Childress no longer drag as Vikes coach
Vikings left tackle Bryant McKinnie said it was one of the scariest flights he has ever taken.
There was no turbulence or mechanical malfunction. The culprit was actually Minnesota head coach Brad Childress. Or should I say the appearance of his alter ego, Beth.
As players slept en route to an October game at Pittsburgh, Childress sprung into action. He sneaked to the back of the airplane and donned a full-fledged flight attendant's uniform. There was a bobbed black wig to cover his bald head. Purple eye shadow and red lipstick was applied to his bearded face. Toss in a padded bra, jewelry, name tag and — voila — "Beth" was born.
"The only thing I worried about was walking up the aisle with a tray," Childress recalled Friday in his office at Vikings headquarters.
The reasoning behind Childress' foray into RuPaul territory: He wanted the then-unbeaten Vikings to feel "loose" before playing the Steelers, which were still a legitimate playoff contender at the time. Minnesota lost a close contest, but Childress felt his team gave great effort and the tactic was successful.
"I grabbed every player's arm, woke them up and said, 'Excuse me, sir. Can I get you something?'" Childress said while breaking into a painful falsetto. "The first guy I got was (defensive end) Jared Allen. He looked up and said, 'Pshaw!'"
Other responses ranged from amusement to amazement to horror, a la McKinnie.
"We weren't paying attention and then we looked up and said, 'Who in the world is this?'" Vikings defensive tackle Kevin Williams said. "He was trying to let his hair down and relax. It was a good attempt, but he was terrible looking."
Added fellow defensive tackle Pat Williams: "He's a better coach than flight attendant."
That's the point of this "Beth" anecdote. As the Vikings (10-2) enter Sunday's home game against Cincinnati (9-3), Childress is a better coach than when he first started in Minnesota four years ago. The nickname "Chilly" no longer stands for his approach toward Vikings players. There is a much higher level of trust between the 53-year-old Childress and his charges. This has contributed to Minnesota's strong locker room chemistry and improvement each season since his arrival.
"I've got guys in that locker room who compete their a**** off," said Childress, who was recently given a four-year contract extension. "I've got characters and character. I've got all kinds of guys — black, white, jokesters, quiet. The thing is they all check their egos at the door. It's a good group to be around."
Taking a page from New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin, Childress avoided potential mutinies from his squad in prior seasons by gradually lightening up. He lessened what was a brutal training camp schedule. He formed a veteran's committee and solicited input on how to handle matters like setting practice times and selecting road uniforms. Childress also began showing more of his true quirky personality. He even wore a wig to one minicamp practice.
"He tries to joke a little bit," a laughing McKinnie said. "Sometimes, his jokes aren't that good. He needs a ghost-writer."
Childress rarely cracked wise when taking the reins in Minnesota after six years on Andy Reid's offensive staff in Philadelphia. Childress, a married father of four with a psychology degree, initially had a tough time connecting with his players. His stern approach stood in direct contrast to predecessor Mike Tice. Childress was such a scrooge that he cut a player (wide receiver Marcus Robinson) on Christmas Eve.
McKinnie believes some players "were ready to leave" for the offseason at this same point in 2006.
"When he first came in, it was kind of rough," Pat Williams said. "He ruffled some feathers. There were a lot of guys against him."
While he would do some things over again like any first-time head coach, Childress felt such tough love was necessary under new team ownership that wanted change.
Before being purchased by Zygi Wilf, the Vikings were coming off a season far rougher than a 9-7 record would indicate. Star quarterback Daunte Culpepper was lost to a major knee injury in Week 7. Earlier that month, Culpepper and other Vikings teammates generated negative headlines with their participation in the "Love Boat" cruise — a local outing on Lake Minnetonka that became so unwieldy with sexual shenanigans that criminal charges were filed against four players.
"We were the laughingstock of the league," said Kevin Williams, who contributed to the team's bad-boy image with a 2005 guilty plea to misdemeanor disorderly conduct. "We were getting into trouble off the field plus doing badly on the field."
Childress experienced rough seas while trying to right the Vikings ship. Unhappy with Culpepper's handling of rehabilitation and his contract demands, Childress pulled a Josh McDaniels and traded what was a franchise quarterback elsewhere (Miami). The Vikings also fired new personnel director Fran Foley, who had falsified his resume and butted heads with Childress about roster decisions.
In retrospect, both moves proved wise. Culpepper never regained his Pro Bowl form and is languishing as a backup in Detroit. Childress also hired Rick Spielman as Foley's replacement. Working in lockstep with personnel gurus Scott Studwell and George Paton, Spielman has helped Childress assemble a Super Bowl-caliber roster.
Key holdovers from the previous regime like McKinnie, cornerback Antoine Winfield and the run-stuffing "Williams Wall" were retained. Pro Bowl guard Steve Hutchinson was swiped from Seattle as a transition player in 2006. Tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, wide receiver Bernard Berrian and free safety Madieu Williams were added in free agency.
All 13 players drafted in the first four rounds between 2006 and 2009 are either Vikings starters or backups. The list includes such standouts as running back Adrian Peterson, linebacker Chad Greenway, and wide receivers Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin. The Vikings also sent one first- and two third-round picks to Kansas City in 2008 for defensive end Jared Allen. He has 27 sacks in 28 Vikings games, including 12.5 in 2009.
Spielman, though, admits Childress was the impetus for the biggest coup of all: The August signing of quarterback Brett Favre.
Even with Favre's persistent waffling about retiring and his disappointing end to last season, Childress remained persistent well into training camp. He astutely recognized it was a torn biceps tendon and not age that had derailed the 40-year-old Favre. Childress also leaned on Favre to undergo surgery and work with a Vikings team trainer in rehabilitation.
"When you look at the tape, you can still see velocity but not command," said Childress, referring to Favre's 2008 decline with the New York Jets. "You can't put the ball on this shoulder or that shoulder like a yo-yo on a string. You saw some (throws) that got away from him."
With 26 touchdown passes and five interceptions, Favre is a strong contender for both the NFL's Most Valuable Player and Comeback Player of the Year awards. But any honors would be lessened if the Vikings don't make a deep postseason run.
Childress has yet to win a playoff game, which caused skeptics to question why Wilf would extend his contract in November at a rate reportedly between $4 million and $5 million a season. Minnesota's relatively soft schedule through the first 11 games also has raised doubts as to how good this team truly is. A 30-17 loss at Arizona last Sunday added fuel to the fire.
Childress insisted that Minnesota's second defeat of the season was "an aberration." He expects the Vikings to rebound when facing another tough opponent in Cincinnati, a physical team reminiscent of the Steelers in years past.
Childress spoke to his team Friday morning about the difficulty of December football and rising to face that challenge. Fortunately for Vikings players, Childress didn't dress in drag to get his point across. He didn't have to, either.
"Everybody has Chilly's mentality now," Pat Williams said. "We're thinking we can finish games and get over the hill."
Should that happen, both of the Childresses — Brad and Beth — deserve credit for helping the Vikings take flight.