On an isolated redoubt of the Minnesota Vikings' practice field, linemen attack a column of tackling dummies. With footballs whizzing by like artillery rounds, Les Steckel barks orders through his bullhorn: "Hold the line, men.... Come on, coaches, man your battle stations.... The practice is secure." Steckel, Minnesota's new leatherneck and leather-lunged coach, has spent the last six weeks getting his players into fighting trim.
At 38, he's the youngest coach in the NFL. A Marine officer in Vietnam in '69-70, he's now a lieutenant colonel in the Reserves. He came to training camp looking for a few good men. Proud men. Men with the guts of John Wayne who could hold their own in a rice paddy or backed up against their own goal line. "A DI team," he says. That's Discipline and Integrity.
Steckel puts down his bullhorn for a moment and answers some questions. Modern military leaders have to be public relations men, too. "I'm a guy who can put his arm around you," he says, "and in the same motion kick you in the butt."
The motor of Steckel's two-fisted mind doesn't seem to have an OFF button. In a 31-10 preseason loss to the Eagles, Steckel called six straight safety blitzes. "You don't change your game plan just because the enemy sneaks up on you in the middle of a river," Steckel says. "Only unstable, wishy-washy people make excuses. I wanted to see how my cornerbacks would perform in adversity." He did; they didn't.
Last Friday in the Vikes' final preseason game with St. Louis, more than half of Steckel's starters were rookies and free agents. "Conventional wisdom says to use the last exhibition as a tune-up," Steckel said beforehand, "but I'm not conventional. The Cardinals are probably going to kill us, but out of all this we may find one good player." It was hard to find any good Vikings in their 31-0 loss.
An assistant coach (quarterbacks, receivers, special teams) during the final five years of Bud Grant's 17-year command, Steckel turned down the head job at the University of Minnesota last January. He had a feeling Grant was grooming him as his successor. Grant had a 151-87-5 regular-season record and took Minnesota to four Super Bowls, but since 1979 the Vikings have been 36-37. Worse, they seemed to wilt late in the season.
Were the Vikings physically unprepared to sustain an assault?
"That's a tough question," says Steckel diplomatically.
Grant, who retired in January, was a relatively permissive coach; he believed in saving his players' strength. Steckel held minicamps, a grueling eight-event Ironman competition on opening day of regular camp and six weeks of two-a-days topped off by an extra 20 minutes of sit-ups, push-ups, leg raises and a dozen or so 40-yard wind sprints. Steckel took part in these calisthenics every day. He plans to continue the heavy emphasis on PT in the regular season. The road less taken in Minnesota is the road Les took.
Steckel's conversation is laced with militarisms. After learning that first-round draft choice Keith Millard had signed with the USFL, Steckel announced, "When I was in Vietnam and the colonel told us to take the hill, we knew we'd lose some guys, but by God we'd take the hill." For all his gung-ho approach, though, Steckel is a sensitive guy. He got all choked up watching An Officer and a Gentleman.