To many Minnesota Viking players, general manager Mike Lynn has long had a reputation as a miserly version of the Wizard of Oz. He's the invisible authority figure who decides destinies with a wave of his hand. "When I joined the team, the veterans took me aside and said, 'That's Mike Lynn. He's the guy you have to worry about,' " says cornerback Carl Lee, a seven-year veteran. "Players on this team are conditioned to fear him."
Until recently, Lynn, 53, did little to dispel this image. He's the only general manager in the league who doesn't attend training camp. He never goes to practice, and until the last few weeks he avoided the locker room on game days. With an estimated annual salary of $1.5 million, Lynn is one of the highest-paid executives in the league. He wears expensive suits purchased at Fred Hay-man of Beverly Hills and owns a national historic landmark mansion in Holly Springs, Miss., where Ulysses S. Grant lived with his family while preparing for the Vicksburg Campaign.
But share the wealth? No way. Lynn regularly boasts about his low player payroll. Going into this season, the Vikings ranked 18th in the league in pay. His rookie wage scale, with its year-and-an-option contracts, cheap salaries and minuscule signing bonuses, is legendary. According to NFL Players Association figures, a rookie who signs with Minnesota is almost invariably the lowest paid of the players drafted in a given round.
One of Lynn's standard lines to agents during stalled negotiations is, "Tell your guy, 'Good luck driving a truck.' " As if that's not insulting enough, when Lynn finally gets the player's name on the dotted line, he brags about how he signed the poor stiff for much less than the market rate.
Lynn offers no apology for his way of doing business. "I'm not here to win a popularity contest," he says. "My most important function is the acquisition of players. Once they're signed, they're the responsibility of the head coach. They're working for him. That has always been my management style."
But during this year's training camp and the early part of the 1989 season, Lynn's impersonal style backfired, tearing apart a team that many observers had favored to win the NFC title. That crisis of bad feelings, which included charges of racism against Lynn, now seems to have passed, and Lynn has made an effort to be more sensitive to his players. A team that appeared on the verge of collapse a few weeks ago has recovered, perhaps remarkably, to win six of its last seven games and knock the Chicago Bears out of first place in the NFC Central division for the first time in 5½ seasons.
That doesn't mean the Vikings aren't struggling on the field. They'll show flashes of brilliance and then appear to lack leadership and direction. The Vikes' 24-10 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday was typical of their play this season. They won with defense—seven sacks and a fumble return for a touchdown—and a sputtering offense that ranks 19th in the league. They sustained only one long drive, though it was the clincher, a 76-yarder that consumed nearly eight minutes of the fourth quarter.
Running back Herschel Walker, who has had one spectacular performance—148 yards against Green Bay—since arriving from the Cowboys on Oct. 12, rushed for only 48 yards. At the moment, coach Jerry Burns considers Walker the team's third most effective back, behind Alfred Anderson and Rick Fenney, in trap-block plays. Before the Walker trade, the Vikings ran a split-back offense and used primarily trap and sweep blocking in short-yardage situations. Walker, however, prefers to line up in the I formation and has little experience running behind traps. Eventually, Burns says, Minnesota will run more than half its plays from the I.
Quarterback Wade Wilson, who had the NFL's highest completion percentage last season, has also had trouble getting in sync with the offense. He missed four starts with a broken knuckle on his left ring finger and hasn't thrown well since his return to the starting lineup two weeks ago. Against Tampa Bay, he wound up tied with Fenney for the team lead in rushing yardage. And in a 23-21 overtime victory over Los Angeles on Nov. 5, Minnesota scored all its points on seven field goals and a safety.
With six games to go, the Vikings are 7-3 but remain a question mark instead of a sure thing: a fabulously talented group of players who haven't dominated their opponents the way they were supposed to. "We're just not a team that's used to winning a lot," says wide receiver Leo Lewis. "We haven't quite come together. There have been periods in games when we haven't shown much emotion. We're missing a leader."
During the stretch drive to the playoffs, two questions remain. Have the Vikings overcome their resentment of Lynn? And do they have the capacity to continue to raise the level of their game?
The first signs of the Vikes' troubles came in late July. Minnesota was coming off an 11-5 season, after which nine Vikings, the largest number from any NFL team, had made the Pro Bowl. Lynn had informed eight of those players that he was willing to re-sign them or extend their contracts. (The exception was tackle Gary Zimmerman, who had received a new contract before the 1988 season.) Five other prominent veterans were unsigned. But when training camp opened, only Wilson had a new contract, a four-year, $4.35 million deal. Nine players were missing, including eight starters.
