MINNEAPOLIS, JAN. 12 -- Jerry Burns is probably as much a genius as the next guy, but some people tend to read his book by its cover and they get a distorted view. He'll rarely remember your name, but he couldn't remember Fran Tarkenton's, either. He'd see Tarkenton in the hallway and say, "Hey, No. 10," which is hardly flattering, but it's Burns.

For 17 years, Burns was the guy on the other end of veteran coach Bud Grant's headphones, but now he's in his second season as head coach of the Minnesota Vikings and not looking a day under 70. Actually, he's 61, but it might help if he'd comb his hair more than once a month.

A lot of times, though, he acts like a man half his age, what with one of the worst garbage mouths around and a wit that makes him "one of the boys," according to defensive lineman Keith Millard.

During a team film session the other day, kicker Chuck Nelson's most recent 47-yard field goal against the 49ers was omitted from the tape, and Burns meowed in front of the team: "Ah, Larry {the team's film man} probably didn't think he'd make it anyway, so he didn't shoot it."

Quarterback Tommy Kramer says, "Burnsie's a stand-up comedian without trying to be one," which brings up the last time the Vikings met the Washington Redskins -- Burns' next opponent in Sunday's NFC Championship game.

They played just three weeks ago in the Metrodome, and Redskins kicker Ali Haji-Sheikh missed what could have been a game-winning field goal in the final seconds. Burns, eyes ablaze, immediately grabbed returner Neal Guggemos and jawed: "Now, when you return this kickoff . . . "

"Hey Coach," someone said, "they missed the field goal . . . "

Burns, no relation to George, has brought this team more than comic relief, what with a two-year record of 19-14 after the Vikings had consecutive losing seasons under Les Steckel and Grant. Little does anyone know that Burns has been to six Super Bowls (winning two as an assistant with Green Bay's Vince Lombardi), though he doesn't wear his championship rings because, he says, "I'm not ostentatious. Like that word?"

Another reason, he says, is because the rings would always rip his pants when he stuck his hand in his pocket.

He has coached at every level, even high school ball in Detroit. He coached under George Allen at Whittier College, took Iowa to two Rose Bowls and ended up as an assistant under Lombardi and Grant. When Grant retired after the 1983 season, Steckel was chosen ahead of Burns, probably because Steckel looked the part better, though he couldn't act it.

The Vikings rebelled under Steckel's militaristic ways, which coerced Grant out of retirement for the 1985 season. Grant put in one year, then handed Burns the job he never thought he'd get.

Burns thought he was too old. "I tried for two or three jobs and interviewed, but never got the job. I had a good job, though. I wasn't worried about not getting a head coaching job because I was fine here and was making good money."

Under Steckel, the team -- with decent talent -- fell to 3-13 in 1984, and quarterback Wade Wilson recalled: "It was miserable. We were talking about this on the plane home {after defeating San Francisco last week}, that three short years ago in San Francisco on that same field, we got beat 51-7, and they took it easy on us, and we probably played one of our better games that year. Now, the last three years, we've beaten them all three times, a dramatic turnaround."

Whereas Steckel lived by rules, Burns lives by hardly any at all, though the Vikings are one team that might need a stricter curfew, considering seven players were caught driving drunk in the last 18 months.

Burns, however, would be doing an about-face if he put his foot down, and he doesn't want to be a phony, which is why Vikings players rate him up there with Grant.

"When you're not yourself, you're putting on some phony airs, and they can see right through you," Burns said the other day. "What you see is what you get in me, and it ain't a hell of a lot. What do you get with me? You get nothing."

Actually, Grant was always a defensive coach and rarely fiddled with offense, so give Burns most of the credit for Tarkenton, Chuck Foreman, Ahmad Rashad, Sammy White and so on. He's also one of about 30 coaches who supposedly invented the one-back offense and who popularized the short passing game. Lately, though, he's been throwing long a lot to wide receiver Anthony Carter, which shows he might be a genius after all.

Burns is scared of a few things, including insects and snakes and coin flips. In fact, the Redskins and Vikings have gone into consecutive overtime games, and Minnesota has lost both coin tosses. Apparently, Burns is very superstitious, and won't pick up any coin that's on its tails side. In one of those overtime games, he ordered his troops to call heads, and it was tails, and the Redskins took the kickoff and scored.

Often during practice, Vikings players throw coins on the ground on their tails side, and Burns will just leave them there. If it's heads, he'll pick them up, though. Players also have been known to slip rubber snakes in his jacket pocket (linebacker Scott Studwell tried that once), and he'll go flying off at the handle.

His brain-lock on players' names is a real problem, though the Vikings are now used to it. The other day in a meeting, he called defensive back Wymon Henderson, "Whatshisname," and he'll call all linemen "Big Boy." He calls his secretary, "Coach," which is also his name for just about everyone else in the Vikings' offices.

Burns offers no excuse, saying: "Names are tough for me to come by." And Grant says: "He's allowed to have that problem when you think how long he's been coaching."

Anyway, if he'd wear a headseat, he'd look a lot more intelligent out there, but he won't. He was criticized earlier this season when he went for a touchdown on fourth and goal at the Chicago Bears 1. At the time -- late in the fourth quarter -- a field goal would have put the Vikings up by four and put pressure on the Bears to win with a touchdown. The Vikings got stuffed on fourth down, and the Bears scored a touchdown to win anyway, but Burns was severely criticized for the first time.

Nonetheless, his players stood by him that day, and they still are, what with the team just one game away from the Super Bowl. Rumor has it he'll comb his hair if they win Sunday.