Illinois State alum Mike Zimmer ’79 was named the new head coach of the Minnesota Vikings on Wednesday, his first top job in the NFL after more than 35 years of coaching.
Zimmer graduated with a degree in physical education-teacher education but has spent his entire career coaching college and professional football. Zimmer was most recently the defensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bengals, who reached the playoffs for the third straight season in 2013 (and four of the past five).
Zimmer, 57, was recruited to play quarterback at Illinois State from Lockport, and was converted into a defensive lineman during his freshman season in 1974. After a career-threatening injury, Zimmer went into coaching and became a student assistant for the defensive coaching staff. He started his career coaching at Missouri, with stops at Weber State and Washington State before reaching the NFL in 1994. Zimmer earned a Super Bowl ring as secondary coach with the 1995 Cowboys.
“I’m grateful to the Wilf (Vikings ownership) family, (General Manager) Rick Spielman and the entire Vikings organization for giving me an opportunity to join a franchise with such a strong tradition and an extremely passionate fan base,” Zimmer said in a statement Wednesday. “I believe in a disciplined and physical brand of football and I look forward to getting to work on leading a team capable of long-term success.”
Zimmer was a student assistant at Illinois State under Ted Schmitz, a linebackers coach and later defensive coordinator for the Redbirds. Schmitz said that Zimmer stood out even back then with a unique ability to both “do the X’s and O’s but also handle the emotional side of the game too.”
Zimmer’s father, Bill, was a Hall of Fame high school football coach, and Zimmer “learned to be a good coach real early on,” he said. Schmitz, who is now the football analyst for Redbird radio broadcasts, has kept in contact with Zimmer in recent years and has already called to congratulate him on the Vikings job.
“I’m glad for him that he’s finally gotten the head (coaching) job. He sure deserves it,” Schmitz said, noting the Bengals’ defensive successes in recent seasons.
Added Schmitz: “I think I’ll become a Vikings fan all of a sudden.”
Zimmer earned NFL Assistant Coach of the Year honors in 2009 from Pro Football Weekly/Pro Football Writers and from CBSSports.com. That season he also won the assistant of the year award from Fox broadcaster and Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw.
The 2013 season was the first that Zimmer worked with his son, Adam, the Bengals assistant secondary coach who earned a Super Bowl ring in 2009 as defensive assistant/linebackers coach for the Saints.
Zimmer wasn’t the only former Redbird on the Bengals staff. Jeff Friday, M.S. ’92, another alum from the School of Kinesiology and Recreation, is the team’s assistant strength and conditioning coach.
Ryan Denham can be reached at rmdenha@IllinoisState.edu.