For Vikings' Mike Zimmer, it all started in Dallas
MINNEAPOLIS -- In March 1994, Barry Switzer had never heard of Mike Zimmer. Switzer, who won three national championships at the University of Oklahoma, had just been selected to replace Jimmy Johnson as coach of the Dallas Cowboys and was assemb...
MINNEAPOLIS - In March 1994, Barry Switzer had never heard of Mike Zimmer.
Switzer, who won three national championships at the University of Oklahoma, had just been selected to replace Jimmy Johnson as coach of the Dallas Cowboys and was assembling a coaching staff.
He hired some coaches he knew, and retained some from Johnson's staff, including defensive backs coach Dave Campo. Campo then approached Switzer and made a recommendation.
"He wanted to bring in a guy to help him out with the secondary and the linebackers," Switzer recalled. "He said, 'There's this guy from Washington State that I worked with before (at Weber State) and I really like him. I think he'll do well in the NFL.' I was, like, 'Let's do it.'"
That's how Zimmer, then defensive coordinator at Washington State, became assistant defensive backs coach for the Cowboys.
Zimmer, 60, spent 13 seasons in Dallas, moving up to defensive backs coach and then defensive coordinator. On Thursday night at U.S. Bank Stadium, Zimmer will face the Cowboys for the first time as a head coach.
The third-year Vikings coach said Thursday's opponent brings "really nothing emotionally" to the table. One of Zimmer's former Dallas players disagrees. Greg Ellis, a Cowboys defensive end from 1998-2008 who has worked with Minnesota defensive linemen the past two training camps, believes Zimmer will have plenty of emotion.
When Bill Parcells retired as Cowboys coach after the 2006 season, the team brought in 10 candidates to interview for the job, including three already on staff. Zimmer did not get an interview.
Wade Phillips got the job and brought in Brian Stewart as defensive coordinator. Zimmer moved on to be coordinator for one year in Atlanta and six years in Cincinnati before landing his first head coaching job with Minnesota in January 2014.
"Zim is going to say all the right things and that it's just another game, but, of course, when you're playing against the team you used to coach, you obviously want to make a statement," Ellis said. "You want to show, 'Hey, I'm the kind of guy you should have kept.' He's going to say the correct things, but I do think this game is different for him."
Shaped in Dallas
Regardless of how it ended, Zimmer's days in Dallas shaped his career. He was 37 when hired for his first NFL job, and left a seasoned veteran of 50.
Zimmer served under Switzer from 1994-97, Chan Gailey from 1998-99, Campo from 2000-02 and Parcells from 2003-06, winning a Super Bowl under Switzer. As defensive coordinator from 2000-06, his teams finished in the top 10 in the NFL in total defense three times, including No. 1 in 2003.
"I still have my house there in (the Dallas suburb of) Southlake," Zimmer said. "All my (three) kids grew up there. I was able to be around an awful lot of great players, a lot of great coaches (and) Jerry Jones, who I think is a great owner. I'm very good friends with Stephen (Jones, Jerry's son and executive vice president).
"I think any time you're somewhere 13 years, it kind of grooms you into who you are a little bit. We had some great teams there and some good defenses when I was there."
It might not have happened had Zimmer not met Campo at Weber State. Zimmer was linebackers coach and Campo defensive coordinator from 1981-82. Campo joined Johnson's staff in Dallas in 1989 and immediately began lobbying for the Cowboys to hire Zimmer.
"Right from the beginning, I saw an awful lot in him," Campo said. "He was very, very, very serious about being an outstanding football coach. He was tough-minded. Mike wanted to get into the NFL, and there were a couple of times that I recommended him to Jimmy and it just didn't work out. But then I was able to convince Barry."
Campo estimates Zimmer's first job with the Cowboys paid $40,000, but it didn't take long before he got a promotion. After Butch Davis left as defensive coordinator to become head coach at Miami (Fla.), Campo took over and convinced Switzer to make Zimmer defensive backs coach.
That season, Dallas beat Pittsburgh 27-17 in Super Bowl XXX. Among the players on Zimmer's defense that season were hall of famer Deion Sanders and five-time Pro Bowl selection Darren Woodson.
"Sometimes guys can be wallpaper, but in meetings, Mike contributed right away when he got there," Switzer said. "If he believed in something, he was very strongly opinionated about it, and I liked that about him because he often turned out to be right. He became very well entrenched in our defense."
'He would keep it real'
Campo remembers Zimmer being so focused on his job he barely celebrated after the team's Super Bowl victory in Tempe, Ariz.
"I don't know if he really enjoyed the party," said Campo, now an analyst on several Cowboys television shows. "He was already thinking about the next season."
When Sanders arrived in 1995, Campo said, Zimmer played a key role in creating a scheme in which Sanders covered his man one-on-one and the rest of the defense worried about the other receivers.
Sanders played with the Cowboys through 1999. Campo said Zimmer developed a close relationship with him, as well as other top players.
"(Zimmer) had a lot of confidence," Campo said. "He was able to convince guys like Deion and Darren Woodson that he could help them, and they respected him. I know he still talks to Deion."
When Campo became the Cowboys' head coach in 2000, one his first orders of business was to make Zimmer his defensive coordinator. The Cowboys went 5-11 three straight season under Campo and he was fired.
The 2001 team, though, finished fourth in the NFL in total defense after an 0-4 start.
"We didn't get off to a very good start that year, and I remember we went into a team meeting," Ellis said. "Zim said, 'I don't know if I'm going to be here or not, but if this ship goes down, it's going to go down doing it my way.' I think that was kind of a turning point for us.
"We didn't have a bunch of Pro Bowlers, but we developed into a really solid defense. Zim just got the most out of his players."
Like Switzer, Parcells didn't know much about Zimmer when he became the Cowboys' coach in 2003. "The people in the organization had spoken pretty highly of him,'' Parcells said. "I think I just got a sense that he might be a guy that I could work with."
He made Zimmer his defensive coordinator, and Dallas had the NFL's best defense that year.
"He's very workmanlike; he's very dedicated. He likes football very much," Parcells said. "Football is very important to him. He takes pride in his players performing well. He's a beaver, he really is. And I like beavers."
Parcells, a Hall of Famer who won two Super Bowls with the New York Giants before moving to Dallas, developed into Zimmer's mentor. The two continue to talk regularly on the phone.
But Zimmer's years with Parcells weren't always easy. Zimmer long has preferred a 4-3 defensive scheme but was asked to switch to a 3-4 after the Cowboys' defense slipped in 2004.
The change turned out OK. The Cowboys went from 16th to 10th in total defense in 2005, and made the playoffs in 2006.
"The players loved him," Ellis said. "What they really loved about him was he would tell you the truth whether you liked it or not. He would keep it real. He would tell you what you were doing bad and what you were doing good."
Zimmer returned to Dallas as the Bengals' defensive coordinator for a game in 2008, which the Cowboys won 31-22. He faced the Cowboys in Cincinnati in 2012 and lost 20-19. The Vikings beat Dallas 28-14 in a preseason game at Dallas in August 2015, but on Thursday, the game will count.