EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- It was about 2½ years ago when Zygi Wilf and I were having an informal conversation in his office at the Minnesota Vikings' practice facility. It was the same room where, in previous years, Wilf had addressed his embarrassment over the team's "Love Boat" scandal, and later his concerns about a coach who kept releasing players without telling him, and later a stadium fight that threatened the future of his franchise.
"I'll tell you this," Wilf said, rubbing his forehead, "you have to really love football to do this. I mean, you have to love football. The headaches that come with it ..."
We laughed, because he and I both understood that the money is pretty decent, too. But to me, it was Wilf's way of saying that owning an NFL team comes with all sorts of unintended consequences and moments far beyond the comfort zone and interest level of even the most successful businessmen in the country.
The indictment of running back Adrian Peterson, and the Vikings' confusing and contradictory response, should be viewed as the latest in a long line of lessons in the education of an accidental owner. The Wilfs made their billions with a family-run real estate company that by definition bears little resemblance to the structure of NFL franchises, distinctions that have been made clear one incident at a time.
Few people remember that Zygi Wilf, his brother Mark and cousin Lenny never intended to be in a spot where their management style was subject to public scrutiny. They grew up as New York Giants fans whose father, Joseph Wilf, once made a run at purchasing the New York Jets.
In 2005, mutual acquaintances helped recruit Zygi Wilf into an investment group led by Arizona entrepreneur Reggie Fowler, who signed the initial 2005 purchase agreement with former Vikings owner Red McCombs. When questions about Fowler's financial backing threatened to scuttle the deal, Wilf and his family swapped places with him -- in part to salvage the group's $20 million deposit.
From the start, the Wilfs were on their managerial heels. Their initial hopes to be invested fans scuttled by Fowler's financial questions, the Wilfs tried to structure a franchise to operate independently with their occasional involvement.
The model was Garden Homes, the Wilfs' real estate company, where family members talk through issues and make group decisions. In Minnesota, it led to a three-man committee system for football operations that included the head coach, the personnel director and the contract negotiator. Zygi Wilf envisioned himself as the tiebreaker on football decisions, while Mark Wilf was considered the glue between vice presidents of finance, marketing, stadium development and legal.
That structure was appealing in theory because it removed owners from making decisions out of their expertise. But it proved clunky and inefficient while leaving the team vulnerable to issues that fall between the cracks of their internal fiefdoms.
Rick Spielman finally convinced Wilf in 2013 to verticalize football operations under one general manager role, but the rest of the organization remains structurally splintered and contributed to the team's chaotic response to Peterson's arrest.
The Wilfs are among a handful of NFL owners who don't live in their home market, but in most of the other cases, a unifying team president is on site every day. The Vikings' team president technically is Mark Wilf, who like his brother lives and works in New Jersey.
The arrest of a superstar, at a time of intense social scrutiny of the NFL, is not a matter for a general manager, a vice president of legal affairs or anyone else. It requires leadership from a unifying figure that the Vikings don't possess. Someone with the appropriate authority must take charge in that situation. The decision to reinstate Peterson on Monday was overbalanced toward football goals and was punctuated by an obvious failure to work through the problem from a moral and business standpoint.
Zygi Wilf acknowledged Wednesday that the Vikings made a mistake, and Mark Wilf expressed hope that team supporters will recognize "we are doing our best as ownership and a franchise to do the right thing."
How will the Wilfs react? It was worth noting that they were joined at their news conference by not only Spielman but also Kevin Warren, the longtime vice president of legal affairs. Is Warren in line for a business-side promotion on par with Spielman? That's a question worth asking as the Wilfs deal with the headache that is NFL ownership.