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Getting Away From the Boo Birds

Sept. 13, 1976
Sept. 13, 1976

Table of Contents
Sept. 13, 1976

Jackpot
Dish Behind The Plate
Dipsea
  • The race is only 6.8 miles long, but its 2,000 runners go up a stairway, down gullies, through rain forests. Some finish, bloodied and bowed

Bud Grant
Baseball
Cloud Of Dust
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

Getting Away From the Boo Birds

Putting Minnesota's annual playoff failure out of mind, Bud Grant takes to the woods to commune with ravens and contemplate a race of giant bluegills

By Robert F. Jones

NAME: Harry P. Grant
AGE: 49
HEIGHT: 6'3"
WEIGHT: 200 pounds
IDENTIFYING MARKS OR SCARS: Great Stone Face
ALIAS: Bud
RECORD: 215 wins, 109 losses, six ties
COMMENTS: Brought Minnesota Vikings from mediocrity to contention in only three years. Appeared in Super Bowl three times. Lost three times. Known to be aloof to sportswriters and fans. Frequently booed by playoff crowds
HOBBIES: Hunting, fishing, bird watching
CAUTION: This man is frequently armed and may well be dangerous

This is an article from the Sept. 13, 1976 issue Original Layout

Of all the coaches in the National Football League, Bud Grant of the Minnesota Vikings is clearly the least loved, the least extolled and the most underrated. After 19 years as a pro head coach in Canada and the U.S., his record is better even than that of another Great Stone Face, Tom Landry of the Dallas Cowboys. And Landry has coached one team for 16 years. Grant's Vikings have dominated the NFL's Central Division as no team has since the late Vince Lombardi left Green Bay. Grant's clubs are strong, deep, well-disciplined. They excel at the basics—blocking, pulling, tackling, covering—and at the ultimate: victory.

Yet the Big Victory has always eluded them. The underdog Kansas City Chiefs, led by the brittle arm of Quarterback Len Dawson and the agile legs of Otis Taylor, dumped the Vikings 23-7 in the 1970 Super Bowl. Bad breaks, as they say, kept Minnesota out of the championship game in 1971 and 1972. In 1973 Miami flat zonked them, 24-7, with Larry Csonka leading the way. And in 1975 Minnesota extended its record of never having the lead in a Super Bowl, although that time it didn't fall behind until the second quarter, when the Pittsburgh Steelers—new to success—scored a safety. The Vikes went on to lose, as usual, 16-6.

Last season, though, was the real kicker. Cruising into the first round of the playoffs, the Vikings led the tatterdemalion Cowboys for 59 minutes and 36 seconds before losing again, this time on a desperation pass from Roger Staubach to Drew Pearson. Final score: Cowboys 17, Vikes 14.

For all Grant's regular-season success (seven divisional titles in nine years), his playoff record is a miserable .461: six wins, seven, very painful losses.

Behind this record, silent on the frozen sidelines, his close-cropped white hair locked under a bulbous headset, his Nordically handsome features expressionless except for the flash of those hard, pale, blue eyes—themselves as chilly as the northern lights—stands Coach Bud Grant. The aura that surrounds him is icy, so much so that fans, regardless of personal affiliation, are inclined to cheer when the Vikings are knocked off in the playoffs or the Super Bowl by a warmer, freakier, less disciplined team. Are the fans right? Has Grant's seeming frigidity locked his team into an unbreakable floe of defeat in the big ones? Just who in the frozen hell is the man inside that headset?

The crossroads hamlet of Gordon (pop. 350, exclusive of bears and coyotes) straddles U.S. 53 about an hour's drive south of Duluth in the cutover pine plains of northwestern Wisconsin. The town consists largely of an IGA store, a post office, a gas station, the inevitable bait and tackle shop and a slew of saloons—the not-so-mythical mead halls of this Viking stronghold. The region, flat and swampy where it is not sandy and scrub-grown, was once a vast stand of Norway pines. Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe took care of that around the turn of the century. Some 85 lakes dot the immediate area, along with 187 miles of rivers and streams that support some of the finest trout fishing in America. This is deer-hunting country in the fall and a snowmobile playland in the winter. A lot of boys named Duane and girls named Joreen live here, hammering the back roads in pickup trucks, getting pie-eyed betimes on brandy and beer. Up here the girls still "get in trouble." To the north, rusty ore freighters plod the ice-blue swells of Lake Superior, the largest and cleanest body of freshwater in the world. Over the land hangs the smell of wood pulp, like a miasma of sour mash gone worse, intercut with the sad-sweet strains of country music blowing from roadhouses and pickup radios. This is a hard, plain, clean, simple, honest hunk of America—one of the best hunks left—and this is where Bud Grant comes when the football wars are over.

