Childress facing a tough crowd in Minnesota

October, 14, 2008
10/14/08
1:00
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Brad Childress laughed it off, mostly. He's been a top assistant in Philadelphia, where fans regularly direct vile invective at Eagles coaches and players. He spent eight years in Madison, Wis., an enlightened college town that nevertheless takes its football quite seriously. On a fall afternoon, it wasn't unusual to have a marshmallow -- stuffed with quarters -- hurled his way.

 
 Scott Cunningham/Getty Images
 Vikings coach Brad Childress is not the most popular man in Minnesota these days.

Regardless of his tolerance for fan contempt, Childress faced a rare level of public derision from a Twin Cities sports crowd Sunday at the Metrodome. Minnesota fans are as known for their manners as Philadelphians are for malevolence, but long-time observers used words like "toxic" to describe the scene on Sunday.

Full disclosure: I was in Atlanta for the Bears-Falcons game and didn't witness the commotion in person. But former Vikings player Bob Lurtsema, a local celebrity who attends every home game, said: "I have never in my life seen so many fans unhappy with a win."

In the Twin Cities, pro sports fans continue to accept Kevin McHale's Millen-like attempts to resurrect the NBA's Timberwolves. They have bought every ticket in the eight-year history of the NHL's Wild and go bonkers for baseball's thrifty Twins.

Sunday, however, they turned on Childress even as the Vikings won for the third time in four games to pull into a three-way tie atop the NFC North. The Vikings could take over sole possession of first place as early as Sunday, but those circumstances did little to thwart "Fire Childress!" chants during an underwhelming 12-10 victory over Detroit. (KSTP.com captured some of the scene on video. It starts at about the 30-second mark.)

"You can't take it personally," Childress said. "I have a problem when [the fans] boo our team, but that's their prerogative. They pay a lot of money to get into that game, and if that's what you're there for, as opposed to support your team, then that's up to them."

What is going on here? Why has Childress encountered such venom? And how might it affect the mindset of owner Zygi Wilf, whose fan base is in revolt at a time he's trying to rally support for a publicly-financed stadium?

Through a team spokesman, Wilf declined comment on both Childress and the scene at the Metrodome. In his most recent interview, Wilf didn't directly address Childress' status but expressed optimism that the team would challenge for the NFC North title.

All 32 NFL coaches encounter public criticism, and Childress readily admits it is part of his job. "That's been around as long as coaches have been coaching," he said.

Yet Childress faces more than most coaches. His 8 percent approval rating on ESPN's weekly coaching rankings is last in the NFL. And for some Minnesotans, the criticism has transcended the most fundamental hope of all fans: For their team to win games.

Minneapolis radio host Dan Barreiro, whose afternoon drive-time show airs on KFAN-1130, noticed a new tone from callers after the Vikings' 30-27 victory Oct. 6 at New Orleans.

"There has just been devastation from them," Barreiro said. "People were devastated that [the Vikings] went to New Orleans and saved their season. They're seeing these games as tainted victories that give them enough evidence to fire the coach."

(Again, full disclosure: I do a weekly segment with Barreiro during the season).

Not all Vikings fans are hoping the team loses in order to expedite Childress' dismissal -- especially considering the wide-open nature of the NFC North.

But according to Lurtsema, many fans have been unwilling to give Childress the benefit of the doubt after a rough start in 2006, during which he famously dubbed his offensive scheme a "kick-ass offense" the day after it managed 104 yards and three first downs in a late-season loss at Green Bay.

"You take that and the whole thing with trying to mold Tarvaris Jackson and then giving up on him two games into the season and it becomes a big deal to people," Lurtsema said. "Zygi Wilf is a great owner. He's given him an open checkbook to get whatever the football people want. You put all those things together and it adds up into a big deal."

Lurtsema said fans have been turned off by Childress' tendency to dismiss questions about debatable in-game decisions; Sunday their reaction intensified when Childress opted against a two-point conversion after Bernard Berrian's 86-yard touchdown reception. That made the score 10-8 with 4:33 remaining in the third quarter.

Ryan Longwell's extra point left the Vikings trailing by a point -- and as it turned out, the Vikings didn't score again until Longwell's 26-yard game-winner with nine seconds left. Childress said afterwards that he didn't consider the decision a "game-changer" and then brought a two-point conversion chart to his Monday news conference.

Childress asked reporters if they knew the NFL's current conversion percentage for two-point plays. When no one responded, he said: "I didn't think so" and revealed it is 44 percent. Had the Vikings failed and the Lions scored another touchdown to go up 17-8, the Vikings would have needed two scores to win.

"I just thought it was too early with what we were doing to go for it and put ourselves back," Childress said.

You could debate whether the Lions were likely to score another touchdown, but Lurtsema said it was indicative of the approach that draws the ire of fans.

"Never underestimate the knowledge of fans, that's what I always say," Lurtsema said. "Fans expect the coach to make common-sense decisions in certain situations, and if they don't they're going to let him know about it. That's all it is."

The Metrodome has been known as one of the louder NFL stadiums, but Childress said he has let his players know that fan reaction -- positive or negative -- shouldn't impact the outcome of the game.

"I always tell them that none of the people are coming on the field," he said. "They won't have anything to do with the result of the game. [Their job] is to cheer or to boo. They certainly have that right."

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