When then-interim head coach Leslie Frazier spoke to his players on the annual “getaway day” that follows the end of a season, he hadn’t officially been named the new head coach. Viking Update was reporting it was all but a done deal, as were several other media outlets, but, at the time, the players hadn’t been informed that pen had been put to paper and that the final decision had been made.
To a man, the Vikings players who were cleaning out their lockers said that, when they come back after the current labor discord is settled and the focus gets on the 2011 season, they wanted Frazier to come back with them. In three-plus years as their defensive coordinator, the players sweated out visits he made to interview for other head-coaching jobs and, with the chance to lock him down, they all said they wanted him to stay.
Late Monday afternoon, the Vikings introduced Frazier as the eighth head coach in franchise history. But, at the time the players were dispersing throughout the country to start their offseason, they were all hopeful Frazier would get the position and keep the continuity that the team was developing under his leadership.
“He did a great job finishing up the season,” linebacker Heath Farwell said. “There were a lot of distractions going on with the stadium collapse and everything that surrounded that. The players were hoping that we could play well enough for him to keep the job.”
Kevin Williams, who has been one of the stars on the Vikings defense before and during Frazier’s tenure with the Vikings said that he had seen the reports on ESPN, but that he wasn’t informed by Frazier that the hiring was official. He said he had his fingers crossed that it would happen, because the Vikings are a veteran team not looking to start over with a new coaching regime.
“He’s a familiar face, so you don’t have to go through all the extra activities (with a new coach),” Williams said. “He’s a pretty good coach. He does things well and we like him a lot.”
The decision will also likely make it a little easier for the Vikings to re-sign some of their numerous free agents, including linebackers Ben Leber and Chad Greenway. Had the Vikings gone outside the organization to find a head coach, it could have decreased the chances those players would consider re-signing with the Vikings.
“Any time you’re in a familiar and comfortable situation, it will weigh in on your decision,” Leber said. “When you get a new coach and a new system that you don’t know anything about, there can be some hesitance to sign that contract and come back. Seeing as he’s been around and the guys know him and how he ticks, you have a feel for how he does things and runs practices. (It) will make it easier to sign that paper (for a new contract).”
Greenway said that not only is the familiarity with Frazier a selling point that would potentially get him to re-sign with the Vikings, but that the decision to return would be made easier because of the mutual respect he and Frazier have for one another.
“We feel very favorably towards Leslie, the way he has handled things these last six weeks,” Greenway said. “The staff has also rallied around him and done a great job. We’re excited for him to have the opportunity. We’ll see what happens. I like playing for him. I’ve played for him every year I’ve been a starter here. If he’s going to be here, that’s obviously a good thing on the comfort level.”
Frazier served as motivation for the return to action of E.J. Henderson after the linebacker snapped his leg against the Cardinals late in the 2009 season. Frazier’s own playing career came to an end with a knee injury during the Super Bowl when his 1985 Bears did their Super Bowl shuffle over, around and through the overmatched New England Patriots, and Henderson said that Frazier’s experience helped him during his rehabilitation.
As a former player himself, Henderson said the players gained even more respect for himself when he was installed as head coach following the Nov. 22 firing of Brad Childress. What Henderson saw was enough to get his seal of approval when asked if he would endorse the decision to make Frazier the permanent head coach.
“He’s a great guy – a great leader of men,” Henderson said. “I think he grabbed hold of this team the last six weeks and did a good job with it. I definitely endorse it.”
For some coaches appointed to the top spot at midstream of a season following the firing of the head coach, there isn’t the same level of belief among the players that he is going to be the man moving forward. It doesn’t happen that often. But offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie said Frazier made a seamless transition from being the defensive coordinator to the top guy and that the offensive players were just as on board with the decision to hire him as the defensive players that worked so closely with him over the last three years.
“He always seemed like a head coach ever since he took over that role,” McKinnie said. “He knows how to talk to you and he respects you.”
In the end, the hopes were realized. Frazier’s familiarity with the personnel the Vikings have will likely go a long way to keeping many of the players on the back half of the roster with the organization. There won’t be the typical housecleaning of the “old blood” from the previous coaching regime. Players who have earned their spot will be given credit for what they have sacrificed for the team.
Given what the Vikings went through during the season – both the incidents that directly and indirectly led to the Vikings’ eventual downfall – once Frazier took over, the Vikings faced perhaps their biggest challenge of all. A three-game home stand played in three different stadiums and, in their first road game after that, having their game delayed 48 hours due to a blizzard on the East Coast, it would have been easy for the players to pack it in, go through the motions and just get the season over with. They faced adversity few if any teams have been subjected to and Frazier kept the players focused and, more importantly, winning during that stretch. It is that grace under fire that may well have tipped the scales in his favor.
“I think it speaks volumes for Coach Frazier what he was able to accomplish,” running back Lorenzo Booker said. “If he’s not the guy, I don’t know who could be the guy. To keep everybody on the same page after going through all of that, I can’t imagine what he’ll be able to do with an entire training camp and a 16-game season. If he was able to motivate the guys in the situation we faced – I think we had more adversity than any team in the league – I’m excited to see what he can do with a whole offseason to work with.”
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.