Forty years have passed, but ex-Redbird football player Phil Meyer can still conjure an emblematic memory of his former roommate and teammate Mike Zimmer ’79 from their time at Illinois State.
“He had a neck brace, and he was out by our apartment, in our back lot, punting the football,” said Meyer ’79, M.S. ’80, who is now the director of football operations at Southern Illinois University. “He was so determined to do something even if he couldn’t play. He’d punt that thing and go get it, just back and forth. So I remember him being very determined.”
Zimmer had just suffered what turned out to be a career-ending neck injury. Not long after he began a coaching career that has now spanned five decades, more than 5,000 miles over eight stops, and a range of high-level coaching jobs from small-college assistant to NFL head coach.
“I actually did not know what I was going to do,” said Zimmer, a physical education major who wasn’t sure he would even go into coaching after his injury. “I always wanted to stick around sports. Like most athletes, you think you are always going to play. I think the time when I was at Illinois State I kind of started thinking about coaching.”
He reached the coaching summit last year when he was named head coach of the Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings gave the 59-year-old Peoria native his first head coaching gig, making him the first Redbird to become a head coach in the NFL.
Zimmer immediately turned a Vikings defense that had placed last in points allowed the previous season into one of the league’s better defensive teams.
“I think the biggest thing is getting the players on the same page, making sure they are held accountable and that you’re clear about the things you are asking them to do,” Zimmer said. “Try to figure out what the players can do and then ask them to do it as opposed to the things they can’t do.”
The Vikings finished with a 7-9 record, a respectable result considering the team had to deal with the nearly season-long absence of star running back Adrian Peterson due to his implication in a child abuse case.
“There were some obstacles we had to overcome,” Zimmer said. “We had a coach suspended for a couple of games. We lost our running back for quite a while. We had to play in a different stadium because they are building a new stadium here. We did some good things, just not good enough.”
Zimmer knew he was facing a challenge from the start despite the team starting the season with a 34-6 win over the St. Louis Rams. “I didn’t think it was going to be easy, because I’ve been in this business for a long time. Even the year we won the Super Bowl was one of the hardest coaching years I have ever had,” he said, recalling the 1995–1996 Dallas Cowboys’ championship run. He coached defensive backs for the team at the time.
“I understand it’s a week-to-week proposition,” Zimmer said. His hardest adjustment has been dealing with the media. “You have to do it every single day as a head coach,” he said.
“Really football-wise, it’s not a big change. I’m more concerned with how we can improve the facilities. You’re focused more on one side of the ball as a coordinator. Now you’re focused on every position and how you can get better as a football team that way.”
Zimmer’s preparation for the challenge has come through a remarkable journey. The onetime college quarterback made his name as a defensive guru. He persevered through a 35-year apprenticeship as an assistant coach and dealt with a huge blow in 2009 when his wife, Vikki, died unexpectedly of natural causes at the age of 50.
A three-sport athlete in high school—baseball, football, and wrestling—Zimmer was a good enough quarterback to be recruited by several universities. He chose Illinois State based partly on his father, Bill. A Hall of Fame football and wrestling coach at Lockport High School, the elder Zimmer had a good relationship with the Redbird coaches.
Injuries derailed Zimmer early in his playing career. He broke the thumb on his throwing hand during spring practice of his sophomore year and was moved to linebacker—a position he had never played. The experiment didn’t last long. Zimmer injured his neck in spring practice and again early the following season, ending his playing days. Doctors at Mayo Clinic used some of his hip bone to fuse his vertebrae.
Redbird assistant football coach Ted Schmitz encouraged Zimmer to become a student assistant. He accepted the offer and spent the next two seasons as a defensive coach under Schmitz. The friendship is one of many that remain from his days at Illinois State.
“You meet a lot of great people in college, people I still stay in touch with, guys I played football with,” Zimmer said. “There is just a special connection when you go to school somewhere: We’re all Redbirds.”
After graduation, Zimmer was hired as a part-time coach at the University of Missouri. He hitched on with longtime college coach Mike Price, who chose Zimmer as his defensive coordinator at Weber State in Utah and later at Washington State.
In 1994 Dallas Cowboys defensive backs coach Dave Campo recruited Zimmer to be the nickel back coach for the Cowboys. Their third Super Bowl in four seasons a year later was with a team featuring future Hall of Famers Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, and Charles Haley.
“We had great players,” Zimmer said. “They always believed they were going to win. It was a lot of fun and a lot pressure because you had to win.” Zimmer spent 13 seasons in Dallas under four head coaches and the omnipresent and flamboyant owner Jerry Jones.
As defensive coordinator in 2003, Zimmer helped the Cowboys lead the league in fewest yards allowed and finish second in scoring defense. There was speculation that he would become Dallas’ head coach, but the Cowboys hired Wade Phillips instead.
“There were a lot of rumors. But you know, you never really know,” Zimmer said. “Everywhere I was I tried to do the best job I could. I kind of let other things fall into place.”
Zimmer landed in Cincinnati in 2008. Once again he transformed a weak defense into a perennial top 10 unit. Zimmer also became something of a star on the HBO series Hard Knocks, which followed the Bengals during the preseason and caught Zimmer’s sometimes obscenity-laced exchanges with his players.
“Those are just some outbursts that typically I have with players. I think that gets overblown a little bit,” said Zimmer, who is optimistic about the upcoming season. The team is filled with good young players led by emerging quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
Zimmer’s former Redbird coach shares the optimism.
“I think he did a great job last year,” Schmitz said. “He didn’t have the defensive studs. He didn’t have the running back he wanted. He’ll do a great job this year.”
Statistics provided in this story came from pro-footballreference.com. NFL photos courtesy of Minnesota Vikings.