Few teams were ever as formidable on the frozen tundra as Bud Grant's Minnesota Vikings. Taking over an undisciplined squad in 1967, he immediately turned the fortunes of the once-lackluster franchise, making them into instant winners. From 1969 through 1976, the Vikings reached and lost four Super Bowls. Despite their failings on the sport's biggest stage, they became well known for their tremendous defensive line, the Purple People Eaters. No matter where he went in the world after his time in Minnesota ended, the Vikings were Bud Grant's legacy. This is his story.
When the Minnesota Vikings began their NFL journey in 1961, they were a team full of underdogs and overachievers. Despite being at a major disadvantage, they somehow found a way to defeat the mighty Chicago Bears in their inaugural game. But over the years, they became reminiscent of the Oakland Raiders, a brawling, unruly bunch that rarely won games. They were an organization without direction.
By 1967, team owner Max Winter had become fed up and sought a coach that could bring some organization to his franchise. Few men were better prepared than Bud Grant. Raised in Superior, Wisconsin, his blood carried a natural chill against the icy Minnesota winters. He was an excellent player for the Eagles in the early '50s, starring as both a defensive end and as a wide receiver but left for greener pastures in Canada after just two years.
He spent 14 total years in Winnipeg, both as a player and as a coach, leading the league in receptions in three out of four years as a player and winning four Grey Cups as a coach. By the time he left for the NFL in 1967, Bud Grant had cemented his status as one of Canadian football's greats and his induction into the CFL Hall of Fame was all but guaranteed.
Taking over a 4-9-1 team, Bud Grant knew that he had to act quickly. He drafted a franchise cornerstone in the first round of his very first Draft, defensive tackle Alan Page. With Page now on the roster, Grant had completed one of football's greatest defensive lines, the Purple People Eaters. Along with Page, the line consisted of Carl Eller, Jim Marshall and Gary Larsen. While each individual player added a unique ability to the group, they worked even better together. When it was all said and done, half of this unit had a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
When Bud Grant began his coaching career in the NFL, his Vikings had to compete against the likes of the Green Bay Packers and the Baltimore Colts, to make matters even rougher, the Vikings had recently lost franchise quarterback Fran Tarkenton after constant bickering with the previous regime became too much for either side to handle. It could have been a catastrophe, but Bud Grant had an answer.
While coaching in Canada, his Blue Bombers had had great difficulty defeating the BC Lions and their star quarterback, Joe Kapp. Despite his diminutive size, Bud Grant wanted him. In those days, the standard for all quarterbacks in the NFL was tall, well-built and a cannon for an arm. Joe Kapp was none of those, standing just 6'2" and weighing 215 pounds. He made up for his lack of size with a huge heart, willing to do anything for victory.
They had the talent and they had the heart, but like a fine wine, a team needs time to ferment. Success doesn't always come overnight. Bud Grant and his Minnesota Vikings won just three games in 1967, but by 1968 they were right on the cusp, winning eight. Riding the coattails of their second winning season, the Vikings tore through the NFL in 1969, winning 12 straight and reaching the Super Bowl. Along the way, they introduced the NFL to the daunting task of winning games in the icy confines of Metropolitan Stadium. Despite the cold, Bud Grant refused to allow any heaters on his sidelines, thinking that it would provide a psychological advantage. Maybe it did, maybe it didn't, but what is undeniable is the fact that the Vikings won a lot of games late in the year at home.
While the Vikings became one of the NFC's preeminent teams, they were exposed each time they reached the Super Bowl. At the time, the NFL and the AFL had different mindsets when it came to strategy. The NFL was built on the backs of running backs, with the occasional pass mixed in. On the other hand, the AFL was built on the back of the passing game. The owners and managers of the new league had no other choice as the public was very much invested in the NFL's culture.
In the early years of the Super Bowl, the two different mindsets were exposed. At first, the Packers won due to their general greatness across the board, but when the Jets stunned the Colts in Super Bowl III, the counterculture of football began to take hold of the game. All teams that stood their ground in the face of so much change soon paid the price. Including the Vikings.
Their entire mindset was ruled by an old-school philosophy of strength against strength and they were exposed in the Super Bowl time and time again. Against the Chiefs in 1969, the Vikings' strong running game was rendered moot against a tremendous Kansas City defense that was led by a slew of Hall of Famers including Bobby Bell and Willy Lanier. The Vikings failed to adjust on defense too and were exposed against the imaginative Chiefs.
Despite the gut-wrenching loss, Bud Grant and his troops knew that they would soon be back. No Super Bowl loser is ever the same and the Vikings were no exception. In order to return to the Super Bowl, they would be without their fearless leader, Joe Kapp, who left after he and the Vikings failed to agree to terms on a new contract. In stepped Fran Tarkenton, who was tired of losing in New York and willing to give the Vikings a second chance.
While it took a few years for Tarkenton to get used to the organization that he had left years earlier, by 1973 he had the Vikings back in the Super Bowl. In that Super Bowl, their opponents were very much like them. the Dolphins were led by a dominant running game and a rock-solid defense. Much of their schemes were very much in tune with the times, but the Vikings still struggled against what was basically their mirror image. The Dolphin's magnificent defensive line smothered the Viking's formidable running game and Miami's dominant ground attack wore down the Purple People Eaters.
After repeating as Super Bowl losers the following year against the Steelers, Bud Grant knew that their championship window was closing. Two years later, the Vikings returned to the sport's biggest stage, losing to the Oakland Raiders. The Vikings have failed to return to the Super Bowl to this day.
Despite failing to reach the Super Bowl after 1976, the Vikings still dominated the rest of the NFL. In 1977, they returned to the NFC Championship Game, only to lose to the eventual Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys. In 1980, they lost to the eventual NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles in the Divisional Round and in 1982, they would lose to the eventual Super Bowl champion Washington Redskins in the Divisional Round. By 1982, the Vikings had moved out of the icy confines of Metropolitan Stadium and into the cozy entrapment of the Metrodome, an indoor facility. From then on, it seemed like the Vikings had lost a bit of their edge in the playoffs as the playing conditions often favored goth sides. Now opposing teams didn't have to worry about playing against the frosty Minnesota winters late in the year.
Times were changing and Bud Grant began to realize that his time as the Vikings' coach was coming to a close. He decided to retire after the 1983 season, worn down by the stress of never winning the big one and trying to coach up a rapidly changing roster. However, the Vikings needed a quick fix in 1985 after firing their coach, Les Steckel, after a 3-13 catastrophe. After a 7-9 finish, Grant knew that it was time to call it a career.
By all accounts, Bud Grant should have been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. Unfortunately, his Super Bowl losses weighed on his legacy and he had to wait til 1994 to be inducted. He remains the winningest coach in the Vikings' history.
Bud Grant spent his remaining years being vigilant in conserving the beauty of Minnesota, speaking at rallies for conserving the wetlands among other causes. He remained on good terms with the Vikings and was a consultant for the franchise for the rest of his life. He spent many Sundays rooting for his team and caught the nation's attention when he appeared sleeveless on the sidelines, braving the freezing conditions when the Vikings played the Seahawks in the 2015 playoffs. Bud Grant died on March 11, 2023 in his home of Bloomington, Minnesota, a Minnesotan til the end.