EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — For four years, Mike Zimmer’s office with the Dallas Cowboys was right next to Bill Parcells, the Hall of Fame coach who would offer plenty of lessons and become a mentor to Zimmer, his defensive coordinator at the time.
A pen and a notepad would eventually become key instruments for Zimmer in his time with Parcells. The Hall of Famer would have Zimmer write down notes, tips on being a head coach. Much like Zimmer always saw himself becoming a head coach, Parcells saw the same thing in Zimmer when they were together from 2003-06.
Zimmer now has a chance to put those notes to use, and Parcells is still offering him suggestions.
"He’d come in and say, ‘Mike, when you’re a head coach, write this down,’" Zimmer remembered of his time with Parcells as he spoke at his introductory press conference as the Minnesota Vikings head coach. "It was like daily, he’d tell me to write things down. He called me after I accepted the job here, and the first thing he said was, ‘Mike, get a pen! Write this down!’ He had three things for me to write down that day.’
The relationship between Zimmer and Parcells is still strong. Zimmer became the ninth head coach in Minnesota’s franchise history this week and he talked with Parcells on Tuesday after hours of meetings with the Vikings. He wouldn’t reveal what Parcells had him right down Tuesday, but the lessons were a continuation of what began back in 2003.
"I felt like at the time he was always grooming me for this day," Zimmer said of Parcells. "I felt like, and I never worked with him and never met him before, and this guy’s got a lot of skins on the wall, but he kind of took me under his wing and mentored me, I guess."
There are many ex-coaches who have helped shape the 57-year-old Zimmer along with Parcells, including Mike Price at Washington State, Barry Switzer from his time in Dallas, Marvin Lewis — who he left in Cincinnati to become Minnesota’s coach — and even his own father, Bill.
Zimmer always believed he’d follow in those footsteps, even if his chances at a head coaching job never materialized despite impressive credentials and repeated interviews.
"Sometimes you wonder, but I have a lot of confidence in myself," Zimmer said. "I feel like I was destined to do this, and you know, for the first couple of days I’ve been here, that office upstairs feels really comfortable. So I’m excited about it."
After being passed over, or not getting a shot at all, Zimmer’s edge only grew sharper.
"Like I’ve told a lot of people, I’ve got a chip on my shoulder," Zimmer said. "I want to make sure that 31 other teams know that I’m here and I’m ready to coach this football team."
Zimmer’s first coaching job was in 1979 at the University of Missouri. Through 35 seasons of coaching, including 20 NFL seasons, he’s developed his own style, while learning from some of the best, like Parcells.
He’s described as straight-forward and no-nonsense. He downplayed some of the perceptions of being blunt, fiery and direct. But he’s confident in his approach and considers the traits to boil down to honesty.
"I think honesty is always the best policy," Zimmer said of his approach with players. "That’s what players want. Players want to be coached. They want to be told what is right and what’s wrong. And I’m doing a disservice to our players if I’m not honest with them. I want people to be honest with me and I’m sure you want people to be honest with you.
"There’s different ways to do it, I just think that’s the best way to be and I’m going to do my very best to try to be as honest as I can. Sometimes they don’t like the answer but they respect the answer."
The down-to-earth, honest approach worked with the Vikings. The son of a coach impressed another son of a coach in Minnesota general manager Rick Spielman.
"You kind of go off your gut and your instinct," Spielman said. "I think after we sat down with Mike that first time and I asked the ownership this, I felt really strongly about it and how they felt. We went back and forth through all the scenarios. Just like we do everything else here, it was very methodical. Mike will tell you that it’s probably the longest interview he’s had. But I just wanted to make sure as we went through this process that he felt comfortable with me, I felt comfortable with him, because I really do believe if you have that general manager and head coach together and have that same mindset, it’s going to be very successful."
Did Zimmer’s honest, direct approach affect previous interviews? Spielman felt the connection with Zimmer, but checked with those who had spoken with Zimmer before.
"It doesn’t have anything to with qualifications sometimes," Spielman said. "It just has to do with the right timing and for whatever reason this was his time. Should it come sooner or later, I don’t know what happened in those interviews but I know things work out the right way and for a reason. He’s going to be an excellent head coach and I have no doubt about that."
Parcells was also advising Zimmer on potential jobs.
Zimmer said he wasn’t going to jump at any head coaching opportunity. He wanted to make sure he was heading into the right situation as well. Parcells had steered him away from places, but not Minnesota.
"I think just the connection that we had on both sides," Zimmer said of what was different with the Vikings, as opposed to past interviews. "I told a lot of these people I’ve had a good career, I’m happy with what I’ve done. I’m going to be selective in what I do. Just because someone offers me a job, I won’t take it unless it’s the right one.
"So I don’t know, I really felt good about the situation here. I felt really good about the people. To me, I think people are important, whether it’s the players or the management or the ownership. To me those things are extremely, extremely important. And that’s one of the things Bill talked to me about. He’s told me several times, ‘Don’t go to that place or don’t do this or that.’ But he didn’t say that here."
The credentials speak for themselves. In 20 years in the NFL, he’s been a part of 11 playoff team and seven division titles. He won a Super Bowl with Dallas in 1995 as the defensive backs coach.
With Cincinnati as the defensive coordinator the past six seasons, he’s been a part of playoff teams four times and his defense was ranked in the top-10 in points allowed and yards allowed four times. This past season, the Bengals were the third-ranked defense in the NFL, despite several key injuries.
"I’ve always had a lot of confidence in myself," Zimmer said of knowing he’d be a head coach even back in 1979 at Missouri. "Obviously I’ve become a better football coach in 35 years. I hope. But you know, I just know that I’m pretty good at my job. I’m pretty good at what I do."
And maybe he’ll have some notes to pass on some day.