Kevin O’Connell remembers Bud Grant telling him to have a short memory after one of their weekly meetings at the Minnesota Vikings facility in Eagan. Naturally, that message came after a loss. But O’Connell said Grant told him that regularly, even as the Vikings got out to an 8-1 start. Especially after Minnesota’s 33-30 overtime win over the Buffalo Bills. Why?
Because a week after the Vikings pulled off a miracle win in Buffalo, the Dallas Cowboys beat them 40-3. By then, O’Connell had taken Grant’s message to heart.
When we’re winning a few games, he kept telling me, ‘Have a short memory.’ Because, on this very field, when it didn’t go our way, even in the slightest against the Dallas Cowboys, what do you think he said to me after that game? Short memory.
So the wisdom, and there’s time and time again, I think back to the conversations, even all the way up to the last one when we played the Giants in the playoffs. There was just wisdom there. Never overbearing. Always authentic, always real from the standpoint of genuinely caring about me and my family and knowing what it was like, times 1000, to be the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings.
Grant always emphasized having a work-life balance, which O’Connell took to heart. O’Connell is married and has four kids; Grant had six. Minnesota’s all-time winningest coach didn’t glorify sleeping in the office. He’d regularly go hunting on Saturdays before games on Sundays. Grant was confident he had prepared his team. He did it his way. Sternly, stoically, and without acknowledging the bitter cold.
O’Connell hasn’t perfectly emulated Grant, nor does he aspire to. Grant led without yelling, but he was not particularly warm, either. His steely blue eyes pierced into the souls of his players. He commanded respect with his presence alone. Conversely, O’Connell personally greets his players before warm-ups and frequently discusses collaborating with them. At age 37, he acts more as a peer than an authoritarian. He’s California cool but also warm as the sun peering through the U.S. Bank Stadium roof. O’Connell is also doing it his own way.
Grant is a reminder that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. Born in Superior, Wisc., he was an avid hunter and outdoorsman. He held garage sales. He also happened to play football, basketball, and baseball in high school and college. Paul Brown coached Grant when he was in the Navy. The Philadelphia Eagles took Grant in the first round of the NFL Draft; the Minneapolis Lakers selected him in the fourth round of the NBA Draft.
He played two for his best friend, the late sportswriter and Lakers GM Sid Hartman, and won a championship in 1950. Grant then played defensive end and wide receiver for two years in Philadelphia before leaving over a contract dispute. He finished his professional career with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, then coached them from 1957-1966, winning four championships. Grant coached the Vikings from 1967 to 1983 and returned in 1985 before retiring. He won an NFL Championship in 1969 but never a Super Bowl. It’s the one thing that eluded an accomplished player and coach who never got cut, never fired.
The New York Jets cut O’Connell during an episode of Hard Knocks. O’Connell set records at San Diego State, his hometown FBS school. The New England Patriots drafted him in the third round of the 2008 draft, only to cut him a year later. O’Connell only played in two games, completing four of six passes for 23 yards. He became a journeyman, joining the Patriots, Detroit Lions, Jets, Miami Dolphins, and San Diego Chargers either on the practice squad or the active roster. Last year, he beat four of those five teams. The Vikings will play the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 3 this year.
But O’Connell isn’t out for personal revenge. He wants to do something no coach has ever done before, even Grant. Win it all. Bring a Super Bowl to Minnesota. Grant did what he could to help O’Connell before he passed on March 11. He was a consultant and a friend. Someone who greeted O’Connell on his first day and whom O’Connell openly welcomed his advice.
“Although I didn’t know Bud personally long, it was maybe one of the more impactful relationships that I’ve had over the past year since being blessed to become the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings,” said O’Connell. “I don’t take that for granted one day. My interactions with him absolutely meant the world to me.”
O’Connell has many coaching influences, and they didn’t necessarily coach him for a long time. Bill Belichick drafted O’Connell in 2008, but he cut him a year later. Still, O’Connell raved about Belichick’s influence on him in the short week between Minnesota’s loss to Dallas and their Thursday night game against New England. O’Connell appreciated what Belichick did for him but wasn’t deferential to him. Instead, he went right at Belichick and the Patriots, winning 33-26. O’Connell celebrated that night, then focused on beating the Jets beginning that Friday.