Growing up the son of an NFL coach can have its advantages and drawbacks.
Minnesota Vikings linebackers coach Adam Zimmer felt it was important to get out from his father’s shadow after years of in-home instruction.
Growing up, Adam said his dad, Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer, mostly kept his work at the office, but also took time to help Adam as a developing defensive back. Once Adam’s college career was done, he spent seven years coaching in the NFL away from his dad, but after gaining experience elsewhere, Adam came back to a familiar place as a position coach under Mike’s guidance once again.
It started as an assistant coach with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2013, and then, finally, working for head coach Mike Zimmer after the Vikings gave Mike his first shot at becoming an NFL head coach in 2014.
After four years as a defensive back at Trinity University in Texas, Adam was a defensive assistant for three years with the New Orleans Saints, then the assistant defensive backs coach there in 2009. He moved on to become the defensive assistant and assistant linebackers coach with the Kansas City Chiefs from 2010-12 and finally joined his dad with the Cincinnati Bengals as an assistant defensive backs coach in 2013.
When Mike became the head coach of the Vikings, the move with his father was an easy decision, but he felt the experience gained away from his dad’s system prior to joining the Bengals was a good choice.
“I thought that was important to kind of establish my own identity and personality as a coach and have my ideas,” Adam said last month. “I was lucky enough to work under Gregg Williams and Romeo Crennel, who are completely different styles of defenses than what we run here or anywhere else. So now I’ve got a broad picture and have some ideas that might be different than he’s done that might be good for us here. I think those were some good years for me.
“I’ve seen guys follow their dads around with every job and I didn’t want to be that guy just following dad around from place to place and only have a job because he was there. I think he hired me in Cincinnati because I had the stripes on the wall to do the job.”
Those stripes began appearing at an early age. As a kid, Adam would often attend practices for the Dallas Cowboys, where Mike was a defensive coach and then coordinator.
It was there that one of the best cornerbacks to ever play the game formed a bond with young Adam.
“Deion Sanders was probably the biggest one. Deion kind of took me under his wing. He would always be talking to me at training camp and when I was playing baseball he would take me to the batting cages and work on my swing with me and stuff,” Adam said. “Deion and I go way back. I actually saw him at the airport (this spring) and he said, ‘Let me take a picture’ so we took one and sent it to my dad.”
Adam’s attendance at Cowboys practices gave him a different view of dad. A family man at home, Mike gained the reputation of a hard-nosed coach willing to send a blue streak toward a player not living up to expectations.
That on-field personality still remains with Mike, but seeing it for the first time as a kid left an impression with Adam.
“The language is definitely different here than it is at home. He really didn’t swear or anything around my mom or my sisters, but I would see that when I would come to practice and I’d see him in his element. He wasn’t going to change because I was there. He was definitely more of a family guy and normal guy around us as a family,” Adam said.
“I don’t remember the first time, but I remember being on the sideline with him a couple of times for Cowboys games and he would break a board over his knee or something. One time he did and Bill Bates, one of his safeties, came up to me and said, ‘Can you believe your dad broke that board of his knee?’ He had probably seen it all the time, but that was the first I’d seen of it and the first I remember seeing him really getting mad.”
While Mike is often seen calling out a player in practice, Adam appears more docile, but he certainly gained a love of the game at an early age. He still has pictures of when he was young and Mike was coaching at Weber State and Washington State, with Adam lounging around on the tackling dummies and soaking in the football atmosphere.
“I’ve always loved the game and I’ve wanted to be a part of it and I knew I probably wasn’t going to be good enough to play (in the NFL). But I had been around the game a long time and felt like I had a good knowledge of it,” Adam said. “Once I was in high school playing, that was pretty much the plan. I went to Trinity pretty much thinking that was going to prepare me to be a coach.”
It certainly helped.
In nine seasons in the NFL, Adam has coached on four playoff teams, including the Saints’ 2009 Super Bowl season, and dealt with a number of impressive players. In addition to some of the linebackers that made an impression with the Vikings last year, Zimmer has helped coach Tamba Hali, Justin Houston and Derrick Johnson with the Chiefs.
But he says Mike never pushed him into becoming a coach.
“He had a lot of high expectations for me, which was good. He was hard on me at times, but he was really supportive with whatever I did,” Adam said. “He didn’t push me into football. He didn’t push me in any certain direction. I got to spend a lot of time with him on the football field just going to work with him, so it was a really good experience.”
Adam admits he believes Mike expects plenty from his son because he wants him to be good, but the respect is obviously there for what Mike has accomplished.
“He wants me to be as good as he is. I always say if I’m half as good a coach as he is, I’ll be pretty good,” Adam said. “I don’t really think it’s expecting me to do more, it’s just holding me to a tougher (standard) than some others because he wants me to be good at what I’m doing.”
While Adam continues to work his way up the NFL coaching ladder, Mike finally reached a long-time goal of his and one he wasn’t sure would ever come his way. After being turned down for numerous head coaching jobs over the past decade, Mike finally got his chance when the Vikings hired him in January 2014.
But it wasn’t without some doubt. Mike admitted he nearly didn’t come for a second interview because of all the heartache his past rejections caused. He wasn’t sure his chance to become a head coach would ever come, and Adam had seen the hurt that caused.
“There were a couple times where we thought it was a done deal and he was going to get the job. I can see how he was frustrated and we were all frustrated for him because he would go in the tank for a while after those interviews,” Adam said. “But we also tried to be positive with him. I always said, ‘The right one is going to come. You might not see it now, but you’ll be happy that you didn’t get some of these.’ I think he’s starting to see that now here because there’s a good group here and a good organization to work for. It just had to be the right situation.”
Adam said Mike has never been overbearing or had the attitude that it’s his way or the highway, but he simply believes it was never the right fit between Mike and the owners with which he previously interviewed. They simply believe they are in a good situation now and “all things happen for a reason,” Adam said.
Years ago, they couldn’t have predicted Mike would be the head coach of the Vikings and Adam would his linebackers coach. But the foundation of that situation started construction a couple decades ago at home with Mike the coach and Adam the pupil.
Back then, the talks weren’t centered around the X’s and O’s of the game, rather the techniques that Adam could work on as a developing defensive back. The first time Adam delved deeply into defensive schemes was when he worked under Gary Gibbs in New Orleans.
Still, some of the characteristics of Mike have rubbed off on Adam.
“I’m a perfectionist like he is. I want everything to be right all the time. I think we’re both pretty fiery, competitive,” Adam said. “I’m not going to be as vocal as he is or cuss out players as much as he does, but I’m just as competitive as he is. On game day I’m into it and nervous like he is. He probably takes losses harder than anybody I know. I take them hard, too, but not that bad.”
Mike and Adam are a rare father-son coaching combination in which each has a Lombardi Trophy to his credit. Mike earned his with the Cowboys and Adam with the Saints.
But before Adam was a coach, there was a balance at home.
“Every Friday night we would have a family dinner because he would get off a little earlier. Saturdays when they were home, he’d spend most of the day home with us and then I would go to the games with him and spend all day Sunday with him mostly,” Adam said. “And then in the offseason we’d always take a nice family vacation in June and he’d have a week off in March and we’d spend time together. I think he did about as good as you can (balancing the football and family life). And we were also lucky that we didn’t have to move around a bunch, so we were in Dallas the whole time and we were stable so I thought the family thing, I don’t ever feel like he was away from us for too long. He did a great job of being in our lives.”
For the last two years, that time together had extended to the workplace.
Adam Zimmer: Growing up the coach’s son
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