Bud Grant attended Kevin O’Connell’s introductory press conference last February. Grant heard the former quarterback discuss the illusion of complexity, collaborative leadership, and developing a championship standard. He watched as O’Connell answered questions about communication and culture.
Then he spent time with his children, Kaden and Quinn.
“Bud was one of the first people to warmly greet me when I walked through the doors of this facility,” said O’Connell in a statement after Grant’s passing on Saturday at age 95. “I didn’t realize at the time I would be so blessed to build a close friendship with him over the next year. Bud was gracious with his time, meeting in his office weekly to discuss football and life.”
In many ways, the Minnesota Vikings hired O’Connell in response to the end of Mike Zimmer’s regime. Things had gotten tense, and players felt that the Vikings had become an impersonal, fear-based organization. However, the Bill Parcells acolyte had instilled discipline and installed a stout defense that took Minnesota to the NFC Championship in 2017. His hard-nosed, old-school brand of football appeared more akin to the steely-eyed, no-nonsense Grant.
But Grant valued culture before culture was a buzzword. He built what O’Connell envisioned in his introductory press conference. O’Connell was 36 when the Vikings hired him; Grant was 39. He took over for Minnesota’s original coach, Norm Van Brocklin, in March 1967, installed discipline, and ruled stoically. He believed that football was a game of controlled emotion and that his teams would not follow his lead if he panicked or lost poise during a game.
Grant coached the Vikings until 1983, then returned for the 1985 season before retiring and becoming a team consultant. Minnesota lost to the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl IV in his third season. Grant’s Vikings returned four more times but lost to three dynasties: Don Shula’s Miami Dolphins, Terry Bradshaw’s Pittsburgh Steelers, and John Madden’s Oakland Raiders.
No other Vikings coach has reached the final game of the season.
Denny Green’s Vikings looked poised to in the late ‘90s. Despite parsimonious ownership, Green led Minnesota to an NFC Central Championship in 1992, his first year as head coach, and again in 1994. The Vikings drafted Randy Moss in 1998, who created the “Triple Threat” with Cris Carter and Jake Reed. However, the Atlanta Falcons beat them in NFC Championship after Gary Anderson’s lone missed field goal that season. Minnesota won the NFC Central again in 2000, but the New York Giants beat them 41-0 in the NFC Championship. The Vikings fired Green the following year.
Mike Tice was known for the Randy Ratio and the Love Boat. Brad Childress watched Brett Favre throw across his body in the 2009 NFC Championship against the New Orleans Saints; the Vikings fired him after a tumultuous season the following year. Leslie Frazier’s only winning season was Adrian Peterson’s MVP campaign in 2012. And Zimmer installed a mighty defense, but his teams hovered around .500 for most of his tenure. He spent eight years as head coach, but his teams never fully recovered from the Philadelphia Eagles shellacking them 38-7 in the NFC Championship.
Green, Childress, and Zimmer’s teams all got close to the big game, but each fell short in their own miserable ways. The Vikings have long been a successful organization with a franchise winning percentage that hovers near that of the Miami Dolphins, Kansas City Chiefs, San Francisco 49ers, and Pittsburgh Steelers. Unlike those teams, though, they have never won it all. Grant’s teams came the closest, and he’s created a standard that no other coach has surpassed in Minnesota.
When we describe Grant years from now, he’ll seem like an urban myth. He grew up in Superior, Wisc. and played football, basketball, and baseball at the University of Minnesota. The Philadelphia Eagles took him in the first round of the 1950 draft. However, he spurned them to play for the Minneapolis Lakers when he felt Philadelphia gave him a sub-par offer. He later joined the Eagles for two seasons, declined another sub-par offer, and signed with the CFL’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers. After his career ended at age 29, he took over as the coach in Winnipeg and won four championships in 10 years.
Grant was never cut or fired.
Despite his athletic accolades, he felt like an everyman, an avid outdoorsman who hosted garage sales. Grant left an indelible mark on the Vikings, not only as a head coach but as a team consultant. “No single individual more defined the Minnesota Vikings than Bud Grant,” the Wilfs said in a statement after Grant’s passing. “A once-in-a-lifetime man, Bud will forever be synonymous with success, toughness, the North, and the Vikings. In short, he was the Vikings.”
Grant saw the Vikings hire Green, Childress, and Zimmer. He witnessed them ascend toward the NFL’s mountaintop but never reach it. Last February, Grant watched O’Connell, a Sean McVay disciple fresh off a Super Bowl victory, discuss the illusion of complexity and collaborative leadership. He saw him describe how he was going to develop a championship standard. Grant witnessed O’Connell change the culture, win 13 games last year, and lose in the first round. Like every Vikings coach before him, O’Connell met the man whose legacy he was chasing, whose standard became impossible to meet.