Mike Zimmer had waited so long and interviewed so many times to be an NFL head coach that he almost turned down the Minnesota Vikings’ request to talk this offseason.
Now that he is finally in the top job, it hasn’t taken the longtime defensive coordinator long to discover that being a head coach is about so much more than actual coaching.
Zimmer’s Vikings have been in the eye of the NFL crisis storm this week after star running back Adrian Peterson was benched, then reinstated, then told to stay away while he addresses child abuse charges in Texas.
Suspended receiver Jerome Simpson was cut when more trouble with the law was revealed and Zimmer spent the week answering questions about abuse, discipline, fatherhood and morality while getting his team ready for a game at New Orleans.
It’s been a crash course for the first-time head coach, who is trying to keep a rattled team focused in the aftermath of so much controversy.
“I don’t know that you’re ever prepared for all the things that happen. At least, I wasn’t,” Zimmer said. “You deal with each one of them, you go on, you get back to work and get going.”
Zimmer has been a coach in the NFL since 1994, with 13 seasons spent in the pressure cooker with the Dallas Cowboys and another six years in Cincinnati, where the Bengals routinely had to deal with players who ran afoul of the law.
But being the one that everybody looks to for answers when things go wrong — both on and off the field — is a new experience for him, and he’s gotten a crash course in crisis management in his first few months on the job.
It all reached a head this week, when the Vikings admittedly bungled the handling of Peterson’s allegations. Peterson was indicted last Friday and the team deactivated him for the game last weekend against New England, only to reinstate him on Monday, a decision that caused an uproar with fans, media and, perhaps most importantly, corporate sponsors.
Along with GM Rick Spielman, Zimmer took the heat on Monday, saying he was supporting his player, who spanked his 4-year-old son with a wooden switch, and waiting for the legal process to play out before making a final judgment.
Then sponsors such as Radisson hotels, Nike, Papa John’s and Anheuser-Busch began either pulling out of deals or expressing concern about the situation, and the Vikings responded on Wednesday by placing Peterson on the exempt-commissioner’s permission list, which means he will get paid while being away from the team and addressing the charges.
Two days after standing behind Peterson, Zimmer was at the podium again discussing the about-face.
“Quite honestly, there is no manual that you can go back and look through and figure out all of this stuff,” Zimmer said. “You continually do what you think is right. The organization continually does what they think is right, and then you move on.”
Adversity is nothing new to him. Zimmer has seen players arrested, coached teams that have been disappointments and even dealt with the in-season exodus of a head coach when Bobby Petrino bolted from the Atlanta Falcons with three games left in the 2007 season.
Worst of all, Zimmer’s wife died during the season in 2009. Then the defensive coordinator with the Bengals, Zimmer stayed with the team and they went on to win the AFC North title. Zimmer has shared that story with the Vikings this week, trying to assure them that all is not lost and that Peterson’s absence can be overcome.
“I think it was a strong point that no matter what we’re still going to go out there on Sunday,” quarterback Matt Cassel said. “As I said before, the other teams, our opposition isn’t going to feel sorry for us when we get out there. The one thing that we have to do is go out there and play good football.”
Zimmer said he has spoken with Bill Parcells about how to handle situations like he has faced this week and has tried to strike a balance between addressing the Peterson and Simpson situations with his players while also keeping their focus on their trip to New Orleans to face the Saints (0-2) on Sunday.
“I think the biggest thing is I’ve always considered myself a football coach. I am not a Speaker of the House or anything like that,” Zimmer said.
“What I do is I get in the film room, I start working on what we have to do, start figuring out how we can get this team better. I won’t say that at the beginning, things weren’t easy, but we have a job to do and we get paid to do this. Quite honestly, it’s what we love to do, so it’s kind of our refuge anyway.”
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