After 'Love Boat,' Vikings Looking for Happy Days
Monday, September 4, 2006
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The late-night talk-show hosts long ago moved on to new monologue material, and the Minnesota Vikings arrived at training camp this summer with a new coach, a relatively fresh start and a chance to make progress toward putting their days as a national punch line behind them. But then the embarrassing incidents started all over again, and Brad Childress was left figuring out how to deal with his wayward players and awaiting the start of the 2006 NFL season even more anxiously than most coaches around the league.
"I hate to be judged by off-field incidents," the Vikings' first-year coach said as he sat in his office at the team's training facility last week, taking a brief break from preparations for Thursday's preseason finale at Dallas and the regular season opener against the Washington Redskins next Monday night at FedEx Field. "I think your goal is to be judged by what you put on the football field in terms of wins and losses over 16 games."
But Childress knew what he was signing up for in January when he accepted an offer from Vikings owner Zygi Wilf to succeed Mike Tice as head coach. Childress was coming off a successful stint as the Philadelphia Eagles' offensive coordinator, and he might have had his pick of the league's 10 head-coaching vacancies. But he took himself off the market quickly, taking the Vikings' job in large part because he regarded the team as well-stocked with talent and ready to win immediately.
Childress acknowledged from the outset, however, that he knew this job was about more than just winning; it was about winning with dignity. The Vikings still were reeling from last October's infamous incident in which several of their players were accused of lewd behavior during a party on two cruise boats. Childress spoke during his introductory news conference about growing up in the Chicago area and knowing about Midwest values as well as about the region's preference for a bruising style of football.
He has been tested early in his head-coaching tenure. Last month, Vikings wide receiver Koren Robinson was arrested while returning to the team's training camp in Mankato, Minn., and charged with drunk driving and felony fleeing police. According to police, Robinson's BMW was clocked traveling faster than 100 mph. He refused to stop and was arrested more than 10 miles away and, according to a criminal complaint, his blood alcohol content was measured at 0.11 percent, above Minnesota's legal limit of 0.08 percent when operating a motor vehicle. The Vikings released Robinson, a Pro Bowl selection on special teams last season, 10 days after he was charged.
On the same day that Robinson was released, Vikings safety Dwight Smith and a 24-year-old woman were cited by Minneapolis police for indecent conduct in a stairwell near a downtown nightclub. Childress announced at the time that he would discipline Smith but didn't reveal details.
"I'm disappointed, and that's not my expectation," Childress said last week. "It's a culture we're trying to change. . . . Everybody is going to have their issues, whether it's the Sean Taylors of the world or some others. Those things are going to occur. I don't know the percentages of whether it's the same extent [in the NFL] as in society or it's much less. . . . It's no different than your kids. You have to coach and teach expectations. Somewhere, your kids are going to disappoint you. Let's be honest. But hey, they're going to make you proud, too. You have to deal with it and you have to keep teaching and talking."
Childress, who was involved in the decisions to re-sign Robinson in the offseason and to sign Smith in late July, isn't the only one facing more than he expected or hoped.
Wilf originally was to be a minority partner in an investment group headed by Arizona businessman Reggie Fowler, who was attempting to become the first black majority owner of an NFL franchise by purchasing the Vikings from Red McCombs for about $600 million. But NFL officials didn't feel that Fowler had the personal wealth to structure the deal to their liking and the investment group was reworked to make Wilf, a New Jersey real estate mogul who is the son of Holocaust survivors, the principal owner. The sale was approved by the other NFL owners in May 2005.
Wilf inherited a team that had a reputation for underachieving on the field in recent seasons and was in the midst of a series of off-field episodes. Former Vikings running back Onterrio Smith was temporarily detained at an airport security checkpoint and found to be carrying a device, called "The Original Whizzinator," designed to evade detection in drug tests. Tice was fined $100,000 by former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue for scalping Super Bowl tickets. Then came last season and the boat cruise, which produced misdemeanor charges against four players -- quarterback Daunte Culpepper, running back Moe Williams, offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie and cornerback Fred Smoot.
Wilf responded by establishing a code of conduct for players and other team employees. He fired Tice even after the Vikings, with Brad Johnson at quarterback in place of the injured Culpepper, rallied from a 2-5 beginning to last season to finish 9-7, narrowly missing the playoffs. But the missteps continued even after Wilf replaced Tice with Childress. The Vikings hired Fran Foley, formerly the San Diego Chargers' pro scouting director, as their front-office chief, in January, only to fire him three months later after reports surfaced of inaccuracies in his résumé and brusque dealings with other team officials. The club replaced Foley with former Miami Dolphins general manager Rick Spielman.
McCombs said he continues to root for the Vikings after returning full-time to his home in San Antonio and he generally gives Wilf high marks for his early moves as an owner and his handling of the boat cruise and other incidents. But he said in a telephone interview over the weekend that he objects to the portrayal by members of the Vikings' new regime that they have had to try to overhaul the culture of the organization.