After 'Love Boat,' Vikings Looking for Happy Days

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."

Rough Transition

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.

"I guess everyone has their own way of telling their story," McCombs said. "I think it's unfortunate they've chosen to portray it that way. It's disingenuous. I'm not saying we created a bunch of Sunday school teachers. But for seven years, we were very much oriented toward the community. We were out in the community doing things.

"They've had a few unfortunate incidents like the boat cruise, which I thought was a slap in the face to every player that was there for seven years. It's not their fault. I think the new ownership has done a very good job. They had the right response to the things that happened. But they don't need to say they're trying to create a whole new culture. You can just say you're trying to create a better culture. That's what everyone tries to do. I've never seen an owner in professional sports who didn't try to do good things in the community. We certainly tried to do that."

Wilf, through a team spokesman, declined to be interviewed. All the controversy has come with Wilf having taken over McCombs's bid to attempt to get a new stadium for the team. The Vikings' lease at the Metrodome runs through the 2011 season. There's a proposal for a stadium to be built on a 740-acre site in suburban Anoka County, and there reportedly have been some renewed discussions about a new stadium in downtown Minneapolis. Margaret Langfeld, the chairwoman of the Anoka County board of commissioners, said last week she remains hopeful that the Blaine, Minn., stadium project will be approved, and she indicated she doesn't think that most residents have remaining qualms about public funds being devoted to the construction of a stadium for a team that has been beset by so much trouble.

"They have a new owner," Langfeld said in a telephone interview late last week. "They have a new coach who is a no-nonsense type of guy. There is a great deal of hope and belief among people here that the new leadership of the team is not going to put up with that type of crap. I think they're showing that with what happened recently with that one player [Robinson]. He's gone. You can't make a stronger statement than that. I think the people of Anoka County are monitoring that very closely, and that's what they want to see."

McCombs said he thinks the Vikings eventually will get a new stadium. "The people there love the Vikings," McCombs said. "They want them to be there, and they want them to win and succeed."

'You Have Consequences'

Still, the scars from the boat-cruise incident remain. Smoot and McKinnie pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and being a public nuisance on a watercraft. Each was fined $1,000 and sentenced to 48 hours of community service. Williams, who signed with the St. Louis Rams as a free agent but was released over the weekend, was convicted of disorderly conduct. Charges against Culpepper, traded in the offseason to the Dolphins, were dropped. Smoot said last week that, while he regrets the incident, he remains angry about how he was portrayed in media reports.

"The four of us were singled out like we were the only ones," Smoot said. "I've never had that done to my name and my reputation before. They were dragged through the mud. The thing I regret is that I didn't stand up for myself right in the beginning and say, 'This is not right.' You know me. I'm not a bad person. I like to smile and talk to people and be myself, but I couldn't do that after what happened."

But Johnson said the Vikings players have brought the scrutiny upon themselves.

"Individuals have a choice to make and you have consequences to live with, good or bad," the quarterback said. "It was bad choices for one night. But there are so many good people here. It put a damper on the whole organization. It will for years. It will always be talked about. We've recovered as a team. We've moved on. . . . But there are always going to be little incidents with individuals. Now, no matter how big or small they are, they get magnified. I think the fans love the Vikings . . . but when something like that comes up again, it's like, 'Well, here it goes again.' Until you completely stop it, it's going to always be there."

Now the season is at hand, and Childress will try to win with a lineup that has lost Culpepper a year after it lost traded wide receiver Randy Moss. But it was Johnson, not Culpepper, who led last season's resurgence, and Childress said he traded Culpepper knowing that he could rely on Johnson. Veteran center Matt Birk said that Childress has made a positive impression.

"He's been everything he said," Birk said. "He said he'll shoot you straight. . . . I say this as a compliment: He's not flashy but real straightforward. It's laid out there in plain English exactly what he expects of you."

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