You knew that Bud Grant was back as coach of the Minnesota Vikings about 12 miles before you reached this training camp town.

A police car slipped out from between the rows of corn off Highway 169, red lights flashing. "You heading up to the training camp?" the officer asked, then went on, "You know, Coach Grant warns us every year when the deadline is for players to report at the start of camp because they might be late and start speeding. Coach Grant wants all of the citizens of this state to drive safely. I clocked you going 67 miles per hour, but I'm only going to give you a warning.

"Don't feel so bad," he continued. "I just stopped (quarterbacks) Wade Wilson and Archie Manning and they were going a lot faster than you were."

"Got me going 72," Manning, the 15-year veteran entering his first training camp under Bud Grant, said later, shaking his head. "Wade and I were just talkin' and talkin' and, well, I had heard Bud used to tell the police to watch for us when we were leaving training camp, but not coming."

Wilson has been in training camp with Grant before. He knows how Bud Grant's presence can stretch. He said, "A lot of times, Coach Grant even has police planes watching us from the sky."

The first thing Bud Grant did as his 18th training camp with the Vikings began Thursday was synchronize all five clocks at the practice field. Next, he told his players they no longer can smoke, chew tobacco or spit in public.

Then, with a crowd of Vikings fans, plus media from around the country, gathered to mark the occasion, Bud Grant walked back onto the field, whistle in hand, still limping slightly from a football injury from way back when.

Harry Peter Grant has been a coach for 27 years, a man from the football Mesozoic. His legend is standing in the snow and looking mean in the since-obliterated Metropolitan Stadium. He'll make his return in the 72-degree sterility of the Metrodome.

Grant is a secure man in an insecure profession. He is loyal to veterans, yet remains distant from them, allowing for space, but no slip-ups. Joe Gibbs calls his team his family. Bud Grant calls his team his business and says he has never slept in his office overnight, a practice of many high-intensity coaches.

Former Vikings quarterback Joe Kapp, now the coach at Cal-Berkeley, says of Grant, "The longest dialogue I ever had with Bud was a monologue and it lasted three words: 'Get a haircut.' And once I saw him show emotion: he raised an eyebrow."

But Grant's sense of humor is just as fabled around here as his toughness. Running back Darrin Nelson says he breaks up every time Grant puts a bug or even a turtle in the helmet of an unsuspecting rookie, then watches the rook squirm.

Grant had a record of 102-56 in 10 Canadian Football League seasons before he replaced Norm Van Brocklin as Vikings coach in 1967. His record in 17 years with the Vikings is 151-87. Altogether, Grant has won 253 professional games. Only George Halas (325) won more.

Or mark it this way: Grant has won or tied for the division title in 11 of 17 seasons in the NFL. Dallas' Tom Landry has won 12 out of 25 and Miami's Don Shula 15 of 22.

After the 1983 season, though, Bud Grant retired. He said he wanted to wade through streams, climb mountains, spend more time with the family. Minnesota has 10,000 lakes and the implication was that Grant would fish all of them.

The Vikings made Grant an executive consultant in charge of organizational development, whatever that meant.

The Vikings also hired former marine Les Steckel -- "Less Steckel," if you went by the bumper stickers -- and finished a franchise-worst 3-13 last season. Steckel's sad legacy is an ironman competition he held in training camp. During the season, players criticized the coach, the coach criticized the players and the Vikings set 14 club marks for defensive futility. Steckel is now an assistant coach with New England.

"Les rubbed players the wrong way. He alienated them," said Scott Studwell, a nine-year veteran linebacker. "At least this year we know that (without the ironman contest) players won't be throwing up and offensive linemen won't be getting hosed down all the time. The attitude is so different now."

Management asked Grant to return late last season and he declined. The defeats were getting uglier by the week. So were the fans. Management asked again and Grant, age 58, agreed. He has a lifetime contract for a reported $500,000 per year.

Perhaps it's the Earl Weaver syndrome: Retire to the good life, watch the walls you built for your team crumble, return to your only employer to try to spin that old magic.

