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Inside the head of Zygi Wilf

11/16/2010
Vikings owner Zygi Wilf values organizational continuity and isn't one to make rash personnel moves. John David Mercer/US Presswire

It's time for the spotlight to shift in Minnesota. During the highly scrutinized past few weeks, we've confirmed all we need to know about Vikings coach Brad Childress -- for better and for worse. (And yes, there are factors on both sides.) Further examination would only repeat the previous points.

So as Childress' tenure continues, it's fair to ask what owner Zygi Wilf is thinking and what it says about his stewardship of the franchise. After all, the window seems shut on firing Childress with an eye toward salvaging the 2010 season. It's not happening this week, and if it's prompted by a loss Sunday to the Green Bay Packers, the next coach would be saddled with a near-hopeless 3-7 record.

To be sure, the Vikings' disappointing season doesn't necessarily mandate the dismissal of a coach who has won consecutive NFC North titles. But Wilf's resistance to change, even amid a nationally watched soap opera, reinforces what I would call his aggressive approach to continuity since purchasing the team in June 2005.

Those hoping or believing Wilf would fire Childress after the bungled acquisition of receiver Randy Moss are ignoring history. For the most part, Wilf has worked hard to retain his organizational leaders and seems determined to avoid quick-trigger decisions that often define professional sports. (His 2006 dismissal of former personnel chief Fran Foley after three months of work has proved an aberration and was prompted by other members of the organization.)

Vice presidents Rick Spielman and Rob Brzezinski have received at least two new contracts apiece in the past five years, and Childress re-signed through 2013 during last season's 12-4 campaign. The Vikings' current vice presidents of finance, marketing, public affairs and operations all date to Wilf's first days of ownership or before.

Wilf doesn't often speak publicly and rarely offers deep insight into his operation. But as Childress begins another week of game preparation, let's take some guesses at what Wilf is thinking and where he might be going with the football side of his franchise.

Wilf has a unique business background, having assumed control of a real estate company founded by his father and uncle. His principal partners are his brother, Mark Wilf, and cousin, Leonard Wilf. The loyalty and management style derived from a family business are instructive when analyzing the Vikings' coaching situation.

When disagreement arises between family members with relatively equal stake in a company, dismissal or departure aren't options. Issues are worked through, and I believe that is what Wilf thinks he is doing now. Childress was Wilf's hand-picked coach in 2006, and he is hoping the coach can navigate the franchise through a rough patch.

In the big picture, Wilf views Childress as a coach who accomplished one of his biggest goals: Cleaning up off-field player behavior that culminated in the 2005 Love Boat cruise. On the field, Childress improved his record in every season from 2006-09, earning the extension. I don't think Wilf is willing to abandon the results of those first four years based solely on a stumble in the fifth.

Many people have noted the $12-plus million Wilf would owe Childress if he fired him. Based on how he has thrown around money during his ownership, I don't think that figure is anywhere near the top of the list of why Childress remains employed. Much more important, at least to Wilf, is the symbolic commitment Wilf made in executing the deal.

Wilf grew up and remains a huge football fan, and he proudly applies those sensibilities to his management of the Vikings. But there are different categories of fans, and Wilf clearly resides under the eternally hopeful category much more often than the knee-jerk reaction group. The most recent example was Wilf's ecstatic response to the Vikings' 27-24 comeback victory Nov. 7 over the Arizona Cardinals.

Afterward, his face flush, Wilf stood at the door of the Vikings' locker room and greeted each player and coach with a version of the phrase "great heart!" His conviction of the Vikings' potential that day was obvious, overshadowing all of the well-chronicled issues Childress has encountered with players, game management and his offensive scheme.

That's my read on Wilf's mentality over the past few weeks. If you want to be more cynical -- and I'm always up for a good conspiracy theory -- you could suggest that Wilf already knows he will replace Childress after the season and that he doesn't want presumptive interim coach Leslie Frazier to succeed him. For all we know, Wilf could already be studying the available candidates -- Super Bowl winners Bill Cowher, Jon Gruden and Brian Billick are all in hibernation -- with an intention to pounce after the season.

If he fires Childress now and Frazier executes a miracle turnaround, Wilf might feel compelled to hire him permanently even while casting his gaze elsewhere. I have no idea if that's actually the case, but we shouldn't rule out the possibility that Wilf has a larger plan already in place.

Why? Because in November 2005, about two months before he fired coach Mike Tice, Wilf dispatched several team officials to a clandestine meeting with agent Bob LaMonte. At the time, LaMonte represented Childress and then-Philadelphia Eagles personnel executive Tom Heckert.

The day after they fired Tice, the Vikings flew Childress to Minnesota for an interview and worked feverishly to do the same with Heckert, who ultimately re-signed with the Eagles and is now the Cleveland Browns' general manager.

Again, I have no evidence that a similar contingency plan is under way now. But if you want to know why Childress remains employed, you should know it fits with Wilf's larger management style. Wilf is patient, but he is far from passive. I don't think he'll stand for long-term underperformance, but to this point it's clear he doesn't classify Childress in that way.