Easy going Tice takes over
By John Clayton
MANKATO, Minn. -- Monday night was typical for Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Tice. Anticipating that his assistants would be hungry after a long day of prep following a day off, Tice drove out of Vikings camp to a nearby restaurant for some carry-out Buffalo wings. He parked his car, ran into the restaurant and put in his order.
A concerned fan notified him that his car was being towed. Nah, he said. Turns out that the media-friendly coach had parked in a space for the local newspaper, the Mankato Free Press. Tice paid $10 for a ride to the towing yard, peeled out $60 for the towing fee and returned in time for late evening meeting. Undaunted, Tice got his coaches the wings after the meeting.
That's Tice. Generous. Thoughtful. Caring. What made him successful as a 14-year veteran tight end was his ability to get inside the minds of those around him. He anticipated and adapted. A 6-foot-7 quarterback in college, Tice sensed his big body had a better chance than his arm, so he became a tight end for the expansion Seattle Seahawks. As an assistant, he used his knowledge of techniques to become an offensive line coach.
"Our head coach is feisty and he's got a fiery attitude," halfback Michael Bennett said. "He's played the game before. He's more of a players' coach. He's always got a smile on his face unless you piss him off, and if you piss him off, he'll cuss you out and then laugh about it. He's a wonderful guy to be around."
Offensive linemen loved him because Tice stresses toughness. Football is hitting, but it also requires the right balance between brains and brawn. While most teams are dividing into two offensive camps -- the West Coast offense and the updated Air Coryell offense run by the Rams -- Tice split the difference. He is using the Joe Gibbs system that made the Washington Redskins three time Super Bowl champs. That plan has the Coryell downfield game, but it also features two-, three- and sometimes four-tight end formations that features the collisions that run-blockers love.
"He gets instant respect because he's played, because of his stature and he has that deep voice," said Matt Birk, whom Tice turned from a Harvard grad into one of the game's best centers. "That's good at keeping young players on edge. As a young player, you are never going to mail it in on certain days because you are kinda scared of him. Mike will go for whatever motivational tactic that works. His personality is so much different than Dennis Green's. Things are a little more at ease, but there is lot more chatter in practices. There's more yelling back and forth. Practices are more physical. He'll end up practice with some kind of competition where you will have guys talking crap back and forth."
The Vikings are young. Green maintained a decade of excellence in keeping the Vikings a playoff contender, but the longevity had a toll on the roster. For years, the defense suffered in order for Green to maintain high-priced stars on offense. Owner Red McCombs didn't open his checkbook, but Tice made some smart moves to begin the rebuilding on defense. He went for young hustlers. Kenny Mixon and Lorenzo Bromell were brought in from the Miami Dolphins to make the defensive line more competitive. He also brought in solid players such as linebacker Henri Crockett, cornerback Corey Chavous and safety Ronnie Bradford to start.
But Tice understands priorities. With Cris Carter retired, Tice needed to establish a relationship with wide receiver Randy Moss. The two talked a lot through the offseason. Moss wanted to be more of a leader for years. Tice understands that Moss is a playmaker who wants to the ball, so he designed the offense so that Moss could easily catch more than 120 passes this season.
"Randy has been outstanding," Tice said. "He's matured as a man and as a football player this offseason. Ask anybody who has been around him, including the media, and they can't believe in the transformation. He's done very, very well."
Moss, who still spends a bulk of his offseason in the Miami area, spent a good portion of the offseason in Minneapolis. He'd run with the rookies and first-year players at 8 a.m. He's taken new players under his wing and shows them the town. What was once a locker room controlled by Carter, Robert Griffith and John Randle is now one centered around Moss, quarterback Daunte Culpepper, defensive tackle Chris Hovan and Birk.
"I think we have a coach that everybody respects and likes," Moss said. "I think the unity here is good, best since I've been here. Ask the New England Patriots about the value of unity and they will tell you. I believe that's very important to win a championship."
If the weekend dual practices against the Kansas City Chiefs are a preview of the new Randy, watch out NFL. Chiefs defenders raved as though they had just scrimmaged in a basketball game against Michael Jordan. Moss made one-handed leaping catches in the back of the end zone while double covered. He torched corners with his deep speed. He'd catch short passes and leave defenders flatfooted and frustrated.
Tice's plan is to let Moss not only run the routes he was used to, but to also give Moss the shorter possession routes Carter once ran. They are calling it the Randy Ratio, getting the ball into Moss's hands on more than 50 percent of the passing downs.
The picture of Tice in practices remains consistent. He's the only NFL coach who has a No. 2 pencil resting on his right ear. Often, he'll take the pencil and jot down an observation. This is a society that went from pencils to pens. Just call Tice old school.
"I use a pencil because you can erase instead of crossing something out," Tice said. "Anybody who knows me knows that I'm meticulous to the point of being anal. I don't like chaos. I don't like things in disarray. What drives me crazy is when people don't pay attention to detail. I'm old school because of my upbringing in New York and my dad being a blue-collar guy. You fashion yourself as old school, but so much of it is caring for the people who work for me or I work with. I try to get inside their minds and what they think, so I can adjust and make it better."
Hence the need for an eraser. Tice has to adjust. The Vikings don't have the playoff talent of Green's teams. They dropped to 5-11 last season. Tice continues to adjust on the fly.
This is how he's handling two difficult situations. The first is at left tackle where first-round choice Bryant McKinnie is embroiled in what could be a lengthy holdout. McKinnie wasn't in the greatest shape at the team's late spring minicamps, but Tice knows he needs McKinnie's skills to protect the blind side of his quarterback, Culpepper.
Tice also knows that time is running out to prepare McKinnie to be the starter for the first game. On Tuesday, he let Birk handle three plays of practice at left tackle. If the holdout continues past Aug. 12, Birk will be the fulltime left tackle and Cory Withrow will be the center.
Culpepper doesn't want to lose his Pro Bowl center and he also wants McKinnie, so on Tuesday, Culpepper searched out McKinnie's phone number along with a few teammates to see if they could help settle the differences.
Another situation is at split end. D'Wayne Bates, signed to be the third receiver, has had a great camp. Derrick Alexander, the more talented deep threat, has been idle with a groin injury. Culpepper needs Alexander on the practice field to start getting down their timing. Time is a wasting. So Tice sent Alexander to get an MRI, which confirmed that the injury was a small tear, but considered a strain. He also told Alexander that if he doesn't practice, he won't play.
Alexander is trying to get on the practice field by next week.
After Tice retired from football, he started a business in the Seattle area to fill the horse racing fix for those upset that the thoroughbred track had close. Tice organized charter buses to a track south of Seattle. That led to a company that chartered buses to concert events two hours away in an amphitheater.
In retrospect, the NFL is easier.
"The bus company job entailed running a bunch of people who wanted to party, get drunk and complain a lot," Tice said.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.