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Beating the Clock

Bud Grant is enjoying life at a leisurely pace, but then he always has - even as a coach who was ahead of his time . . .
by: AFC Staff
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Walk down the halls of the Minnesota Vikings' picturesque Eden Prairie compound, and you'll come to the end of a hallway where there's a familiar name on the door: Bud Grant.

Whether you will find him there or not is anybody's guess. His role as consultant to the franchise doesn't demand the 100-hour work weeks "required" in coaching. But then, Grant was never the type who believed you needed to put in a 100-hour week just to win a ballgame.

To find Grant, you'd better get dressed up and head for the local fishing hole, or head to a local river or marsh (and don't forget your shotgun). But then, time hasn't changed much, and it hasn't changed Grant or his ideas of football. In many respects, the game has come to embrace the ways and means for which Grant was labeled an oddity by some during his working years.

When some coaches retire they look for new opportunities like television broadcasting or radio call-in shows. Some even turn to running a NASCAR team. Not Grant. Retirement for him was just a chance to do a lot more of the old things he has always liked the best: casting a fly, preying on wild fowl, and spending time with his family.

Grant was 56 when he decided to walk away from the game at the end of 1983 season (he was coaxed back for one final season in 1985, with a lifetime contract, after his replacement, Les Steckel proved to be a public relations nightmare for the team).

At the time, he mentioned his desire to leave on his own terms with the ability to still live and enjoy life to its fullest. He talked about Bear Bryant and how sad it was he died, at age 69, less than one month after retiring from 38 years as a head coach. "I'm still 57 and I have a lot of living to do," he said. "It's not like I want to retire to take up painting or get into a sail boat and head for the South Seas.

There are just some valleys I want to cross, some mountains I want to climb, some streams I want to wade, and there isn't going to be time, even now, to do all of the things I want to do or go all of the places I want to go."

Retirement for Grant meant getting out more. "I'm not a couch potato," he would say. "I'm the kind of person who likes to do something; I don't like to watch (others do) something." Retirement for Grant meant no more days of being forced to "fit in" a duck hunt. Now he can plan them. "(When I was with the Vikings) I would get up at 5 (a.m.) and in 20 minutes be in a duck blind. Daylight would come around 6:00. So I could hunt until 7:30 or 7:45, then go to the office."

Making the time to do the things he considered important were just a part of the stories about Bud Grant that made him different than most of his coaching peers. Long before there were sports psychologists running around giving players 20,000 question tests to get personality profiles, Grant was looking for situations that would allow him to see what kind of players he had. Like the time during training camp when some new sod had been put in an area the players used as a shortcut to and from their dormitory. A small sign had been put up asking players to "stay off the grass." Grant saw a chance to study his players and made a point of requesting they avoid the area. He then would look to see which players would do as they were told, which ones would forget, and which ones would simply go across the area in defiance of what he had told them. Grant said, "It is extremely important to find out about your people . . . because the same things will come out in a game."

Just as numbers don't always tell the whole story, neither do the media-inspired images of Bud Grant. Cold. Laissez-faire attitude with players. "A different breed of guy." Too soft. All of these were at one time used to describe Grant. Yet, history shines a different light on the man who is for all practical purposes "the Minnesota Vikings" to millions of football fans. He is now looked upon as the prototype of the modern coach, combining a great practical knowledge of the game, from his days as a player, with a far-reaching, expansive knowledge of staff management, psychology and motivation.

Grant is one of the best coaches ever (he is the third winningest coach in professional football- 290 NFL and CFL victories combined- behind only Don Shula and George Halas). He retired as the ninth winningest coach in NFL history with a 158-96-5 record, winning 11 NFC Central crowns and directing the Vikings to four Super Bowls in 18 years as Minnesota's head coach. He is also, perhaps, one of the most misunderstood coaches of all time.

Known as the stoic, expressionless face of the Minnesota Vikings for much of the franchise history (he served as head coach from 1967-83 and 1985), Grant built a career on doing things his way. While most of his colleagues worked until the wee hours of the night (some even sleeping in their office), he went home for dinner most nights during the season and did not return until the next morning.

When some of his cohorts were involved in every minute detail of game plans, Grant let others do their jobs. He selected his assistant coaches carefully and expected them to do the weekly planning. He rarely called for a full staff meeting. "I'm not the teacher," he said.

"The assistant coaches are the technicians. I may go over the film a couple of times, they (the assistants) study it countless times. They present the actual game plan. The head coach then becomes the Chairman of the Board. Your staff can't be too strong. As the head coach, I'm the guy they look to for direction, but the teaching comes from the assistants."

His star QB for much of his time in Minnesota, Fran Tarkenton, swears that Grant did not step to the blackboard and diagram a single play during his entire career with the Vikings, but that in no way diminished the respect that everyone had for him. "The players and coaches all knew who was in charge. The main thing was Bud let everyone do their job and respected them as a professional. It was an atmosphere ripe for individual and team success; everyone was motivated by his confidence in them," Tarkenton said.

John Michels, the long-time Viking offensive line coach echoed Tarkenton's sentiments. "He let you do your own thing. His strong points were that he treated everyone with dignity and respect. He was up front in all of his dealings with everyone- players and his coaches."

Grant himself acknowledged his philosophy of dealing with players and coaches was to treat everyone as an individual.

"Some you have to coax and kiss, others you have to drive," he said. "You must never belittle a man in front of his teammates. You must get him aside, compliment him first and then let him know what he is doing wrong."