"Sure I know him," says Lee Block, the young proprietor of Gordon's Sport and Gift Shop. "Bud Grant the trout fisherman. Comes in here all the time." He gestures at the tidy store, its shelves lined with lures and seat warmers and jars of jerky at two bits the stick. Aerators burble in the live bait tanks and a pot of coffee perks in counterpoint behind the cash register. "We swap info on beaver dams. I need them to collect bait and Bud needs them to find brook trout during the hot months, when the trout are up out of the streams. When he's in here, people look to see what flies or lures he's buying, watch him kind of shy and careful like, and then when he's gone they buy one. He's Bud Grant the trout fisherman. Nobody ever asks him about football—not more than once, anyway. Up here he's away from it, won't talk about it, just nods politely and changes the subject. Mainly, though, they're a bit scared of him. It would be like going up to Erwin Rommel and chitchatting about desert warfare."

County Trunk Y, a rhumb line of two-lane blacktop, bores straight east from Gordon through the pine barrens. Dawn is pearl gray today—the first cloud cover in nearly two months. The land seems to suck at the sky in hopes of rain. The other day a wayfaring stranger flicked a cigarette butt out of a car and a full section of Douglas County forest land went poof before the local press-gang of fire fighters could corral it. In these parts, every able-bodied man from 16 to you-name-it is eligible for duty when the woods catch fire.

Approaching Simms Lake, where Bud Grant's cabin stands, white-tailed deer bounce across the road in the early light, tails flagging and skinny-stupid heads peering back at no danger at all once the highway is cleared. Far ahead, a coyote crosses the road. "Brush wolves," they call them hereabouts. The dirt road to Grant's cabin debouches at lakeside—a small, dark-blue, chilly-looking northern Wisconsin lake. A rooster shakes itself sleepily and utters a fair imitation of a worn brake lining. A pair of ravens hop and croak in mock outrage, then flap down to the lakeside to look for dead fish. Mallards and Canada geese, some with strings of young 'uns in tow, splash noisily or stare and hiss. The window of Grant's bedroom flies open and his white-topped face appears. He squints and stares his mock-mean stare.

"I don't drink coffee," he says, dead-cool, "and don't even have any on the premises, or else I'd offer you some. But come in anyway."

A black Labrador bitch named Sheila wags at the door, sharp contrast to her master. The living room of the cabin is shipshape and Bristol fashion. A wood-carved owl stares from the mantel near a ceramic horse and an iron eagle. A primitive painting of brook trout, executed in 1890 by an early federal game warden to these parts, shares wall space with a painting of the northern lights, courtesy of an Eskimo artist Grant met during his Canadian Football League days. On another wall hangs a mounted white crappie, gigantic, maybe four pounds when it was alive. Grant took it from the lake. "But that was a while ago," he says. On another wall is a deer tail on a shield. A plaque reads: WORLD RECORD. MISSED NOVEMBER 27, 1958.

In the absence of coffee, the visitor makes do with "Milwaukee orange juice," the local euphemism for early morning beer. The coach relaxes in a chair by the window, a pair of 7x35 binoculars close at hand in case something of natural interest should appear in the watery, piney vista. He wears a plaid shirt, green cotton workman's trousers and scuffed Orvis oxfords over sweat socks. He looks very lean, very clean, very strong and healthy. He turned 49 just a few weeks earlier.

"When I got out of the Navy after the war," he says, "I had $300 to my name. I spent $100 of it on an Ithaca 12-gauge pump gun, another $100 on clothes and then came out here to Gordon with a friend of mine to spend the summer and see what we could see. My folks are from these parts—my dad was born on an Indian reservation just north of here, and my grandparents came out with Paul Bunyan, or at least when the railroad went through. I met a guy in a saloon in town who was the executor of an estate. He offered me these 60 acres with 1,500 feet of lake frontage for $1,500. My pal and I had only $200 between us, but our fathers took notes for us and we got the property. Later I bought my friend out, and in 1969, after all those years of football, I built the cabin. I've done some dumb things in my life, that's for sure, but this was one of the...well, luckiest things I ever did."

