EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The long wait to be an NFL head coach didn't cost Mike Zimmer his confidence.
After 35 years in the game as an assistant and two full decades in the league, his opportunity has finally arrived with Minnesota. Zimmer's self-assured style, the edge softened by down-to-earth Midwest roots, helped him be successful. It's one of the reasons the Vikings gave him the job.
"Sometimes you wonder. But I have a lot of confidence in myself. I feel like I was destined to do this, and for the first couple of days I've been here, that office upstairs feels really comfortable," Zimmer said at his introductory news conference Friday.
"I've got a chip on my shoulder. I want to make sure that 31 other teams know that I'm here and I'm ready to coach this football team."
General manager Rick Spielman led interviews of seven candidates, with owners Zygi Wilf and Mark Wilf joining in. Zimmer was the only one invited to team headquarters for a second, more-in-depth examination. The straight talk, leadership skills and strategic expertise set Zimmer apart.
"He's going to push you as hard as he can. But every person, to a man, talked about how much they loved playing for coach Zimmer," Spielman said.
Over the last 14 seasons as an NFL defensive coordinator, six most recently with Cincinnati, Zimmer developed a reputation as a demanding, intense, rant-prone coach. The HBO behind-the-scenes show "Hard Knocks," which twice filmed Bengals training camp, helped raise his fiery profile with swearing-like-a-sailor clips from practice and games.
For those close to him, and for Zimmer himself, that's an exaggerated persona.
"I think I'm an honest person. I think I'm sincere. All I want to do is make each player better no matter how that is," Zimmer said.
Zimmer and Spielman already appeared to have a rapport in place. Crafting the roster is Spielman's responsibility, but the head coach is a huge part of it. Neither of them expressed any concern about conflict from bluntness; rather, they welcomed it.
"We understand that both of our butts are responsible for each other," the 57-year-old Zimmer said.
When the interim tag was taken off coach Leslie Frazier in 2011, the Wilfs made that call. Spielman was promoted the year after, so this was his first head coach hire.
"There's no secret sauce, that this guy has to have this personality or come from this category," Spielman said. "It's just got to be the gut feeling, what you think is the right fit. There was no question he is the right fit for us."
With Norv Turner in line to be the offensive coordinator and George Edwards on track to be the defensive coordinator, Zimmer has begun to assemble his staff. He declined to speak specifically about assistant coaches; his son, Adam, an assistant defensive backs coach this season in Cincinnati, attended the news conference with Zimmer's daughters, Marki and Corri.
Zimmer said he plans on being "very" involved in the calls on defense on game day, but whether the Vikings stay in their 4-3 alignment or switch to a 3-4 scheme has yet to be determined. His philosophy is to fit the system around the players, rather than the other way around, and that has produced plenty of success.
The Bengals made significant strides under his guidance in almost every statistical measure. Over the last three years, Cincinnati allowed an average of 18.8 points per game, the fourth-best mark in the league.
His hard-driving approach had a lot to do with that, but so did his care for the players he was coaching. As his adult children attested, there's a softer side to the man most people only see yelling on the sideline on TV.
"If you steer off the wrong path, he'll let you know, just like his players. But if you're doing good," Corri Zimmer said, then he'll be their biggest fan.
Zimmer's biggest fan wasn't there to watch his moment on the stage, but she was in spirit. His wife, Vikki, died unexpectedly in 2009.
"She would be real proud today," Zimmer said. "She would be real proud."
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