EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- When he became the Minnesota Vikings' head coach in January, Mike Zimmer got a message from one of his coaching mentors, Bill Parcells, with three points about the hardships of the job Zimmer was about to start. The second point on that list was this: "Four or five things happen in pro football every day that you wish wouldn't happen. If you can't handle those, you need to get another job."
If there's been an overriding theme of Zimmer's first half-season as the Vikings' head coach, that might be it. He saw Adrian Peterson get arrested before the second game of the season, lost Matt Cassel, Kyle Rudolph and Brandon Fusco in the third, was forced to sit Teddy Bridgewater in the fifth and had dealt with two other players in legal trouble by Week 6. He coached with kidney stones in Buffalo on Oct. 19, and saw the Vikings fall to 2-5 on a last-second touchdown. And yet, the team heads into its bye week at 4-5 after victories over a pair of last-place teams roused a flickering playoff hope.
The Vikings probably aren't ready to make a postseason push this year, but there are signs of progress, particularly with a defense that leads the league in sacks and is ranked ninth in pass defense after an offseason overhaul. On Monday, during his final news conference before the bye week, Zimmer said, "I do believe we're building what I envisioned this football team to look like."
After that news conference, Zimmer sat down in his office with ESPN for a longer interview about his first half-season as the Vikings' head coach and what he expects to happen next. We'll post parts of that interview throughout the rest of this week. Here's the first section of our interview:
In the time you've been the head coach, I'm sure a lot of things probably didn't go the way you drew it up, but has the job itself been about what you expected? Has any part of it surprised you?
Mike Zimmer: Some of the scenarios surprised me a little bit -- the coach (special teams coordinator Mike Priefer) being suspended, and Adrian, and the quarterback getting hurt. You understand the injury part of things, but some of the other things surprise me. Honestly, dealing with the media has been more than I thought it would be. The coaching part has not been overwhelming or anything like that. The schedules were no fun to do, but I think we kind of smoothed those things out. I thought training camp went smooth. I guess, in more ways than one, I've felt pretty comfortable."
When those things come up that do surprise you, what do you draw on to manage them?
Zimmer: A lot of things in the past, but sometimes I'll talk to [offensive coordinator] Norv [Turner] about some of the situations, because he's been through them a lot. I talk to [general manager] Rick [Spielman], obviously. But I guess I just kind of do what I think I need to do. Sometimes it's pulling players in here and talking to them about performances. Sometimes it's getting after them. It's just coaching that point."
You've talked about creating a culture here, or setting expectations. What have you found is the most effective way to do that? Is it harder to do when you're managing a whole team and not just a defense?
Zimmer: Sometimes I get frustrated because I want us to do things better than what we're doing. I try to be consistent with everything I'm trying to do. I think some of it is, just the way I talk to the team, the things I preach to them every day or in the meetings. It hasn't been harder to do it with the team, as opposed to just the defense, but I know as coaches, we talked a lot about -- because I'll get frustrated sometimes, and they'll say, 'Hey, you're trying to create a new culture, you're trying to do all those things.' I said, 'I know, but I expect it to go faster.' And then I think back to Cincinnati -- it was different defensively, but it was kind of the same. We were trying to create a mindset and a toughness and a physicality, and playing smart, and playing a team concept. I guess, sometimes it just doesn't happen quite as fast as I want it to. I have to realize, it's not done in a week. It takes time. But that's the thing I like a little bit about where we're at. You've got guys like [Anthony] Barr and Teddy Bridgewater. Barr is a young guy that's a really good football player, and as a rookie, he doesn't say very much because he kind of understands his place. Teddy's a little bit the same way. But three years from now, when those guys are in their third year and they're really good football players and they're the leaders of this football team, if we keep bringing up the right kind of guys and teaching them exactly how we want it, that could be pretty exciting to see. Not that I want to wait three years, but I can see Teddy and Anthony Barr being the cornerstones of this franchise in three years.
What is it about that process of creating expectations that takes longer than it seems like it should? Is it just the nature of having 53 guys trying to get on the same page?
Zimmer: Honestly, I don't feel like I've had a problem with these guys following me. It's just doing things the way I want them done all the time. I think that's what makes good teams. I was listening to B-Rob [Brian Robison] the other day -- he was talking to somebody about how the defensive line is expected to know what the defensive backs are doing. That's kind of the culture I'm trying to get through. I think if everybody knows what everybody's doing, you all play better. I guess that's what it's really all about: getting everybody on the team on the same page.
You talked about "Zimmer being Zimmer" (on Oct. 13) after you talked about increasing fines for players being late (after a loss to Detroit). Did you learn something from that experience about how much further your words travel as a head coach, and how many more people are listening?
Zimmer: (Laughs) I don't know. I just keep being me. I just keep trying to be me. I don't want to portray anything that's phony or anything else. The one thing I do notice is that, because I'm doing so many press conferences, it's like, a lot more people listen to what I say than really I listen to what I say, if that makes sense. I try to be respectful, and there's always things you're going to hold back, but I'm pretty straight-on. That's just how I'm wired, I guess.