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After five near-misses, Zimmer says he’s ready to lead Vikings

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By Chris Tomasson

St. Paul Pioneer Press

Mike Zimmer wondered if the day ever would come.

For 20 years, he had been one of the NFL’s most respected assistants. But he had come up short in five previous interviews to be a head coach.

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Zimmer finally learned this week that at age 57 he would be the top man for the first time. On Friday, two days after he got the job, he was introduced at Winter Park as the ninth coach in the Vikings’ history.

“Sometimes you wonder,” Zimmer said. “But I have a lot of confidence in myself. I feel like I was destined to do this. … I’ve got a chip on my shoulder. I want to make sure that 31 other teams know that I’m here and ready to coach this football team.”

Zimmer, Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator the past six seasons, also has some emotions inside. His wife, Vikki, died unexpectedly at the age of 50 on Oct. 8, 2009, of what was termed natural causes.

Zimmer said, “She would be real proud today.” He later said, “I know she is looking down today.”

On hand to see Zimmer finally introduced an NFL head coach were son Adam, 30, a Bengals assistant defensive back coach expected to join his father’s Minnesota staff, and daughters, Marki, 26, and Corri, 23. So was Zimmer’s girlfriend of three years, Tina Glass.

Members of Zimmer’s family know how much he has wanted to be a head coach. It was emotional finally seeing it happen.

“I was almost in tears just finally seeing him up there doing this for the first time,” Marki said. “It’s really cool.”

Marki moved in with her father in Cincinnati after Vikki Zimmer died and plans to live with him in Minnesota. Both Marki and Corri had sent their father text messages during the week, each mentioning how happy their mother would be to see him finally become a head man.

“My mom’s favorite color was purple, and so this is like just falling into place,” Corri said.

The purple-clad Vikings are coming off a 5-10-1 season, so Zimmer will have plenty of work to do as he takes over from the fired Leslie Frazier.

“I go out and observe what needs to be fixed, and I fix,” he said. “I do think I’m a fixer.”

Zimmer was short on specifics Friday. He declined to speculate on his coaching staff, although it’s anticipated Norv Turner will be the offensive coordinator and George Edwards the defensive coordinator. Zimmer said he will announce his staff all at once at a later date.

He sidestepped a question about Minnesota’s woeful quarterback situation and wouldn’t say whether he will run a 4-3 or a 3-4 defense, both of which he has managed as a coordinator. But Zimmer let it be known he will take an active role in the defense that allowed more points than any other team in 2013.

“It’s always to going to be part of my little baby because that’s kind of who I am and what got me here,” he said.

What got Zimmer to the Vikings was running a Bengals unit that had ranked in the top seven in the NFL in total defense in four of the past five years. He also was defensive coordinator when Dallas led the NFL in 2003 in total defense.

After Frazier was fired Dec. 30, general manager Rick Spielman hit the road and interviewed seven candidates. He said at least one member of the Wilf ownership family was at each one.

Spielman had planned to bring two or three to Minnesota for second interviews but was so impressed by Zimmer during his Jan. 8 interview in Cincinnati that he became the only finalist.

“When we talked to Mike Zimmer, there was something different about that,” Spielman said. “We interviewed him for a very long time. We brought him in for a second interview and spent another whole day with him (last Tuesday). And the thing that stuck out to us the most was not only the passion, but the football intelligence — and the leadership.”

NFL coaches and players have raved about that for years; yet for some reason Zimmer never was able to get a head position. He had been a college assistant from 1979-93, a Cowboys assistant from 1994-2006, which included a Super Bowl win in his second season, and Atlanta’s defensive coordinator in 2007 before going to Cincinnati.

Zimmer has been described as brutally honest, a trait that was seen when the Bengals were featured on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” in 2009 and 2013. Many have said Zimmer’s bluntness perhaps has hampered him in previous interviews for head positions.

“Mike’s his own man,” said Bengals radio analyst and former offensive lineman Dave Lapham, who is close to Zimmer. “He’s not going to approach an interview from a political standpoint and say things he doesn’t really mean just to get a job. That’s not him. He’s going to tell it like it is. ... He’s not going to massage things and change things just to get a job.”

Zimmer said he was “never (too) direct in any interview” he previously had and acknowledged that’s a “perception” that has been put out there. Regardless, he said he felt comfortable in his interviews with the Vikings because of Spielman and members of the ownership group, which includes brothers Zygi and Mark Wilf, as well as Zygi’s son, Jonathan.

“Being on the same page is probably more important than anything,” Zimmer said. “The Wilfs, they want to win the Super Bowl as much as anybody in the world.”

Spielman said Zimmer will have input into player personnel but that ultimately it will be the GM’s decision. For now, Zimmer was saying all the right things about the Vikings’ personnel.

“I think we’ve got a great group of young core talent here,” he said. “Obviously we’ve got some very, very special players.”

Zimmer said he already has met with some players, although he didn’t name them. He said the most “overwhelming” aspect of his initial days on the job has been receiving so many phone calls and text messages from well-wishers.

After all, it’s been a long time coming for Zimmer. But he has no doubt that he’s ready.

“Obviously I’ve become a better football coach in 35 years, I hope,” he said. “But you know, I just know that I’m pretty good at my job. I’m pretty good at what I do.”

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.

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