most surprising team: Why did it take a team so long to hire Mike Zimmer?
As far back as 2011, Zimmer was seen as an outstanding coordinator – but a coach who might struggle with all the politics required of a head coach. He was brutally honest and a little cocky; he didn’t seem willing to change who he was or what he believed. Some would come to see Zimmer as socially awkward; others figured he was just misunderstood, a football man with little patience for explanation.
Zimmer reportedly would interview, over the next three offseasons, with Cleveland, Indianapolis, Miami, Minnesota, Tampa Bay and Tennessee.
It didn’t take long for organizations to form a scouting report on Zimmer – and to talk.
“He’s not the most polished guy in the world when it comes to answering questions,” said one of the former executives, who like the others interviewed for this story requested anonymity to honestly evaluate Zimmer’s strengths and weaknesses. “It depends on who your audience is, and owners may not have appreciated the honest, knee-jerk reaction.”
By the time he met with the four men, three executives and the team’s owner, expectations were low. The fraternal order of NFL coaches is small, and sometimes a coordinator is just meant to forever be a coordinator. There must be some reason, one of the officials reasoned, no other team had taken a chance on Zimmer.
Zimmer started the interview with the AFC team’s four decision-makers, and over the course of five hours he came across as smart, experienced and likable. He wanted to draft and develop a quarterback, planned to have one of the league’s most ferocious and unpredictable defenses. After a few hours they took a break. “That was way better,” the former executive recently recalled thinking, “than what we thought.”
When they resumed, someone lobbed the question toward Zimmer. It seemed easy enough: If you get the job, who do you have in mind for the coaching staff?
Zimmer wouldn’t answer the question. He said he hadn’t thought about it. They pressed him. Still nothing.
Fine, the former executive said they allowed, how about a window into his philosophy – just something to indicate how he’d run their team and build his staff.
Nope, the personnel man would remember; Zimmer wouldn’t go there. He just kept saying he’d figure it out.
“What does that tell us?” the former executive recalled thinking. “It was just kind of unsettling.”
Zimmer finished the interview and headed back to Cincinnati. The four men gathered, and it didn’t take long before the exchange about his staff came up. Had Zimmer truly not thought about who he might hire, or even what kind of coaches he might target? Was he being evasive, potentially fearful of giving the wrong answer?
The men in that room couldn’t get past it. It left a sour taste that no amount of experience or leadership could wash away. Within a few hours, the team had eliminated Zimmer from consideration. “I don’t know how you get over that,” the former executive said. “To this day, I really don’t know why he wouldn’t” answer the question.
Time passed, and the teams eventually hired their new coaches. Cleveland went with Rob Chudzinski, Indianapolis with Chuck Pagano, Miami with Joe Philbin, Tampa Bay with Greg Schiano, Tennessee with Ken Whisenhunt. Pagano is the only coach who remains with his team, and with the Colts at 1-3 this season, and following a chaotic 2015, that might not be true much longer.
As the 2013 season ended, Minnesota fired Leslie Frazier. Zimmer was among those the Vikings would schedule for an interview. A Fox Sports report would later suggest Zimmer had, by then, accepted he’d be a lifetime coordinator and considered withdrawing from consideration in Minnesota before his second interview.
If he was awkward or overly brash Spielman and Vikings ownership were not put off. The Vikings liked him. But before making a final decision, one of the former executives recalled, Spielman made a call. Why had Zimmer continually fallen through the cracks? What could have been done differently?
The former executive recalled only one mistake, and it was not Zimmer’s but his own: No matter the lack of polish or political skill, the executive said he should’ve hired the best football coach. That was all Spielman needed to hear.