MINNEAPOLIS -- They'll be back outdoors for January football on Sunday, braving subzero temperatures and teeth-chattering wind against a West Coast opponent. They'll try to project an imperviousness to the weather behind a head coach who's found the same utility in the northern air that a kingpin might find in an enforcer willing to run sinister errands.
The Minnesota Vikings will play an outdoor home playoff game for the first time in 39 years on Sunday, facing the Seattle Seahawks on what might be the coldest day for a postseason game in Vikings history. Temperatures are projected to top out at zero degrees on Sunday in Minneapolis, meaning they'll probably be below zero at kickoff and possibly colder than that in the shadows on the visitor's sideline. The foreboding forecasts evoke the Vikings teams of the 1970s, which sewed up division and conference championships on the frozen turf at Metropolitan Stadium behind the team's original King of Winter: Bud Grant.
The Hall of Fame coach, who stoically (and famously) roamed the sidelines with neither gloves, earmuffs nor a stocking cap, won't be wearing any of those things inside TCF Bank Stadium on Sunday for the Vikings-Seahawks game, but that's because he'll be with family members in an indoor lounge, away from the bitter cold.
"If you had a choice -- sit indoors or outdoors," the 88-year-old Grant said, "what would you choose?"
Grant certainly put in his time in the elements in the 1970s, when he conditioned his teams to treat the weather as an advantage by holding practices outdoors and forbidding heaters on the sidelines. When the weather got cold at Met Stadium and the sun hung low in the afternoon sky, Grant's teams charted out the spots on the field that would freeze in shadow or hold water on muddy days.
"We had all those places marked out -- where we could do certain things," Grant said. "We used to kick the ball on the ground a lot -- we weren’t kicking through the end zone in those days -- so we put it on parts of the field that were wet and frozen and soft. [Kicker] Fred [Cox] played soccer in college; he was a straight-on kicker, but he could also kick in the soccer style. He could kick it into certain parts of the field and put it on the ground, where it would pick up some mud and some snow and some wet. It would throw off their timing on their returns. The kicking game was extremely important."
It was a special teams play that changed the Vikings' last outdoor playoff game at home. In the 1976 NFC Championship Game against the Los Angeles Rams, defensive back Bobby Bryant returned a blocked field goal 90 yards for a touchdown and the first points of the game, staking the Vikings to a lead they'd never give back. They built a 17-0 lead before the Rams scored, winning 24-13 and earning what turned out to be their final Super Bowl appearance under Grant.
More than 39 years later, the victory remains the Vikings' most recent in an NFC Championship Game.
"That game you’re talking about with the Rams was a slugfest," Grant said. "It was a very physical game. We had skilled people, but we didn’t have the field conditions to do a lot of the things you do now. That’s why blocked kicks and fumbles and interceptions became very important. We had a passing game, but on those field conditions, [quarterback Fran] Tarkenton probably didn’t complete 50 percent of his passes."
Grant's recollection of the game remains as sharp as his piercing blue eyes; Tarkenton completed 44 percent of his passes that day, and the temperature ("I think it was about 19 or 20 degrees," Grant said.) was 19 at kickoff.
It will be a different realm of cold on Sunday, and Grant -- who maintains "the only people who get cold [at a game] are the fans" -- makes no apologies for sitting inside. The coach, who still lives in the same house he owned when he became the Vikings' coach in 1967 and makes not-infrequent drives to the team facility where he still has an office, gets an allotment of tickets from the Vikings every season. The regular-season tickets are distributed among his six kids, 19 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren before the season, but the Vikings' first home playoff game in six seasons brings an unexpected challenge.
"I've already had about four calls from family members, saying, 'Who's using the tickets?'" Grant said on Monday. "My kids were raised on football. They all want to go. I get some tickets, but I don't get a lot of tickets. We'll have to have a drawing."
The old coach has a kindred spirit in current Vikings coach Mike Zimmer -- a throwback who embraces the cold and hunts along the Minnesota River as Grant used to do. In Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, Grant has a protege who was on the Vikings staff when Grant came out of retirement in 1985 and credited Grant with getting him back into the league after he'd been fired by the Buffalo Bills.
The self-effacing Grant assumes neither Zimmer nor Carroll will have time to talk to him this week.
"All you’ve got to do is win," Grant said. "The coach is the most vulnerable or the least important part of any team. The most disposable part is a coach. You can get rid of a coach in a heartbeat. Owners don’t change; you can’t get rid of some players; you can’t get rid of most of your staff. But you can get rid of the coach. It's the least important part in the whole operation."