This story appears in the Sept. 4-11, 2017, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
The road to Mike Zimmer’s place, Kentucky Highway 16, passes farm after hilly farm, small homes surrounded by rolling pastures, the occasional pickup truck on cinder blocks. There’s the Ed-Mar Dairy, four generations strong, and the cornfield where the Skirmish at Snow’s Pond was waged between Confederate and Union soldiers in 1862. A big black gate on the shoulder of the road provides the only clue that an NFL coach lives here. Beyond it is a lane lined by cherry trees, planted by Zimmer himself, like most things here on his vast property.
The 61-year-old stands shoeless in his driveway, his socks drooping Maravich-style at his ankles. Wearing a sweaty Vikings T-shirt, he looks as if he was working the land and shooting clay pigeons all morning. (He was.)
Zimmer bought his first 40 acres here in Boone County in 2013, during his last year as the defensive coordinator for the Bengals, whose complex lies a short drive north. Even as he signed the deed, he was concerned he’d be fired—he’s always concerned about that—and be stuck with a big chunk of land that lay nowhere near his next NFL employer. “In coaching you never know how long you’re gonna live somewhere,” he says. “But my wife used to say, ‘You can’t live like that, worrying about where you might move.’” Behind Zimmer stands a sapling with purple petals, Vikki Zimmer’s favorite color, planted in her memory. She had been gone four years when her husband took her advice and snapped this place up.
Four months after that, when the Vikings hired him to lead their team, Zimmer broke ground on the home where he will likely live out his days. “I’m probably one of the dumbest guys in the world—building a house 12 hours from where I work,” he says. But after a 2016 season that challenged him and his team with baroque and innovative forms of adversity, he’s glad he listened to Vikki.
He’s eager to explain why, so he slips his socked feet into camouflage Crocs, takes a seat behind the wheel of his trusty quad tractor and wraps his hands around the wheel. “Let’s go.”
Barry Switzer, the 79-year-old former Cowboys coach who took a chance on a little-known Washington State assistant 23 years ago, recalls, “Zimmer wasn’t being paid hardly anything when we brought him on board. It was the year we won Super Bowl XXX, and we all got tickets except Zimmer and a couple other guys. I gave mine to Mike.” He laughs, “He still owes me for those.”
Switzer, one of only three head coaches to have won a Super Bowl and a college football national title (with Oklahoma, in 1974, ’75 and ’85), continues, “Mike’s modern, but he comes from a different era. See, I always respected the player. A player is yours for life. You get to know his mama and his siblings. What are his goals? His passions?
“I was interested in the guys who wash the jocks and socks too,” he says. “Where are they from? What do they want in life?”
This egalitarian approach to team building explains why the Vikings’ athletic trainer, Eric Sugarman, and media relations chief, Bob Hagan, are also hanging out in shorts and socks at Zimmer’s Kentucky homestead in mid-July, wielding the TV remote as if they own it, taking midday naps, shooting skeet with the boss when the mood strikes. It’s why Zimmer insists that all 200 of the team’s core staff be invited when he hosts get-togethers in Minnesota.
As the reticent Zimmer puts it, his voice barely audible over the quad’s motor, “Barry Switzer taught me how to treat people.”
The hills on the Zimmer Ridge Ranch make its 157 acres seem twice that. Like the team he coaches, the foliage on its ridges and valleys may look scattered and raw, but it’s all part of Zimmer’s plan. He has planted chestnut and hazelnut trees, and placed blackberry bushes at their ankles. There’s a vast soybean field that he lets a neighbor harvest and a stack of gooey beehives on the edge of the property, where locals are free to gather honey. Zimmer has carpeted the land with a carefully chosen, native warm-season grasses. The sum of it all makes this a perfect home for wild deer, turkeys, quail, ducks and geese. “[But] I don’t shoot anything on the property,” Zimmer explains. “I’m more into seeing how good I can make it for the animals.”
It all contradicts the fiery, pinch-faced Bengals coordinator who stole the show on the 2009 and ’13 seasons of HBO’s Hard Knocks with his blue language directed at players who fell short of his standard. It’s hard to reconcile the thoughtful and sensitive architect of Zimmer Ridge Ranch with the winning-obsessed madman who was back on the Bengals’ sideline coaching just three days after Vikki died, without warning, of natural causes at age 50.
“I’ve never met anyone who’s as obsessed with football as he is,” says Vikings Pro Bowl linebacker Anthony Barr. “But as hard-nosed and aggressive as he is, there’s a side of him that’s patient, calm. You can sit down and talk with him. It might not be the most comfortable [conversation], but if you step out of your comfort zone and build that relationship, you’re rewarded.”
“I hope the story you’re writing won’t be too long,” Zimmer says. “I promise I’m not that interesting.”
If that were true, though, Deion Sanders would not call as often as he does, now 18 years after they last worked together in Dallas. “Zim was more than a coach to me,” Sanders says. “He was a friend, a mentor. Mike Zimmer is a truth teller, a realist.”
