March 10, 2011

1967: Vikings Hire Bud Grant as Head Coach

It had been an offseason of change since the Minnesota Vikings completed the 1966 season with a disappointing 4-9-1 record. The ongoing battle between Norm Van Brocklin, the team’s first head coach, and Fran Tarkenton, who had almost immediately become the starting quarterback as a rookie in the club’s inaugural season of 1961, had reached a point of no return. The result was that both departed.

Van Brocklin resigned, and a few days before the hiring of his successor, Tarkenton was traded to the New York Giants. Late on Friday, March 10, 1967, the Vikings signed Harry “Bud” Grant to be the team’s head coach (a press conference was held the next morning to make it official).

Grant was 39 years old (he turned 40 prior to the season) and had been head coach of the CFL’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers for the previous ten years. An outstanding all-around athlete at the University of Minnesota, he played both football and basketball professionally (the NBA’s Minneapolis Lakers for two seasons before joining the NFL’s Eagles). Following two years with Philadelphia, Grant moved north to play for Winnipeg and became head coach at age 29 and, later, general manager. He had originally been offered the coaching job with the Vikings when the club was formed in 1961, but turned it down. His regular season record with the Blue Bombers was 102-56-2 and the team had gone 20-10-1 in the playoffs, winning two Grey Cup titles.

According to Vikings GM Jim Finks, Grant had signed a three-year contract. The Vikings had also considered Green Bay assistant coach Phil Bengtson and two other assistants with previous head coaching experience in the NFL, Nick Skorich of Cleveland and Bill McPeak of Detroit. But bringing Bud Grant back to the Twin Cities was their first choice, and this time he accepted the job.

The most significant question that Grant faced in preparing for the 1967 season was, who would play quarterback? The void left by the departed Tarkenton was a big one. There was Ron VanderKelen, star of the 1963 Rose Bowl for Wisconsin as well as that summer’s College All-Star game upset of the NFL champion Packers, who had been backing up – and occasionally competing with - Tarkenton for four years. The other prime contender was Bob Berry, a third-year pro out of Oregon who had thus far seen scant action. VanderKelen was more mobile, in the mold of the departed Tarkenton, while Berry was a classic drop-back passer with a better arm.

VanderKelen started the season and played abysmally. The Vikings lost their first four games. However, another product of the CFL, 29-year-old Joe Kapp, joined the club and took over as starting quarterback. What he lacked in passing ability, he made up for with fiery leadership.

At other positions, the club that Grant inherited was fundamentally sound and, while the Vikings went just 3-8-3 in ’67, the stage was set for significant improvement. HB Dave Osborn and FB Bill Brown ran for over 1500 yards and caught 56 passes between them. The offensive line was anchored by Pro Bowlers at center (Mick Tingelhoff) and tackle (Grady Alderman).

The Vikings would be known for their formidable defense during the Grant years, and the elements were coming together in that unit of 1967. The line, bolstered by the arrival of rookie DT Alan Page, contained ends Jim Marshall and Carl Eller and DT Paul Dickson. MLB Lonnie Warwick led a good unit, and cornerbacks Earsell Mackbee and Ed Sharockman and safeties Karl Kassulke and Dale Hackbart also worked well as a group.

While Gary Cuozzo was obtained for the 1968 season to provide an alternative at quarterback, it was still Kapp calling the signals as Minnesota went 8-6, won the NFL Central Division, and qualified for the postseason for the first time. Far more significant newcomers in ’68 were FS Paul Krause, obtained from the Redskins, and rookie OT Ron Yary. Second-year WR Gene Washington emerged to catch 46 passes for 756 yards and six touchdowns, although the club still ranked at the bottom of the league in passing. They were carried by the defense, which ranked fifth overall (better against the pass than the run). In winning the division in a mediocre year, they played clutch football when they most needed it, beating out the Bears by winning their last two games on the road.

The stage was set for a championship run in 1969. The Vikings lost their season-opening game against the Giants and didn’t lose again until the last game of the year. The 12-2 record was the best in the NFL, and Minnesota won the Western Conference title over the Rams before thrashing Cleveland for the NFL Championship. However, in the Super Bowl (the last pre-merger pairing of the champions of two leagues), they were beaten by the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs. Still, it was an impressive season for Coach Grant, GM Finks (who assembled the talent), and the team. The conservative offense led the league in scoring with 379 points. The defense, now known as “The Purple Gang”, allowed the fewest points in the NFL and was recognized as an elite unit.

The merger with the AFL took effect in 1970, and the Vikings under Grant’s calm and unflappable approach dominated the NFC Central over the course of the decade, winning the division in 10 of the next 12 seasons, through 1980. Kapp was gone after ’69 due to a contract dispute, and while the club went a combined 23-5 in 1970 and ’71 with, primarily, Cuozzo at quarterback, it also faltered in the first round of the playoffs in both years. Fran Tarkenton returned to the team in 1972, and with an improved offense complementing the solid defense (and also making the most of the home advantage in cold weather), Minnesota went to the Super Bowl three times, following the ’73, ’74, and ’76 seasons, although coming up short of a league title in each instance.

The team made it to the postseason once more with Grant as head coach, following the strike-shortened 1982 season, and after an 8-8 showing in ’83, he retired. It proved to be a brief sojourn, however – following a disastrous 3-13 record under successor Les Steckel, Grant returned in 1985 to stabilize the situation before stepping aside for good.

Overall, Grant’s record in Minnesota in 18 seasons was 158-96-5 for a .622 winning percentage. The playoff tally was 10-12 and included one NFL title and three NFC championships. Including his years in Canada, his teams won 260 regular season games plus 30 postseason contests. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1994.