Nothing in the house says football. On the shelves are bound volumes of Outing Magazine, circa 1904, MacKinlay Kantor's Valley Forge, Fawn Brodie's Thomas Jefferson, an Intimate History, a collection of American drama, Ronald Clark's biography of Albert Einstein.... Wait a minute! There, tucked away almost out of sight, is Paul Zimmerman's The Last Season of Weeb Ewbank. How's that?

"Weeb coached at Great Lakes, under Paul Brown, when I was there during the war," Grant explains. "Blanton Collier was also one of Paul's assistants. I was just a big, dumb 18-year-old playing with this, well, superteam. I hate that word, but that was about as close to super as you could have come in those days. Imagine a football coach in wartime with all the power of the service behind him. That's the closest to an angry, Old Testament Jehovah that you're ever going to find. I'd been a fullback in high school over in Superior, Wis. but then, at Great Lakes, I saw Marion Motley. He was the biggest thing I'd seen that didn't move on wheels. I don't know—maybe he did. But I quickly told them that I was an end, not a fullback.

"We worked out twice a day, three hours a session, and we loved it. It was the greatest prep school a football player could have hoped for. Brown was very strict." He looks at the beer in his visitor's hand. "Strict rules against drinking. I remember one guy came in for practice one morning hung over. Paul conferred with the other coaches and then called the man over. 'It is the opinion of myself and the other coaches that you were drinking last night,' he said. 'That being the case, I would like you to go away from me. Faraway.' By the time the guy got back to the barracks, his orders had been cut. To the Pacific. Was that an example? The rest of us were afraid to sneeze."

The ravens are back, flapping at the window and peering in anxiously at Grant. He goes to the kitchen and returns with a dog bowl full of chow. "The pulp cutters found them back in the woods last April," he says. "I guess you could say I rescued them. That might help correct my image as a vicious slayer of birds and fish and animals. Anyway, they hang around here stealing anything shiny they can find lying loose and hiding it from me or from one another. Sometimes they fly around the house, on the outside, following me from room to room, peeking in the windows to see what I'm up to."

One of the birds perches on Grant's shoulder, taking food from his hand and croaking in his ear in a familiar manner—one that even Fran Tarkenton would never assume. The other remains on the ground. It has a game leg. "No, I don't give them names. That's too sappy. They don't have names in nature, and if you give them names and they die, then you feel bad. But the one with the bum leg we call 'Crip.' "

All around the property lie the tools of Grant's off-season trade. In the clean, well-lighted basement, stacks of guns, rods and fishing tackle. At the floating dock and on the neatly mowed lawn, canoes, skiffs, a johnboat and a big ski boat. And in the garage, a brace of trail bikes on which Grant and his four sons, who range in age from nine to 21, course the woods and streams in search of sport. His daughters, ages 23 and 25, are both special-education teachers working with handicapped children. "They're all good kids," says Grant. "And my wife Pat is a darned good cook. Now if we can catch some fish today, she'll be up tomorrow and show you how to eat them."

The maroon Country Squire station wagon rumbles down a tote road toward Miles Lake, the aluminum boat lashed to the roof and the rods, vests, motor and waders inside creaking a strange, ravenlike chorus. The talk has drifted back to football, particularly to new coaching appointments.

"It's a shame Hank Stram didn't get the New York job," Grant is saying. "Hank would have been in his element in the Big Apple, or whatever they call it. I've always thought he would have made a perfect gangster." He pauses, remembering perhaps that it was Stram's Kansas City Chiefs who handed him his first Super Bowl loss, and that perhaps the words might be misconstrued. "He's a fine coach, don't get me wrong, a great coach. But he'd rather con you than beat you fair and square."

In 1970, the year of the Chiefs-Vikings Super Bowl, Grant is reminded, Hank Stram had a backfield full of pint-sized running backs—Mike Garrett, Robert Holmes, Warren McVea, none of whom topped 5'10". He claimed that small running backs were the wave of the future. They were too small to be seen behind the massive pulling guards who led the way on sweeps, and quick enough to exploit the fast-closing holes. It sounded like good logic at the time.

"Sure," says Grant. "That was all he could get—those little guys. The best he could get, anyway. And he did extremely well with the material at hand, which is what any really good coach does. But Hank surrounded it with a...how do they call it? A mystique. He's a very good coach, one of the best ever, but he's a sharpie."

"Well," Grant continues, pulling the wagon to a halt at the side of a small, clear, pine-ringed lake, "New Orleans will be good for Hank. He can build again, and that's what he does so well. He's apparently got unlimited money, a good plant, plenty of talent and some very responsive fans. He's going to do well down there. But he could have really had some fun in New York."