Grant said he returned out of loyalty to owner Max Winter. He said he felt no football withdrawals, but did miss some aspects.

Like Sundays.

"A lot of times people ask me how could you be so calm on the sidelines when the game in hanging on the line," Grant said. "I say because you know what's happening, you can anticipate and you can have some input."

Those close to the Vikings say Grant returned because he realized even he couldn't hunt and fish every day and because, after all, the money was good and the family (six children, six grandchildren) is only three miles away from the filmroom.

They say Grant may coach two or three years, then leave for good. Make that double good. Grant won't say anything definite about his future.

Fred Cox, who kicked for Grant for 11 Vikings seasons and now owns a chiropractic clinic in Minneapolis, said, "The truth is sometimes something you don't want to see in print, but the fact is, without Bud Grant, the Vikings don't have an organization. That was proven last year. They don't have a strong enough front office to carry them."

And Carl Eller, the former all-pro defensive lineman who now serves as a league consultant on drug and alcohol abuse, said, "Bud's about the only person who can make the team respectable in a very short time because the players will respect him and the fans will respond to him."

From the vantage point of 12 years of linebacking experience in Minnesota, Matt Blair simply said, "I was thinking about not coming back this year. But when I heard Bud was coming back, it was like a Christmas present . . . If we all stay healthy, we could go 9-7 this year."

Grant says he is not haunted by the fact he has lost all four of the Super Bowls he has reached. The first time, Kansas City's Otis Taylor beat him with a 46-yard touchdown catch; the second time, Miami's Larry Csonka beat him by rushing for 145 yards; the third time, Pittsburgh's Dwight White sacked Fran Tarkenton for a safety and the Steel Curtain closed on him; and the final time, Raiders named Clarence Davis and Fred Biletnikoff big-played the Vikings to death.

Former Vikings running back Chuck Foreman, who owns his own trucking business in Minneapolis, said, "The only thing that Shula and Landry have on Bud is that they've won a Super Bowl."

The Vikings haven't been the same since 1977, the last season they made it to the conference title game. Since that time, Grant's six-year mark is 44-44-1.

What exactly happened? A great nucleus of players departed in '78 and '79. Gone were linebacker Wally Hilgenberg, safety Paul Krause, defensive tackle Alan Page, defensive ends Eller and Jim Marshall, and Foreman. Draft picks didn't pan out.

Some say Grant's loyalty to his veterans made him keep players around one or two years too long. Eller said, "It was such a relief to play for a coach like that. You felt secure where you were."

Grant knows the business can be difficult. A stir was caused before the '79 season when he cut Page. It was a big splash in the papers. Grant said Page's abilities had diminished. Some said it was a personality conflict.

Page, now an attorney at the St. Paul (Minn.) attorney general's office, declined comment on Grant. He played several seasons with the Bears after being cut by Grant.

"You're talking to the wrong guy. I have nothing to say about him," Page said.

Grant said, "Releasing Alan had nothing to do with him challenging my loyalty. He just went from being the most valuable player in the league to making one tackle in two games."

Eight years later, the rebuilding continues. "We have a category which we call the 'purple' player," Grant said. "He's a step above the 'blue-chip' player people talk about . . . Right now we have a void in the 'purple' category . . . and maybe even in the 'blue-chippers.' "

Grant says he has evolved as players have evolved. "And I try not to be inflexible," he said.

He hides much of his feelings, Vikings observers say. Team trainer Fred Zamberletti, who's been with the team since its inception in 1960, says he saw Grant cry once, when he heard that former linebacker Karl Kassulke had been in a motorcycle accident that rendered him a paraplegic.

When someone asked Grant if he had any new, different feeling driving to Mankato, he responded, "Yeah, I was surprised to see they had changed the Coke sign to a 7-Up sign on that barn on the side of the road." CAPTION: Pictures 1 and 2, To return, Bud Grant received a contract reportedly worth $500,000 a year. On the first day of his 18th training camp with the Vikings, Coach Bud Grant instituted a rule banning players from using tobacco. Photos by AP