For starters, he missed some pretty darn good cake. Grounded at home in San Antonio by a storm that dumped more than 20 inches of rain on south Texas over the weekend, Minnesota Vikings owner Red McCombs missed his first Vikings game since buying the team in July for $206 million. The big birthday cake with the purple-and-gold frosting that was meant for McCombs, who turned 71 on Monday, remained untouched in the owner's box at the Metrodome for most of Sunday, as did the purple swivel chair the billionaire McCombs sits in during games, the one that allows him to spin around and wave at fans or fire off football questions to an assistant armed with a thick binder containing Minnesota's game plan and scouting report.
Anyone who started with one Edsel dealership in 1957 and ended up with a net worth that packs 10 zeroes doesn't like having his travel plans altered, not even by a higher power. "Aw, I hate that I'm missing this game," said a somewhat subdued McCombs, who listened in by phone at halftime as his friends in the Twin Cities sang Happy Birthday to him.
Despite his being 1,096 miles away as the 6-0 Vikings crushed the Washington Redskins 41-7 to remain the NFC's only undefeated team, McCombs's presence in Minnesota seemed stronger than ever. In just four months his deep pockets, his straightforward approach and his Texas-sized personality have healed what used to be the league's most dysfunctional family. With the Green Bay Packers reeling and the San Francisco 49ers looking slightly suspect, the Vikings, who are off to their best start in 23 years, are suddenly the team to beat in the NFC. Football is fun again in the land of the Purple People Eaters.
During training camp in Mankato, Minn., McCombs, who played football at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, before finishing school at the University of Texas, bunked in the team dorm for a week in August and logged 1,000 miles on his rental car doing meet-and-greets throughout central Minnesota. By that time thin-skinned, blue-haired former Vikings president Roger Headrick was officially out, and bear hugs and yee-haws were in. Since then McCombs has mingled with the masses at the state fair, watched preseason games from the stands and sent flowers to his coaches' wives. After quarterback Brad Johnson broke his right fibula and wideout Cris Carter hurt his right ankle against the St. Louis Rams in Week 2, McCombs called both players at home to see how they were doing. Carter, a 12-year veteran, said it was the first time he could remember anyone from the Minnesota front office calling to see if he was O.K.
Yes, McCombs occasionally comes across a little like a, well, a used-car salesman—particularly when he's predicting a 16-0 season for the Vikings, as he did during training camp—but Minnesota has backed up his hyperbole. It has won 10 straight, including preseason games, sold out every home game and on Oct. 5 pulled off one of the season's biggest upsets, embarrassing the Packers 37-24 at Lambeau Field. "Red McCombs's buying this team has changed everything," says running back Robert Smith, who rushed for 103 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries against the win-less Redskins. "Finally there is the stability this team really needed. At the same time he has brought a sense of enthusiasm and excitement that has been fantastic."
More important, perhaps, McCombs streamlined the Vikings' ownership from an frequently misguided 10-person group to a board of one. It's nearly impossible to get 10 people to agree on pizza toppings, so imagine what it was like trying to run an NFL team by committee. "I want to plow this field alone" is how McCombs puts it.
The new management style paid dividends almost immediately. Vikings coach Dennis Green, who was in the final year of his contract, had had an openly hostile relationship with the former owners, but McCombs wiped his slate clean. As owner of the San Antonio Spurs, most recently from 1988 through '93, McCombs had hired Jerry Tarkanian and John Lucas, so he obviously doesn't have a problem with unconventional coaches. Early on the morning of Sept. 2, just four days before the season opener, McCombs was on the treadmill at his house in San Antonio when he decided to join forces with another.
"The treadmill is where I do my tough thinking because I'm usually not too thrilled to be on that damn thing," says McCombs, who quit drinking and started exercising after he nearly died of hepatitis in 1977 During his workout McCombs tried to imagine what else he could possibly do to bolster the Vikings. For all the turmoil in the front office, the Minnesota roster had been one of the most stable in the league. There were no major injuries to deal with. Every key player was locked to a long-term contract, including Carter, Johnson, Smith, guard Randall McDaniel, defensive tackle John Randle, wideout Jake Reed and tackle Todd Steussie. Only one new starter joined the team in '98, cornerback Jimmy Hitchcock, and the roster had just 10 new faces from a year ago.
As he chugged along that morning, McCombs came up with only one aspect of the Vikings' operation that needed fixing. "I realized that the only thing that could ruin this season was the situation with Denny's contract," says McCombs. "At that point I had seen enough to make up my own mind. I got off that treadmill, grabbed the phone and offered him an extension."
A pleasantly surprised Green agreed to a three-year, $4.7 million deal, and the team of misfits and castoffs he had assembled over the last seven years rejoiced. "What Denny has had to put up with in this town is a bunch of crap," says Smith of the fallout from a sexual harassment suit filed against Green that was settled in 1993, and a subsequent accusation by a woman that he'd paid her to have an abortion. "Some people formed a negative opinion of him and just wouldn't change their minds. I don't want to say race was the only reason, but it was part of it. This town is way more conservative than it claims to be. All we can hope is that playing like we are will help mitigate some of those ugly feelings and attitudes."