Boat unslung, motor rigged, fly rods armed and ready, Grant chugs along the lakeshore, watching closely for fishy action. A few bass angle away under the bowwave. Bluegills fin over their circular, washed-sand nests. The sky hangs ever closer, promising rain but not quite delivering. A quarter of the way around the lake, Grant runs the bow of the boat up on the bank. From here on, it will be wading and casting, wading and casting. Slow, steady, careful stalking. He threads the tippet through the eye of a tiny pan-fish popper.

"What do you call it when you can't get the line through this little eyelet?" he asks, a lopsided grin behind his long, outstretched arms.

"You call the eye doctor," says somebody who knows. The anguish of reading glasses after 40 years of better-than-perfect vision is a small corner on hell. But Grant casts fluently, easily, with the practiced eye of a man who has known the fly rod from boyhood. He hangs bluegills, small bass, crappies, releasing most of them gently, keeping a few of the bigger ones. "My kids are coming tomorrow and I want to give them a fish fry," he says. "Gosh, they eat a lot." The double taper snicks; the bug falls. Blurp! Another bluegill, this one the size of a salad plate. "They're a fine fish, a strong fish," says Bud as he watches the rod tip bend. "If you could breed them up to 20 or 30 pounds, they'd be the best fish in the world."

Now, with a few fish bulging in the wire-mesh, belt-hung fish bags, the talk swings back to football, and Grant reminisces. "No, I was never really an All-America at Minnesota. Second string. They only picked 11 guys in those days, the late '40s. You had to go both ways. Leo Nomellini was a teammate of mine, and he was a real All-America. But, whatever, I was the first draft choice of the Philadelphia Eagles. They offered me $7,500. I decided to play pro basketball instead, with the Minneapolis Lakers up in the Twin Cities." He hooks and plays a fair-sized crappie, eases out the hook, studies the fish, bags it. "After about two years of basketball I figured that was no way to make a living and I went back to football. Well, I was two years older, so the Eagles knocked $500 off of my price tag." He shakes his head and casts—snick, plop. "I'd been the 12th draft pick when I went into the National Basketball Association. I'd sure like to be the 12th pick now, with the money they're getting."

On the way back to the landing, a red-tailed hawk flies overhead. Grant watches it out of sight. He smiles again, that rara avis. "I woke up the other morning and there was a lot of squawking down at the dock. Stuck my head out of the window. A red-tail was shucking a mallard down there, right on the bank of my lake. He stared right back at me. One of my mallards. Oh, they're a damn fine bird, the red-tail."

The Buckhorn Tavern in downtown Gordon, Wis., just east of the railroad tracks, is festooned with the heads of dead deer. One of them wears an atypical rack, a webwork of crazy tines that leap off the main beams like the warped spikes of a railroad in hell. Old beer cans—collectors' items—stand atop the cooler with new beer cans inside. One of Bud's sons is a beer-can collector but that topic wears thin early. Grant munches a California burger, sips at a draft Schlitz. True son of the Progressive states. A photo of Bud Grant, coach, adorns the wall behind the bar under another glassy-eyed deer head.

"I played semipro baseball here after the war," he says. "If you could pitch and hit, too, you could make more money then in the semipros than in the American Association. I pitched three days a week at $50 to $75 a game, and I could hit, too, so that filled in the rest of the week. We barnstormed, as they say. We were the Galloping Gophers. One day I beat Gordon 6-0 and then went down to Rice Lake that night and beat them 7-1. It was a lot of fun."

He's totally relaxed now, feeling the ease of the day, the ease of the outdoors. The small tensions of the bluegills and crappies at the end of the fly tippet seem to have pulled the man out of his hard, cold shell. There is a gentleness of spirit about him, born of the outdoors. A woman, perhaps sensing this, approaches from the bar.

"Hi," she says, "I'm the only Viking fan in western Virginia."

Bud pulls into his shell. He is Coach Grant again.

"That's all Redskin country out there," the woman babbles. "You guys were undefeated when you came out there last year, weren't you? Eight and oh? And then you lost." She smiles, tentatively, sensing the change in his mood. He looks just a mite forbidding now. Eyes like icebergs under a clear sky.

"I don't talk football when I'm up here," he says. "Where you from originally?" She winds down into small-town chitchat, and Bud relaxes. Finally she introduces her husband, Grant gives them a Viking bumper sticker and they go away.

Across the street, Bud stops at the door of the IGA.

"I've got to get some raven food," he says. Then he winks and grins conspiratorially. "It's really dog food," he whispers, "but I tell them it's raven food."

