Once A Little-Known Cowboys Assistant, Mike Zimmer Endured Long, Arduous Road To Become An NFL Head Coach
It will be a homecoming of sorts for Mike Zimmer on Saturday evening when his Minnesota Vikings roll into north Texas to play the Dallas Cowboys for a preseason dress rehearsal. Dallas is a metropolis that Zimmer knows well. More than just his home for twelve years, it’s also the place where his journey to the top of the NFL coaching mountain began over twenty years ago…..
There was a shaking of the college football landscape in early 1989 when two of the top Division I head coaches were involved in several high-profile exits. Jimmy Johnson, the brash, sometimes over-confident leader of the mighty Miami Hurricanes joined the NFL ranks, agreeing to replace Tom Landry as the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. A couple hours north in Norman, Barry Switzer left the Sooners football team after 16 years and 3 national championships amidst a scandal involving several of his players. While these two names dominated the headlines throughout the winter and spring months, Washington State University made a quiet move of their own, naming Mike Price the head coaching replacement for Dennis Erickson, who was tagged by Miami to be the successor to Johnson. One of Price’s first decisions was to bring 32-year old defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer with him.
By the end of his fifth season in the Pac-10 in 1993, Zimmer had the Cougars near the top of the nation in defense, ranking No. 8 in yards allowed and No. 2 in rushing defense.
That’s when new Dallas Cowboys head coach Barry Switzer phoned him and offered Zimmer a spot on the coaching staff as the assistant secondary coach. Switzer was the lone beneficiary of a feud that split Johnson and team owner Jerry Jones wide apart, resulting in Johnson’s sudden dismissal in late March and Switzer’s hiring.
At the time, there was no better avenue for a promotion through the coaching ranks than Dallas. Going into the 1994 season, the Cowboys were the back-to-back defending champions, and a virtual hotbed for young coaching prospects, having already lost Dave Wannsedt and Norv Turner to head coaching jobs in Chicago and Washington. For an aspiring coach like Zimmer, this was where it was at.
The Cowboys had a young, talented secondary, perfect for Zimmer’s relentless, never-good-enough coaching style. Zimmer’s impact was immediately felt, as he helped safety Darren Woodson achieve his first of five consecutive Pro Bowl seasons in 1994, including his first career interception in Week 2 against Houston.
But Zimmer was soon to discover that, though he worked hard at his craft, his name wasn’t always at the top of everyone’s wish list. When teams began searching for a top assistant, they always seemed to pass over him. In January of 1995, Cowboys defensive coordinator Butch Davis was awarded Erickson’s old job at Miami. Switzer immediately tagged secondary coach Dave Campo to fill Davis’ spot, and made Zimmer chief over the defensive backs.
And there he stayed until January of 2000 when Campo, the brand-new head coach of America’s Team, put Zimmer in charge of the defense. As he soon found out, there were strings attached to this promotion. Too many strings.
Barely had he been afforded time to get comfortable in his new office than Campo required him to implement a certain defensive line scheme that had worked well in Minnesota. Campo then informed Zimmer that he was bringing Andre Patterson from the Vikings to teach it to the players.
But when the Eagles ran over the Cowboys defense on opening day to the tune of 200 rushing yards and 41 points, Zimmer was ordered to scrap the scheme, and fix the defense. There to help him was Campo, former Oklahoma defensive coordinator Larry Lacewell and even the team owner.
With too many fingers in the pie and not enough good players on the field, the Dallas defense continued to struggle for the remainder of the season.
Zimmer was given a free hand in his second season, and led the Cowboys to a No. 4 ranking on the defensive charts. His stock remained in the gutter, though, thanks in large part to the team’s inability to win games. In each of his first three campaigns as coordinator, the Cowboys won only five games, prompting the firing of Campo, and the hiring of Bill Parcells.
After looking at film, Parcells sought to keep Zimmer on his staff, though not necessarily in the same capacity. Whether or not Zimmer would take a step down on the coaching ladder would depend on one phone call from Parcells to his old friend and disciple Tom Coughlin.
Parcells offered Coughlin, who had been recently fired by Jacksonville, a spot on the Dallas staff, presumably the defensive coordinator position. When Coughlin cited a desire to sit out a year before seeking another head coaching gig, the job, in effect, became Zimmer’s.