Some head coaches get their players' attention by ranting and raving. Grant chose another path. When asked why he chose to remain calm in the face of the storm, he said, "I've read a lot about what I do or don't do on the sidelines. But to me football is a game of controlled emotion. If the head coach panics or loses his poise, then his team will follow. I've seen head coaches running up and down the sidelines yelling at the officials or their players. They can't possibly know what is going on." That type of talk is commonplace in 1999 in locker rooms and staff meetings, with head coaches who use sports psychologists as an integral part of their preparation, but, in the late 60's and 70's, Grant was far from the norm; he was the exception.

Ask Tarkenton what he remembers about his coach and he recalls the 1976 game vs. Philadelphia. The Vikings were on their way to an NFC championship and fourth Super Bowl appearance when they arrived in Philly for an October game. It was Dick Vermeil's first season as head coach of the Eagles.

During pre-game warm ups, Grant called Tarkenton over to his side and asked, "Fran, how many coaches do you see over there on the Eagles sideline?" Tarkenton puzzled did his best to count up the Eagles' seemingly endless staff. "12, 13 or 14 . . . I think," he answered. "Now, how many do you see over here," Grant asked. "Six," Tarkenton said.

Grant explained, "I think we're going to win. The problem with all of those coaches is you have to find something for them to do." The Vikes beat the Eagles 31-12 that afternoon.

But, it was not Grant's prognostication skills that Tarkenton remembers; it was the clarity with which Grant was able to break things down and his simple approach to the task of running a team Tarkenton most fondly recalls. "Bud Grant has more leadership ability and common sense than any person I have ever known or been around in my life. He was way ahead of his time in terms of dealing with players and his staff. On that day in Philadelphia, he just knew that the Eagles had too many coaches for everyone to possibly be on the same page."

Bud Grant had a type of clear no-nonsense way of thinking that made him somewhat of a radical when compared to fellow coaches. His teams are best remembered as physical and tough (no heaters were allowed on the sideline during winter games in Minnesota), yet he never hired a strength and conditioning coach during his entire 18-year tenure.

Viking teams were known as well-prepared (for example, Minnesota was very successful during the first month of the season, September, 34-18-1, .653 winning percentage), but Grant always waited until the very last moment to have his players report for preseason practice, typically one week before the first preseason game and always after every other team in the NFL. He also did not have "mini-camps" or bring rookies in early; he didn't need to.

"I don't like training camp. It's the most unnatural thing in the world. Six weeks with a bunch of guys in a dormitory," Grant said. "I didn't like it . . . We told our players to come into camp in shape and ready to work hard . . . I told them if they'd do that, I'd cut camp down to a bare minimum."

Former quarterback Tommy Kramer explained what others perceived as a "lackadaisical" attitude as just Grant's way of motivating his team. "Bud just expected you to be in shape. He feels if you're not, it's your own job you're risking, not his."

Living in the public eye can cast a view of a person that is sometimes far from the truth. Grant gave a glimpse at the man few knew well in a first-person account written for The New York Times at the time of his retirement. Reflecting on the coaching profession and what it had meant to him, Grant said, "Now that I've made the decision (to retire), I can't say that I'm relieved because coaching was never a burden. . . . Coaching, you know, is not the glamorous profession people seem to believe it is. It's a very structured, very one-dimensional existence . . . Coaching is not for everyone because of the work-ethic necessary . . . There aren't a lot of people who can work seven days a week and two or three nights a week for 26 straight week."

Could Grant be happy and enjoy success coaching in today's environment where CEO-type coaches are tagged and bagged year in-year out as programs continually search for "the" formula? While the answer can't be known, Grant's "master plan"- which did not come in a 500-page binder lined with notes, diagrams and contingencies, certainly bore fruit long before the days of micro-managers and sports psychologists.

"One of the questions that I was asked most often was about my coaching philosophy, and it was a question I was never able to answer," he said. "Probably the closest I can come is to relate something I clipped from a newspaper many years ago and still keep in my desk:

A leader is best when people barely know he exists.Not so good when they obey and acclaim him.Worse when they despise him.But of a good leader, who talks little when this work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say:'We did it ourselves.'"Lao-tse (c.565 B.C.)

Sure, those Vikings teams did it by themselves. Ol' Lao-tse would have been proud, his student learned well.

And in plenty of time to enjoy the rest of his day.

A Man of Letters- Bud Grant

When some executives retire, they receive honorary degrees from universities and colleges. Not Bud Grant. He's already a man of letters.

Amazingly enough, Grant never spent a day of his life as an assistant coach. An astounding athlete, he played professionally in both the NBA and the NFL- from which he left to embark on a playing, and eventually coaching, career in the CFL.

Besides the tremendous record that speaks for itself, Grant did leave a football legacy, of sorts. Son Mike is the head coach at Eden Prairie (Minn.) HS, where he holds a career record of 70-7 and two state titles in seven seasons. In the 10 years prior to Mike's arrival, Eden Prairie had won just two games.

Certainly, no one can question Mike Grant's pedigree. The following is just a capsule of what Bud Grant has meant to the various organzations in professional and amateur sports:

• NFL. Inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1994 as the ninth winningest coach in history 158-96-5, winning 11 NFC Central crowns and directing the Vikings to four Super Bowls in 18 years as Minnesota's head coach. Was a first round draft choice of the Philadelphia Eagles, where he played WR and DE for two years before he left for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and a $2,000 raise.

• CFL. Named a Hall of Famer as a coach, spent 10 years with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, 102-56-2, with four Grey Cup championships. Had a four-year career as a standout WR and DB for the Blue Bombers. Still holds the all-time professional record for most interceptions in one game (5).

• NBA. Played for the Minnesota Lakers and won two championship rings as a power forward.

• NCAA. Won nine varsity letters at the University of Minnesota: four in football, three in basketball and two in baseball. A panel of state sportswriters voted him the Minnesota Male Athlete of the Half Century in 1950.

• HOF. Hall of Fame member in two professional leagues, NFL and CFL, and one state, Minnesota.


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