Balance is restored.

But there are still questions to be asked, questions to be answered. In the framework of this land and this mood, it is doubtful that anything like a clear-cut resolution can be effected. The land, after all, was clear-cut long before these questions became imperative or even, for that matter, questionable.

The Old Oak Bar, an aging "motel" fraught with cabinettes and defective light bulbs, hunkers on a bluff overlooking the junction of the St. Croix and Eau Claire rivers just east of Gordon. Bob and Rita Tyman, the proprietors, have added a modern, indoor swimming pool and a bar that gleams with booze bottles and the noses of steady boozers.

Bud Grant is shooting a stick of pool—eight ball's the game—with a local schoolteacher named John Murray. A young man, Murray is pretending not to be awed by the presence of this TV celebrity, this name, this coach of an NFL team. Grant, by the same token, knowing that deep inside he is none of those things, is merely trying to be a local who happens to be shooting a stick of eight ball. If it weren't so poignant, it would be funny.

Squitch, squitch—the chalk. Click, clunk—the balls sinking. Click, click—a miss. Tinkle, glug—another drink gone. Bob Tyman pours and walks over, trying to hide the grin. He's serving Bud Grant. His wife Rita had seen Grant one day at the store. "He actually talked to the kids," she later reported with awe—a kind of touching awe, because it was so unnecessary. "No, they didn't dare ask him about football."

At the dinner table, after Grant won the pool game, the question arises as it must have lo these many months. What about the Staubach bomb? The 50-yard desperation pass to Drew Pearson that put the Cowboys in the 1976 Super Bowl and relegated the Vikings once again to also-rans?

An indefensible pass?

"No," says Grant. "There's really no such thing. There are passes and there are coverages, you know that. But we saw some film later that showed something very interesting about that pass. Something really professional. Pearson was down there but he wasn't open. Just as the ball is arriving—and it was a darn fine pass, right on the money—just then Nate Wright gets up in front of the ball. You can see him clear, his hands are cupped over his belly to take the interception. His eyes are all bugged out, focused on the ball—he's darn near got it. And then Pearson gives him this little shove on the hip. With his hand. Just a little shove, so that Nate moves away from the ball, up there in the air like he is, and the ball sticks in the crook between Pearson's elbow and his hip."

Grant looks down at the fried walleyed pike on a plate across the table. Shakes his head. Smiles again.

"Pearson had been a basketball player. That was a basketball player's move—that shove on the hip, where the ref couldn't see it. Not something obvious like a wild-eyed football player would do, not a wild lunge at the shoulders that you could call offensive interference. But a real smart basketball player's move. A professional move."

It would be absurd to ask if Grant thought it fair or foul. The answer lies in the tone of voice—a tone of professional respect. No whining here, just a shrug of the shoulders.

But what about the continuous frustration, the lost chances, the three times to the well, coming up dry each time? What kind of toll does that take from a man's professionalism, what kind of wreck does it make of the ego?

"Second isn't all that bad, you know," Grant says. There's a kind of Sam Spade grin on him now. Tough. Not really giving you the straight answer, but maybe one a bit straighter than the question. "You win and they want you to win again, and if you don't, they start to say things about you. You start to grab at things, you get showboat. You start to finish worse than second. Don't get me wrong—I want to win, I want to win it all, forever and ever amen. We've had some bad breaks, I suppose you could call them. But we've always been ready. Always prepared, and we always will be." He sips the last of his blackberry brandy.

"Oh, we've had some fine players on the Vikings. Bill Brown's retired now, but he was the definition of the word 'professional.' Dave Osborn's got himself a stock-car speedway near Minneapolis. He won't be around. But we've got dedication, plenty of it. Tarkenton is tough. He's what I mean by tough. He won't show the enemy when he's hurt. Last year, I remember, he was hit hard in one game, really hard, but he got up and trotted back to the bench. I'm standing there under the phones, hearing all the chatter, but I know he's hurting. There's tears in his eyes. It's a shoulder. But he wouldn't give the other guy the satisfaction."

Bud Grant walks out of the Old Oak Bar. The customers nod deferentially. Nobody asks him about football.

Bud Grant the trout fisherman?

No.

Bud Grant.

PHOTOJOHN IACONOPHOTOJOHN IACONODeep in bluegill country, Grant says that if you could breed the little panfish up to 30 pounds "they'd be the best in the world."PHOTOJOHN IACONOThis is the Great Stone Face Minnesotans unceremoniously boo during playoff defeats.