- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
NAME: Harry P. Grant
Of all the coaches in the National Football League, Bud Grant of the Minnesota Vikings is clearly the least loved, the least extolled and the most underrated. After 19 years as a pro head coach in Canada and the U.S., his record is better even than that of another Great Stone Face, Tom Landry of the Dallas Cowboys. And Landry has coached one team for 16 years. Grant's Vikings have dominated the NFL's Central Division as no team has since the late Vince Lombardi left Green Bay. Grant's clubs are strong, deep, well-disciplined. They excel at the basics—blocking, pulling, tackling, covering—and at the ultimate: victory.
Yet the Big Victory has always eluded them. The underdog Kansas City Chiefs, led by the brittle arm of Quarterback Len Dawson and the agile legs of Otis Taylor, dumped the Vikings 23-7 in the 1970 Super Bowl. Bad breaks, as they say, kept Minnesota out of the championship game in 1971 and 1972. In 1973 Miami flat zonked them, 24-7, with Larry Csonka leading the way. And in 1975 Minnesota extended its record of never having the lead in a Super Bowl, although that time it didn't fall behind until the second quarter, when the Pittsburgh Steelers—new to success—scored a safety. The Vikes went on to lose, as usual, 16-6.
Last season, though, was the real kicker. Cruising into the first round of the playoffs, the Vikings led the tatterdemalion Cowboys for 59 minutes and 36 seconds before losing again, this time on a desperation pass from Roger Staubach to Drew Pearson. Final score: Cowboys 17, Vikes 14.
For all Grant's regular-season success (seven divisional titles in nine years), his playoff record is a miserable .461: six wins, seven, very painful losses.
Behind this record, silent on the frozen sidelines, his close-cropped white hair locked under a bulbous headset, his Nordically handsome features expressionless except for the flash of those hard, pale, blue eyes—themselves as chilly as the northern lights—stands Coach Bud Grant. The aura that surrounds him is icy, so much so that fans, regardless of personal affiliation, are inclined to cheer when the Vikings are knocked off in the playoffs or the Super Bowl by a warmer, freakier, less disciplined team. Are the fans right? Has Grant's seeming frigidity locked his team into an unbreakable floe of defeat in the big ones? Just who in the frozen hell is the man inside that headset?
The crossroads hamlet of Gordon (pop. 350, exclusive of bears and coyotes) straddles U.S. 53 about an hour's drive south of Duluth in the cutover pine plains of northwestern Wisconsin. The town consists largely of an IGA store, a post office, a gas station, the inevitable bait and tackle shop and a slew of saloons—the not-so-mythical mead halls of this Viking stronghold. The region, flat and swampy where it is not sandy and scrub-grown, was once a vast stand of Norway pines. Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe took care of that around the turn of the century. Some 85 lakes dot the immediate area, along with 187 miles of rivers and streams that support some of the finest trout fishing in America. This is deer-hunting country in the fall and a snowmobile playland in the winter. A lot of boys named Duane and girls named Joreen live here, hammering the back roads in pickup trucks, getting pie-eyed betimes on brandy and beer. Up here the girls still "get in trouble." To the north, rusty ore freighters plod the ice-blue swells of Lake Superior, the largest and cleanest body of freshwater in the world. Over the land hangs the smell of wood pulp, like a miasma of sour mash gone worse, intercut with the sad-sweet strains of country music blowing from roadhouses and pickup radios. This is a hard, plain, clean, simple, honest hunk of America—one of the best hunks left—and this is where Bud Grant comes when the football wars are over.
"Sure I know him," says Lee Block, the young proprietor of Gordon's Sport and Gift Shop. " Bud Grant the trout fisherman. Comes in here all the time." He gestures at the tidy store, its shelves lined with lures and seat warmers and jars of jerky at two bits the stick. Aerators burble in the live bait tanks and a pot of coffee perks in counterpoint behind the cash register. "We swap info on beaver dams. I need them to collect bait and Bud needs them to find brook trout during the hot months, when the trout are up out of the streams. When he's in here, people look to see what flies or lures he's buying, watch him kind of shy and careful like, and then when he's gone they buy one. He's Bud Grant the trout fisherman. Nobody ever asks him about football—not more than once, anyway. Up here he's away from it, won't talk about it, just nods politely and changes the subject. Mainly, though, they're a bit scared of him. It would be like going up to Erwin Rommel and chitchatting about desert warfare."
County Trunk Y, a rhumb line of two-lane blacktop, bores straight east from Gordon through the pine barrens. Dawn is pearl gray today—the first cloud cover in nearly two months. The land seems to suck at the sky in hopes of rain. The other day a wayfaring stranger flicked a cigarette butt out of a car and a full section of Douglas County forest land went poof before the local press-gang of fire fighters could corral it. In these parts, every able-bodied man from 16 to you-name-it is eligible for duty when the woods catch fire.
Approaching Simms Lake, where Bud Grant's cabin stands, white-tailed deer bounce across the road in the early light, tails flagging and skinny-stupid heads peering back at no danger at all once the highway is cleared. Far ahead, a coyote crosses the road. "Brush wolves," they call them hereabouts. The dirt road to Grant's cabin debouches at lakeside—a small, dark-blue, chilly-looking northern Wisconsin lake. A rooster shakes itself sleepily and utters a fair imitation of a worn brake lining. A pair of ravens hop and croak in mock outrage, then flap down to the lakeside to look for dead fish. Mallards and Canada geese, some with strings of young 'uns in tow, splash noisily or stare and hiss. The window of Grant's bedroom flies open and his white-topped face appears. He squints and stares his mock-mean stare.