Zimmer was also a high school baseball star, in Lockport, Ill., in the early 1970s, which empowered him in the mid-’90s to challenge Sanders to a contest in the batting cages. “So we get in my Lamborghini,” recalls Sanders, who collected 558 big league hits and went 8 for 15 in the ’92 World Series with the Braves, “and [we] pull up to this cage, and I said, ‘Let’s see what you got.’ He said, ‘No, you first.’ So, like a real ballplayer, I lay down a couple bunts to get my timing down, and he starts talking. ‘Why are you bunting in a batting cage?’”
Sanders rocketed a spray of line drives after that comment. When Zimmer got in there, he promptly fouled one off his own shin. Recalls Sanders, “I have never laughed so hard.” (Zimmer waves his hand dismissively at the memory. “This is the guy who still comes up to me and lifts up his shirt so he can tell me, ‘Look at these abs!’”)
To listen to the men who have worked with Zimmer is to believe that this country music fan with one good eye (and “no ass,” according to Vikings cornerback Terence Newman, who says, “I don’t know how his jeans stay up”) has a better rapport with his largely twentysomething, mostly African-American roster than any coach in the league.
“I’m not gonna say he’s a players’ coach, because he hates that,” says Minnesota safety Harrison Smith. “Other coaches, the way they talk to players, it’s just not ... real. Nothing about [Zimmer] is fabricated, nothing’s fake.”
“I didn’t know Mike when I went to Dallas,” says Bill Parcells, who took over the Cowboys five years after Switzer resigned. But Parcells soon saw that his new defensive coordinator “was passionate, committed. He was a tireless worker. Cared about players. I inherited some people who weren’t like that. But Mike was a guy I gravitated to.”
“It’s like he grew up in the inner city, man,” says Sanders. “He relates to everyone. And he’s intelligent. What Zim said was going to happen in a game, it happened. When your best players see that and start buying in, then everybody follows.”
That was the path the Vikings were on one year ago. Coming off a 2015 season in which quarterback Teddy Bridgewater emerged as a budding star and the Vikes snapped the Packers’ string of four division titles, expectations were high. They had but one flaw. “I can still remember talking to [Minnesota GM] Rick [Spielman] before last season and saying, ‘Man, if Teddy goes down, we’re in trouble,’” Zimmer says. “ ‘We can’t lose Teddy.’”
The freak injury that felled Bridgewater during a preseason practice last August—leaving his left knee dislocated and nearly all of its connective tissue torn—was devastating. “I’ve never seen players so heartsick,” Zimmer says.
“The best way to describe it,” says Spielman, “is that all the air came out of the balloon. But Zimmer is never gonna be an excusemaker. And his attitude trickled down.“
“One of the first things I did was call Parcells,” says Zimmer. “He said, ‘Well, they’re not gonna cancel the games. You gotta figure it out.’”
Four days later the Vikings sent a first-round pick and a conditional fourth-rounder to the Eagles in exchange for Sam Bradford. The five-year veteran quarterbacked Minnesota to a 5–0 start, but the team’s success was short-lived, and nearly a year later many of the tsunamis created by Bridgewater’s injury have yet to reach shore. It wasn’t just the draft picks they gave up; it was the additional $21 million ($25 million, including the roster bonus) they have had to spend for Bradford’s services. Zimmer makes it clear that he loves Bradford, who will hold the keys in 2017 while Bridgewater continues to heal, then he adds, “Something like [Bridgewater’s injury] affects you for years. Financially, draft-wise, everything. Everything.”
By October, Bradford’s savior status became impossible to maintain, as both starting offensive tackles suffered season-ending injuries. Meanwhile Adrian Peterson, still feeling the fallout from a 2014 child abuse scandal, had also been placed on IR in September. Bradford & Co. went 3–8 over the last 11 games, and offensive coordinator Norv Turner abruptly resigned before Week 9, a departure that remains a touchy subject; it’s the only thing Zimmer declines to discuss. For the first time as an NFL head coach, he was getting more bad ink than good.
Oh, and he almost lost an eye.
For weeks last fall Zimmer had felt an ache in his right eye. He ignored it, but what had been an annoyance turned into a torn retina when Zimmer inadvertently scratched his eye with a play card during a loss to the Bears on Halloween. Two November surgeries failed to repair the damage, and though he was forced to sit out the Vikings’ two-point loss to Dallas on Dec. 1, Zimmer didn’t miss another game. The offseason brought six more surgeries, the last of which came in June with strict orders from management to remove himself from football while he recovered. So Zimmer drove home to Kentucky, a 12-hour haul marked by silence and swearing. “He didn’t speak to me for three days,” says Spielman, who delivered the message to the coach. “He wanted to set an example for the team, No matter what, I’m gonna be right here fighting with you. But our doctors and our ownership group told him he had to step away.”
Instead of offering a peaceful escape, Zimmer Ridge Ranch felt “like Stalag 13,” the coach says. He can laugh about it now, but being sent home by his employer made him feel powerless.
“I said to the doctor: Is this a lost cause? Because if it is, let’s just get rid of [the eye] and forget about it,” Zimmer recalls. “There were times I just thought, This is not worth it.
