Chris Tomasson: Legendary Vikings coach Bud Grant was humble, honest and not that impressed by celebrity
Grant, who coached the Vikings from 1967-83 and in 1985 and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1994, died Saturday at age 95.
ST. PAUL -- Bud Grant met six U.S. presidents, was invited once to a reception for Queen Elizabeth II and to a training session for Muhammad Ali.
Through it all, Grant never seemed all that impressed with celebrity, including his own. He became instantly recognizable as the iconic coach of the Vikings but was perhaps most happy far from the limelight, hanging out at his cabin in northern Wisconsin, sitting in a deer stand and being out with his loyal hunting dog.
Grant, who coached the Vikings from 1967-83 and in 1985 and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1994, died Saturday at age 95. I had the good fortune of talking to him in person and on the phone a number of times.
I remember calling Grant after Ali died in June 2016 and asking about the time he met the legendary boxer when he was training for a 1967 fight in Houston. I figured he might have nothing but praise for the three-time heavyweight champion, but that wasn’t the case.
“I didn’t like his boasting: ‘I’m the Greatest, I’m this and that,’ “Grant said. “I didn’t like that side of him, but I also recognized what a great fighter he was. I met him and we shook hands and then he went on to the next guy. … He was self-absorbed and self-interested. It was, ‘I, I, I, I.’ He went into tirades about how great he was.’’
That wasn’t the type of athlete liked by Grant, who noted that growing up his “all-time hero” was the humble Joe Louis. He wanted his players to be orderly and disciplined. Heck, he used to have them practice how to line up for the national anthem before games.
Grant always was honest when I spoke with him. I asked him last September after Queen Elizabeth II died what it was like to have met her on a 1959 tour of Canada when he was coach of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Grant said it was an “honor” to be invited to a dinner in her honor, but I got the impression he might have been more comfortable out duck hunting.
“I don’t want to downplay it, but it meant more to the Canadians than it did to me,’’ he said.
Even when it came to his beloved Vikings, Grant never was one to overdo it on praise. I asked him about U.S. Bank Stadium when it opened in 2016, and he made note of SoFi Stadium then beginning to be built.
“This will be the best one until the one in Los Angeles,” Grant said,
Grant always had a way of being underwhelmed before throwing out a zinger of a line. I asked him before last season about getting to know first-year Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell.
“He’s a good guy, but if he wins a couple of ball games then he gets to be a better guy,” Grant deadpanned.
As it turned out, O’Connell impressed Grant by going 13-4 in his first season as an NFL coach. It never was easy to impress Grant.
I spoke at length to Grant and to many of his former players for the 2021 book I wrote, “The Minnesota Vikings All-Time All-Stars,’’ and that helped me learn more about this most interesting man. Guard Ed White talked about how during his first NFL season of 1969, Grant barely spoke to him.
“I was a rookie, and it was snowing and all of sudden he walks up to me and says, ‘Has anybody told you about the snow?’ ” White said. “I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Well, don’t eat the yellow snow.’ That was the first thing he said to me the whole year.”
White, who played for the Vikings from 1969-77, went on to make three Pro Bowls with them. That led to Grant talking to him a lot more.
Grant coached with a stoic nature and was a no-nonsense guy who told his players they couldn’t smoke, chew tobacco or spit in public. He was famously known for not allowing heaters on the sideline when the Vikings played outside at frigid Metropolitan Stadium, figuring that would toughen them up mentally.
Steve Jordan, a Minnesota star tight end from 1982-94, told me Grant at first was “almost like this icon who was unapproachable.” Eventually, players would see the rigid exterior start to melt. He was, in fact, often a prankster. Yes, really.
Grant’s longtime offensive coordinator Jerry Burns was afraid of insects, and Grant often didn’t hesitate to slip one on him and watch him jump.
“I was standing next to him in practice once and he reached into his jacket pocket and showed me a caterpillar in his hands and he said, ‘This is Fuzzy,’ ” Jordan said. “I didn’t know how to take that. But then he goes and puts it on Jerry Burns’ shoulder, and Burnsie freaks out.”
Through it all, Grant gained the love and the respect of his players. When he died Saturday, there was an outpouring of grief and admiration.
“He was a straight shooter,’’ said tight end Stu Voigt. “He did what he thought was best for the team.”
That included releasing defensive tackle Alan Page midway through the 1978 season when Grant said the future hall of famer “can’t make the plays anymore.” Page was picked up by the Chicago Bears for a $100 waiver fee and played through the 1981 season.
Page was bitter about the way he left Minnesota for a long time but eventually mended fences with Grant. And he had nothing but praise for the legendary coach after he learned about his death.
“He was 95 but it was still unexpected,’’ Page said. “I thought he was going to live forever. He had a great run.”
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