Jerry Burns, an NFL innovator as the Vikings’ longtime offensive coordinator and later as their head coach, died Wednesday, May 12, at his home in Eden Prairie. He was 94.
Burns was Minnesota’s offensive coordinator from 1968-85 under hall of fame coach Bud Grant, and helped the team to four Super Bowls. He later served as head coach from 1986-91, compiling a 52-43 record and leading the Vikings to the NFC Championship Game after the 1987 season.
Burns had been in poor health in recent years. Former Vikings quarterback Tommy Kramer, who played for Burns when he was both offensive coordinator and head coach, said he last saw Burns at a team alumni function in September 2019. That was one of his last public appearances.
“I’m very sad to hear it, but he had a good long life,” Kramer said. “And he was the funniest person I’ve ever met, I’ll tell you that.”
Burns was known for his sense of humor and for being an innovator. Chuck Foreman, a Vikings running back from 1973-79, said Burns developed the Purple Offense, which was a forerunner of the West Coast offense that hall of fame coach Bill Walsh used to win three Super Bowls for the San Francisco 49ers in the 1980s.
“Bill Walsh got credit for Jerry Burns’ offense,” Foreman said. “That was our offense. That wasn’t their offense. We incorporated that to take advantage of my abilities as a receiver, so we were throwing that way before the West Coast offense.”
Foreman, who developed into a top running and receiving threat under Burns, was saddened to learn of his coach’s death.
“I’m very disheartened, of course, to hear about Jerry,” Foreman said. “Jerry was a wonderful man, certainly just a great person. Also, a great football coach. He was certainly instrumental in my success as a football player. He was able to dial into my talents.”
Burns was born Jan. 24, 1927 in Detroit and was a backup quarterback at Michigan. He went into coaching following his graduation, and was Iowa’s head coach from 1961-65, compiling a 16-27-2 record before he was fired. Burns spent the 1966 and 1967 seasons as a Green Bay assistant under the legendary Vince Lombardi, and the Packers won the Super Bowl both seasons.
Grant brought him to Minnesota in 1968 to be his offensive coordinator. When Grant retired for the first time after the 1983 season, Burns was passed over as head coach when the Vikings hired receivers coach Les Steckel, who went 3-13 in 1984.
After Steckel was fired, Grant came back to coach in 1985. After that season, Grant retired again, and this time was replaced by Burns.
Burns’ top moment as head coach came when Minnesota, an 11-point underdog, won 36-24 at San Francisco in a 1987 divisional playoff game. The Vikings lost 17-10 at Washington the following week in the NFC Championship Game.
Burns retired as Minnesota’s coach after the 1991 season, when he was just shy of his 65th birthday. He was named to the team’s Ring of Honor in 2005.