“My sense was, Why are we doing this?” he says. “I need to be up there [in Minnesota].”
Much has been written and broadcast about the wait Zimmer endured before becoming an NFL head coach at age 57. Urban legend holds that each time he interviewed for a top job, he told executives what they were doing wrong and how he’d fix it. They didn’t like being told the first part. But when the Vikings told him they saw directness in his approach, not disrespect, the first thing he did was call his dad. “I’m Minnesota’s ninth head coach,” he said.
Bill Zimmer was a legendary high school coach in Illinois who has been inducted into four separate Halls of Fame. “He coached me,” Mike says, “and he was harder on me than anybody. I remember I threw an interception in a championship game my junior year; I came to the sideline, and he punched me in the chest and said, ‘Get the goddam ball there!’ But I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
The younger Zimmer got a football scholarship to Illinois State, but a neck injury ended his playing career. After a two-year stint as an assistant at Missouri, he spent eight years coaching at Weber State, where he met Vikki while she was jogging one day, and then married her. They started a family and moved to Washington State in 1989; five years later Switzer and the Cowboys called. Aside from feeling that he could’ve been a more present dad to his son, Adam (now a Vikings assistant), and two daughters, Marki, 30, and Corri, 27, it had all come together. And no one was prouder than Bill Zimmer.
“He used to come to training camp—Dallas, Cincinnati. He’d stay a week,” Mike says. “Parcells would ask him to grade the running backs. [Dallas scouting director] Larry Lacewell used to send videos of prospects to him. He loved it....
“He was never well enough to come to Mankato [site of the Vikings’ camps],” he says. “My mom said that was one of the things that motivated him at the end of his life. He wanted to come to a training camp where I was a head coach.”
In August 2015, Mike got a call from one of his daughters, with word from Florida. “I was in Mankato, so the Wilfs [Vikings’ owners Zygi and Mark] flew me down there. My daughter asked, ‘Why don’t you watch practice with him?’ So I gave him the iPad. His eyes lit up, and he just sat there. That was his happiest day in the hospital.” He died about a week later, at age 84.
The day of the funeral, Zimmer got a call from Teddy Bridgewater’s mother, Rose Murphy. “She was calling to offer condolences. And I said something to her about Teddy, what a great young man he is—and she stops me. She said, ‘I didn’t call you to talk about Teddy. I called to talk about your dad.’”
That’s the kind of football family Zimmer wants to create. The gesture reminded him of Vikki, whose spirit still guides him. “My kids and I still ask each other, ‘What would Vikki do?’” Zimmer says. They asked that question when considering what to do with the Jet Ski sitting in their Texas garage. It was given in the end to the guy who maintained the property. And they asked it when deciding on the appropriate enrollment fee for Zimmer’s youth camp in Minnesota. “Vikki would have said, ‘Make it free,’” Mike says. “So we did.”
Other than his diminished vision, the only difference between the Zimmer of today and the Zimmer of yesteryear may be his work schedule. “I’ll try to leave the office around 6:30 p.m.,” he says. “When I get home, I’ll get on the iPad and go ’til about 9:00. But I don’t go ’til midnight anymore.” Given that he routinely arrives at the office at 4 a.m., Zimmer is describing cutting back to a 17-hour workday. “I feel more refreshed now,” he says, without an ounce of sarcasm.
Then he explains the root of his obsession.
“I’ve always been worried about being fired,” he says. (Never mind that it’s never happened.) “I remember the year we won the Super Bowl, that whole week I didn’t do anything but work. My family was there, but I was busy watching every third-down play [the 1995 Steelers] ever ran. I walked into the locker room after we won and just went, Whew. It was exciting, but I always say, ‘If I go back, I’m gonna have a little bit of fun.’”
There are modest expectations for the Vikings of 2017, but Zimmer believes that Bradford, his young playmakers and a rejuvenated defense will rise to the challenge because of what they endured last year. “We’re mentally tougher than everybody else,” he says with his vintage candor.
One of the last stops on the tour of Zimmer’s house is the bar area downstairs, where he keeps a stone that was given to him by Hall of Famer Bud Grant, the iconic Vikings coach. “You may not have what every coach needs: a good luck rock,” Grant scrawled in the accompanying note. “This is an unpolished agate from the shores of Lake Superior, my home. Every little bit helps.”
Zimmer laughs. “I need it,” he says.
That night Zimmer orders pizza and sits around with Sugarman, Hagan, and Lenny and Karen Collins, Zimmer’s neighbors who have lived in the area for 36 years. Over a bottle of homemade blackberry wine, courtesy of the Collinses, the laughs last until the sparkle of fireflies covers the surrounding fields.
“Mike’s tough,” Switzer says. “He’s seen hard times. I pull for him. I hope he gets to the Super Bowl ... so I can get my damn tickets.”
Zimmer is not the type to issue guarantees, so when he makes a promise to the coach who gave him his first NFL opportunity, it might as well be etched in unpolished agate. “Coach Switzer,” Zimmer says, “will get his tickets.”