EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- They grew up 350 miles apart, sons of coaches in football-addled towns along I-90 in Illinois and Ohio. Both Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman played quarterback for big high schools, then linebacker for small colleges in Illinois. They find themselves tripping over the same buzzwords, about tough, passionate football players, and when they sat down for Zimmer's first job interview last Wednesday in Cincinnati, something just clicked.
"I don't want to compare it, but it's like when I met my wife -- not that I had a lot of options," Spielman said. "But you just know."
Said Zimmer: "He was a coach's son and we grew up doing a lot of the same things. He is from Ohio and I'm from Illinois, but that is coaching areas, football areas. We've gone through a lot of the same things and I think when we were growing up. He is an honest guy, straightforward and I think that is how I am."
Spielman stepped into his first coaching search as the Vikings' general manager, armed with as much data as he could find about what to do next. He'd analyzed 13 different backgrounds from which head coaches emerge, and realized none was any more successful than another. If he was going to get it right -- and be successful in what might be his only chance to pick a head coach for the Vikings -- Spielman was going to have to trust his gut.
So he kept going back to the Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator he'd been hearing about for years, dating back to when Zimmer was working for the Dallas Cowboys and Spielman was in the Miami Dolphins' front office. He found what he believed was a kindred spirit, someone with whom he could partner, and Spielman told Vikings ownership this was who he wanted.
"As we were sitting there and got to know each other, (we) spent the majority of the time since he came up here, talking about our upbringing and our background and his dad being a coach, my dad being a coach," Spielman said. "A lot of the same philosophies and a lot of the same beliefs on how you develop a football team. That just really, really struck me."
If there was one thing that emerged from Leslie Frazier's final days as the Vikings' head coach, it was that he and Spielman didn't necessarily see eye-to-eye. Frazier hinted he didn't have the pieces to win at quarterback or full control over the decision about whom would play; Spielman intimated that Frazier needed to know he could make his quarterback decisions with the support of the front office, but he ultimately had to be responsible for the consequences. Spielman didn't decide to take the interim tag off Frazier's title after he replaced Brad Childress in 2010 -- ownership did -- and when the Vikings decided not to give Frazier a contract extension following a surprising 10-6 season in 2012, it always seemed possible that the team would be looking for a coach in a year, with Spielman running the process for the first time as a full-fledged GM.
Now Spielman and Zimmer are joined at the hip, and their futures might be, too. They need to solve a quarterback problem that's been festering for almost a decade (save for Brett Favre's 2009 season in Minnesota) and make the most of Adrian Peterson's final years in his prime. They have to solve a defense that gave up more points than any in the league last season, and spends six games each year facing Matthew Stafford, Jay Cutler and Aaron Rodgers.
If they can't, the 57-year-old Zimmer will probably be out of chances to be a head coach, and Spielman could be right behind him.
"I can get mad at people. I'm sure he can get mad at people, but we understand that both of our butts are responsible for each other, so the first time we say, 'The heck with you,' and we go in the other room and we don't come back out, it's over," Zimmer said. "Collectively, it's going to get over because we are going to do whatever we need to get fixed. I think I'm a fairly smart guy and I know he is a smart guy, so I think we are going to try to be smarter than that."
Spielman will retain the final say on personnel decisions, Zimmer will make the call on coordinators and his coaching staff, but if the partnership is going to work, the two will have to work well together. The Vikings haven't had a true coach-GM partnership for years, thanks to an odd power structure that often created confusion about who was really in charge, and the stakes will be high for both Zimmer and Spielman to make this one work.
That's part of the reason why, once Spielman had finished his initial round of interviews with seven coordinators, the one he wanted to bring back to meet ownership was the one who made him feel the fit was right.
"I told a lot of these (teams I've interviewed with), 'I've had a good career. I'm happy with what I've done. I'm going to be selective in what I do. Just because someone offers me a job, I won't take it unless it's the right one,'" Zimmer said. "I really felt good about the situation here. I felt really good about the people. To me, I think people are important, whether it's the players or the management or the ownership. To me those things are extremely, extremely important. And that's one of the things Bill (Parcells) talked to me about. He's told me several times, `Don't go to that place or don't do this or that.' But he didn't say that here."