Former college coach Chuck Long on Kevin O’Connell: ‘The Vikings got a great coach’
O’Connell, who had a virtual interview with the Vikings on Jan. 21 and an in-person interview with them on Jan. 26 in Los Angeles, was among four finalists to replace Mike Zimmer
EAGAN, Minnesota — When Chuck Long took over as San Diego State head football coach in 2006, the first player he met was Kevin O’Connell. It didn’t take long for him to realize O’Connell might be coaching material one day.
O’Connell, then a junior quarterback for the Aztecs, went on to be drafted in the third round by the New England Patriots in 2008, and bounced around the NFL for five seasons. He became an NFL assistant coach in 2015 and the Los Angeles Rams’ offensive coordinator in 2020. And now O’Connell, 36, is expected to be named head coach of the Vikings after the Rams face the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl LVI on Feb. 13.
“I’m really happy for him,” Long said Thursday. “I like that he’s done it the hard way and he’s worked his way up the right way, and he started at a lower level and he’s built himself up to this point, so he’s ready for it.”
Long was a star quarterback at Iowa from 1981-85, and finished second in voting for the Heisman Trophy in 1985. He played in the NFL from 1986-91.
After his playing career, Long was a college coach for two decades, including his only head coaching stint from 2006-08 with San Diego State. O’Connell was his starting quarterback there in 2006 and 2007.
“He had a great personality and he was a hard-working kid and a fast learner, and he had all the qualities that you would want,” said Long, who lives in the Des Moines area and is now executive director of the Iowa Sports Foundation, a non-profit health and wellness organization. “It doesn’t surprise me that he went on to be a coach in the NFL and now he’s going to get his chance with Minnesota.
“He was one of those guys who had a great following from his team, and his team really responded to him. The players really gravitated toward him, and I think that’s what you want in a head coach. I think the Vikings got a great coach.”
O’Connell had an injury-riddled 2006 season, and only played in six games. But he developed into a solid NFL prospect as a senior in 2007, completing 58.3 percent of his passes, and throwing for 3,063 yards with 15 touchdowns and eight interceptions in 12 games.
“I always say coaching minds, they want to absorb everything, and that’s what he did (at San Diego State),” Long said. “He just wanted to absorb everything and learn all the time.”
O’Connell, who had a virtual interview with the Vikings on Jan. 21 and an in-person interview with them on Jan. 26 in Los Angeles, was among four finalists to replace Mike Zimmer, who was fired Jan. 10 along with general manager Rick Springfield. The others were Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris and New York Giants defensive coordinator Patrick Graham.
Harbaugh interviewed Wednesday in Minnesota, but a source said that night he wasn’t offered the job. The Vikings instead committed to O’Connell, who was a San Francisco special projects assistant in 2016 when Kwesi Adofo-Mensah was in the 49ers’ front office from 2013-19. Adofo-Mensah was hired to replace Spielman on Jan. 26.
After entering the NFL with the Patriots in 2008, O’Connell became their backup quarterback as a rookie when Tom Brady suffering a season-ending knee injury in the opener and Matt Cassel took over as the starter. O’Connell completed 4 of 6 passes for 23 yards that season while playing in his only two career regular-season games.
He then spent time with the Detroit Lions, New York Jets, Miami Dolphins and San Diego Chargers before his NFL career ended after the 2012 season. He began his coaching career in 2015 as quarterbacks coach of the Cleveland Browns. Between his 49ers and Rams stints, he was a Washington assistant from 2017-19.
O’Connell was Washington’s quarterbacks coach in 2017-2018 and offensive coordinator in 2019. He worked with current Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins in 2017, and that’s one reason why former Washington star quarterback Joe Theismann believes Cousins could remain with Minnesota. There has been speculation that Cousins, on the books for a guaranteed $35 million in 2022, could be traded.
“He’s very familiar with Kirk,” Theismann, who is an analyst for Washington preseason games and knows O’Connell well, said Wednesday night. “Of course, that familiarity carries over to performance normally, just being more comfortable with the system.”
Theismann called O’Connell, who was reported to have had the highest Wonderlic test score among prospects at the 2008 NFL scouting combine, an “extremely, bright, bright guy.” Long said he always figured he was bound for success.
“You knew back then that he was going to be successful in anything he wanted to do,” Long said. “He’s got charisma, personality and a work ethic, and he’s parlayed that into a nice coaching career.”