"I knew this [the contract disputes] would slow our development as a team," says Burns. "We had talented people. I didn't want them thinking, 'I' or 'me.' I wanted them thinking, 'we' and 'us.' "
Although four players—cornerback Reggie Rutland, middle linebacker Scott Studwell, running back Darrin Nelson and Lewis—came to terms on contracts during the first two weeks of the preseason, the negotiations left them, and the rest of the Vikings, drained and bitter. They saw that Stud-well, a 13-year veteran, had to go to the wall to squeeze out a $500,000 salary. "It was money, money, money, every day," says Lee. "Guys were saying, 'Money is all I care about.' "
Normally passive tight end Steve Jordan was transformed into a vocal militant by his negotiations, which dragged out until Sept. 6, when he signed a $2.1 million three-year contract. Safety Joey Browner, a black belt in Bugei Kai Bujutsu, threatened to quit football and take up acting in martial arts movies. Browner, who was coming off his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl season, wanted a $1 million annual salary instead of the $350,000 he was scheduled to make. Lynn refused; Browner said he wanted out. Defensive end Chris Doleman, who was to pull down $400,000 in 1989 but wanted to be compensated like fellow Pro Bowl end Bruce Smith of the Buffalo Bills ($1.2 million), angrily broke off his negotiations, saying he would test the free-agent waters in February '90. Star wide receiver Anthony Carter, who was to earn $450,000, demanded to be traded unless he was raised to $1 million. Doleman, Browner and Carter have yet to sign new contracts.
The bad feelings toward Lynn intensified when the Vikings traveled to Memphis to play the Kansas City Chiefs in their first preseason game. The day before the game, Lynn threw a lavish party for his friends and the press at his Holly Springs mansion. Two Minneapolis TV stations broadcast live from the shindig, and one interspersed its reports with footage from Gone with the Wind. Several black players were upset by the juxtaposition of the movie's Civil War and slavery scenes with Lynn's party. They jumped to the conclusion that Lynn had grown up in the South, and they wondered if he was racially biased.
Even though they routed the Houston Oilers 38-7 in the season opener, the Vikings' morale remained low. They then lost 38-7 to the Bears and 27-14 to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Linebacker Jesse Solomon, who held out all of training camp before signing a one-year deal, designed T-shirts and caps emblazoned with the slogan 45 FOR 1.
"It's a takeoff on the team's theme this season, 40 for 60, which means 40 guys playing all out for 60 minutes," says Solomon, who was sent to the Cowboys in the Walker deal. "My slogan, 45 for 1, means 45 playing for one—Mike Lynn."
To help ward off an avalanche of ill will, Burns called a players-only meeting on Sept. 25. It was a disaster. Several Vikings worried aloud that money issues were keeping the team from focusing on football. Lee pointed a finger at Wilson's contract and implied that Wilson's negotiations had gone quickly because Wilson is white. Then Lee, Solomon and Doleman discussed why they felt that management was racist.
Burns appointed Lee and Jordan to discuss the players' feelings with Lynn, and several meetings ensued. Lynn decided it was time to show a more human side. He reminded Lee and Jordan that he was from Scranton, Pa., not the South. And he told them that he came from a working-class background. When he was 12, his father died of a brain tumor, and a few weeks later his mother was severely injured in a car accident. She and her four children were forced to subsist on a $30-a-month welfare check. Lynn told the players that he moved to Memphis, as a theater manager, in 1962, and that he later was active in the integration of movie houses, staged two historic football games involving four black colleges and worked to register black voters.
Meanwhile, Browner, who is black but had not voiced an opinion about racism at the Sept. 25 meeting, insinuated in a national TV interview on Oct. 1 that Lynn was a racist. To complicate matters, only one other Viking, defensive end Doug Martin, who also is black, stood behind Browner. When the press asked Browner to cite examples of Lynn's racism, he wouldn't. He talked only of "perceptions."
"The real question is, Why did Joey get hung out to dry?" says guard Dave Huffman, who is white. "Joey isn't one to say anything rash. He's not a troublemaker. If he sees a problem, then you'd better look into it. I don't perceive a race problem on this team. I think it's a player-management problem. But I may be totally off base. It was terrible that Joey was left dangling in the wind."
Wilson and Browner kept their disappointment in their teammates to themselves. "I let it die," says Wilson. "It was like a crack in a dam. Patch it up immediately or it'll break through."
Says Browner, "It was draining to me. But I'm a man. I learned to accept [the consequences of] what I said and play harder. I've promised not to speak about this any further. I don't want to do anything that will break the team apart."
In the weeks since the controversy over the racial charges, Lynn has started visiting the locker room before and after games. He is also predicting that Minnesota will become one of the five best-paid teams in the league by next season.
"I truly believe everybody knows we have a good thing going," says defensive tackle Keith Millard, who signed a three-year, $2.5 million contract in September. "A real good thing. We have a good system, with good players. We have a good chance to go to the Super Bowl. We've all realized you don't come across this very often. We've put aside any personal differences. We're doing everything within our power to win."
So far, it's working.