Whatever concerns that Zimmer had about Parcells wanting to switch to the 3-4 defense were quickly put to rest by the head coach insisting that Dallas didn’t have the talent necessary to run the scheme. Parcells was content to stay with the 4-3, albeit with a few minor stipulations that Zimmer needed to follow. Other than that, Parcells allowed him to coordinate the defense without second-guessing. In 2003, the combination of Parcells’ strict discipline and Zimmer’s aggressive coaching made the Dallas defense No. 1 overall for the first time in nine seasons, consequently lifting Dallas back into the playoffs and Zimmer into the coaching spotlight.
During an intensive 41-day search to replace the fired Frank Solich, Nebraska athletic director Steve Pederson scheduled a meeting with Zimmer. Just days after Dallas had been bounced by the Panthers in the Wild-Card playoffs, Zimmer flew to Lincoln on a Sunday night during a blizzard to tour the facilities and receive their sales pitch.
What he came away with was impressive, but not convincing. Zimmer was well aware that each of Coughlin, Steve Spurrier, Houston Nutt, Al Saunders, and Wannstedt had refused when offered the same position. With this knowledge serving as a red-flag in the back of his mind, Zimmer was only too willing to accept a pay raise from the Cowboys to remain in Dallas.
More time learning from Parcells, Zimmer figured, would be well worth the time and wait.
Parcells was of the same mind.
Most of their first year working together was spent trying to feel each other out, but it didn’t take very long for Parcells to realize he was talking to a young football professor.
“Mike’s relationship is so different from last year in a very positive way,” Parcells said in the summer of 2004. “I feel like I’m talking to [Bill] Belichik because the exchanges are quicker and we both know what we want to talk about.
“As I’ve gotten to know Mike, I’ve grown to appreciate him. I see a lot of myself in Mike. He’s a football guy from top to bottom. Those are the kind of guys I’ve always gravitated to. Football is very important to him. He’s a non-stop worker.”
During his last three years in Dallas, Parcells took Zimmer under his wing and imparted countless invaluable lessons of running a football team, from coaching, to scouting, to inspiration. Zimmer even received a free tutorial on the finer points of Parcells’ 3-4 defense, which the Cowboys implemented starting in 2005. Though Zimmer’s stock seemingly waned over time in the shadow of his larger-than-life mentor, his knowledge of defense and football fundamentals increased astronomically.
After a one-year stay in Atlanta, Zimmer orchestrated an impressive turnaround of the Bengals defense in 2008, helping them jump from 27th in total defense to 12th. A year later, he was named Assistant Coach of The Year after the Bengals finished No. 4 in defense, despite his wife passing away during the season.
Finally, after his twentieth season as an NFL assistant, Zimmer realized his dream when the Minnesota Vikings offered him their head coaching position. Upon his hiring, Zimmer immediately sought to put his own stamp on the team, switching from the Cover 2 defense to his attacking pressure-oriented 4-3 scheme. In one year under Zimmer, Minnesota jumped from next-to-last in total defense to a respectable fourteenth.
He also drafted what he hopes will be a franchise quarterback, selecting Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater in the first-round of the 2014 NFL draft despite national criticism.
Said Zimmer of Bridgewater: “You know the thing I like most about him? He wins. Everywhere he’s ever been, he wins. Starts as a freshman in high school, wins. Starts as a freshman in college and wins. This guy – there’s just something about him.”
Bridgewater also started as a rookie in the NFL, going 6-7 while blossoming late in the season under the tutelage of Zimmer’s hand-picked offensive coordinator Norv Turner.
With both a rising quarterback and an up-and-coming defense, the Minnesota Vikings are poised for even more improvement in 2015.
Saturday’s trip to AT&T Stadium will, perhaps, relieve some of the immediate pressures surrounding Zimmer’s position, and give time for him to reflect upon paths less traveled. It’s not often that a coach can last 20 consecutive years in the professional ranks, much less make a go of it as a first-time head coach after it all.
There are 32 NFL head coaches. But, upon reflection, there’s only one Mike Zimmer. Just ask him. He’s been there through it all.