EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Ask around about Mike Zimmer and you’ll be told about his no-nonsense, straight-forward style. As the Cincinnati Bengals’ defensive coordinator for the past six seasons, Zimmer’s players respect and appreciate him and his fiery personality.
So do the Minnesota Vikings.
After hours of meetings this week, Minnesota made Zimmer the ninth head coach in the team’s history, making the move official Wednesday night. FOX Sports 1 Insider Jay Glazer reported the move eariler in the day.
Zimmer, 57, replaces Leslie Frazier, who was fired a day after the Vikings finished 5-10-1. Frazier was 21-32-1 in his three-plus seasons as Minnesota’s coach and the defense fell precipitously after Frazier moved from his defensive coordinator position in 2010 to replace Brad Childress as head coach.
"We are excited to welcome Mike as the new leader of the Minnesota Vikings," said Vikings owner and chairman Zygi Wilf said in a statement. "He has a proven track record of success at every stop in the NFL and we look forward to him maintaining that consistency here in Minnesota."
Zimmer will be tasked with turning around a defense that allowed the most points in the league this season and the second-most yards. But after a two-week process that included interviews with at least seven people, the hiring was lauded around the league, including from Zimmer’s former players and his soon-to-be team.
"Gonna miss you coach Zimmer! Wish you nothing but the best in Minnesota. You brought out the best in each of your players! So honored to have been coached by you!," Cincinnati linebacker Rey Maualuga wrote on his Twitter page (@maualuga5827m).
Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph (@KyleRudolph82) tweeted, "Fired up about Coach Zimmer! As a Cincy kid he’s been fun to watch there and can’t wait to work with him! Welcome to the @Vikings!"
The Vikings eyed Zimmer as one of their top candidates from the beginning and he was the only person brought in for a second interview by the team. Zimmer met with general manager Rick Spielman in the week following Frazier’s release and has spent the past two days in Minnesota meeting with Spielman, the team’s owners and other team executives.
Each of the nine head coaches in franchise history were first-time NFL head coaches.
Zimmer coordinated the Bengals’ defense for the past six seasons. Cincinnati had the league’s third-best defense in 2013, despite losing All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins after nine games and playing only five games with top cornerback Leon Hall.
"Absolutely phenomenal," Bengals radio play-by-play announcer Dan Hoard said about the job Zimmer did in 2013. "In fact I tweeted at the end of the season that Mike Zimmer’s job interview for an NFL head coaching job should consist of him walking into the meeting with a list of the Bengals’ injuries, plopping them down on the table and saying, ‘We finished third in the NFL in defense’ and walking out. That was my impression of what a job he did this year."
With more than 20 years of experience as an assistant coach and 14 years as a defensive coordinator, Zimmer finally gets his chance to be a head coach. Zimmer has coordinated a top-10 NFL defense each of the past three seasons. He was named the assistant coach of the year in 2009 by Pro Football Weekly/Pro Football Writers of America.
Previous to joining Cincinnati, Zimmer worked as the defensive coordinator with the Dallas Cowboys where he adapted his style using both a 3-4 and 4-3 defense. Dallas had the league’s top-ranked defense in 2003 with a 4-3 scheme, but he also had standout seasons with a 3-4 system.
"Congrats to my dear friend and 1 of the best coaches I’ve EVER had Mike Zimmer!!! Well deserved and God bless. Truth," Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders wrote on his Twitter page (@DeionSanders).
Zimmer’s ascension to a head job was a long process. He had interviewed with teams in the past, but was annually passed over. He also interviewed with the Tennessee Titans in the past two weeks. Tennessee hired San Diego offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt on Monday.
Fired up about Coach Zimmer! As a Cincy kid he's been fun to watch there and can't wait to work with him! Welcome to the @Vikings!
"He doesn’t take himself too seriously," Hoard said. "He’s not tooting his own horn. Maybe that’s one of the reasons it’s taken him so long to get a head coaching job. He’s very self-effacing. He’s not a self-promoter and that’s probably hurt him at times, but this is long overdue."
With the trend of offenses dominating the NFL, the Vikings bucked the trend and had a definite defensive lean in their head coaching interviews.
Minnesota had reportedly interviewed Seattle coordinators Darrell Bevell (offensive) and Dan Quinn, Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, Cleveland defensive coordinator Ray Horton, San Francisco offensive coordinator Greg Roman and San Francisco defensive line coach Jim Tomsula. Bowles was reportedly a finalist but never had the chance to interview a second time.
Once news reached the Vikings’ players, they were excited about the possibilities. Many had spoken with some of Zimmer’s former players.
"I heard nothing but great things," safety Jamarca Sanford said. "It will be different (personality from Frazier), but I love a coach like that."
Brian Robison, who signed a four-year contract extension in October, said he’s excited about the possibilities and hopes Zimmer continues to run a versatile defense. The 259-pound defensive end said he’d be willing to play linebacker in a 3-4 or end in a 4-3.
"Either way, I want to win and be the best I can be," Robison said.
Robison got word from former players about Zimmer’s approach.
"They say he’s a guy who loves his players, but always expects the best out of them," Robison said. "Not afraid to jump on their ass if they need it, but will praise you when you deserve it."
"I’ve never seen a coach who is so well liked and respected by his players as Mike Zimmer," Hoard said relaying a story about how players don’t want to hear about a coach’s philosophy until they know he cares about them. "That is the thing with Zimmer. He doesn’t B.S. them. He is honest at all times, but he manages to get those guys’ hearts. They know that he cares and at that point they’ll do anything in their power to try and win for him."
Having coached under Hall of Famer Bill Parcells, Zimmer has many of the same attributes. He joined Dallas as a defensive backs coach in 1994 and won a Super Bowl under Barry Switzer. He spent his last four seasons with the Cowboys under Parcells.
Of course, Vikings’ owners Zygi and Mark Wilf, are natives of New Jersey and are admirers of Parcells from his days as the New York Giants’ coach.
"Today is one of the happiest and yet saddest days for me. Happy Coach Zimm finally gets to be a head coach and spread all of his knowledge," Bengals cornerback Terence Newman tweeted (@terencenewman). "Zimmer is very similar to Parcells and will challenge everyone to be the best they can be. I love that guy and he will always be with me."
Zimmer becomes the second straight defensive-minded coach to lead Minnesota after Frazier, but Spielman certainly didn’t follow the trend in the NFC North. Zimmer is the only head coach with a defensive background in the division. Of the seven hires this offseason, two have been defensive coaches: Zimmer and Lovie Smith in Tampa Bay.
Washington (Jay Gruden), Detroit (Jim Caldwell), Tennessee (Whisenhunt) and Houston (Bill O’Brien) are went with offensive-minded coaches.
The Vikings had the 13th-ranked offense in the NFL this past season, despite issues at quarterback and a rotation that included Christian Ponder, Matt Cassel and Josh Freeman. Finding a quarterback will be as important to Minnesota’s success as much as the drastic changes expected along the defense with Zimmer.
"I have total confidence that he will be a good head coach if the Vikings have enough talent for him to be a good head coach," Hoard said. "It’s impossible to do it if you don’t have the players . . . If they’re good enough to be good, Zimmer will lift them to their potential."