For starters, he missed some pretty darn good cake. Grounded at
home in San Antonio by a storm that dumped more than 20 inches
of rain on south Texas over the weekend, Minnesota Vikings owner
Red McCombs missed his first Vikings game since buying the team
in July for $206 million. The big birthday cake with the
purple-and-gold frosting that was meant for McCombs, who turned
71 on Monday, remained untouched in the owner's box at the
Metrodome for most of Sunday, as did the purple swivel chair the
billionaire McCombs sits in during games, the one that allows
him to spin around and wave at fans or fire off football
questions to an assistant armed with a thick binder containing
Minnesota's game plan and scouting report.
Anyone who started with one Edsel dealership in 1957 and ended
up with a net worth that packs 10 zeroes doesn't like having his
travel plans altered, not even by a higher power. "Aw, I hate
that I'm missing this game," said a somewhat subdued McCombs,
who listened in by phone at halftime as his friends in the Twin
Cities sang Happy Birthday to him.
Despite his being 1,096 miles away as the 6-0 Vikings crushed
the Washington Redskins 41-7 to remain the NFC's only undefeated
team, McCombs's presence in Minnesota seemed stronger than ever.
In just four months his deep pockets, his straightforward
approach and his Texas-sized personality have healed what used
to be the league's most dysfunctional family. With the Green Bay
Packers reeling and the San Francisco 49ers looking slightly
suspect, the Vikings, who are off to their best start in 23
years, are suddenly the team to beat in the NFC. Football is fun
again in the land of the Purple People Eaters.
During training camp in Mankato, Minn., McCombs, who played
football at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, before
finishing school at the University of Texas, bunked in the team
dorm for a week in August and logged 1,000 miles on his rental
car doing meet-and-greets throughout central Minnesota. By that
time thin-skinned, blue-haired former Vikings president Roger
Headrick was officially out, and bear hugs and yee-haws were in.
Since then McCombs has mingled with the masses at the state
fair, watched preseason games from the stands and sent flowers
to his coaches' wives. After quarterback Brad Johnson broke his
right fibula and wideout Cris Carter hurt his right ankle
against the St. Louis Rams in Week 2, McCombs called both
players at home to see how they were doing. Carter, a 12-year
veteran, said it was the first time he could remember anyone
from the Minnesota front office calling to see if he was O.K.
Yes, McCombs occasionally comes across a little like a, well, a
used-car salesman--particularly when he's predicting a 16-0
season for the Vikings, as he did during training camp--but
Minnesota has backed up his hyperbole. It has won 10 straight,
including preseason games, sold out every home game and on Oct.
5 pulled off one of the season's biggest upsets, embarrassing
the Packers 37-24 at Lambeau Field. "Red McCombs's buying this
team has changed everything," says running back Robert Smith,
who rushed for 103 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries against
the winless Redskins. "Finally there is the stability this team
really needed. At the same time he has brought a sense of
enthusiasm and excitement that has been fantastic."
More important, perhaps, McCombs streamlined the Vikings'
ownership from an frequently misguided 10-person group to a
board of one. It's nearly impossible to get 10 people to agree
on pizza toppings, so imagine what it was like trying to run an
NFL team by committee. "I want to plow this field alone" is how
McCombs puts it.
The new management style paid dividends almost immediately.
Vikings coach Dennis Green, who was in the final year of his
contract, had had an openly hostile relationship with the former
owners, but McCombs wiped his slate clean. As owner of the San
Antonio Spurs, most recently from 1988 through '93, McCombs had
hired Jerry Tarkanian and John Lucas, so he obviously doesn't
have a problem with unconventional coaches. Early on the morning
of Sept. 2, just four days before the season opener, McCombs was
on the treadmill at his house in San Antonio when he decided to
join forces with another.
"The treadmill is where I do my tough thinking because I'm
usually not too thrilled to be on that damn thing," says
McCombs, who quit drinking and started exercising after he
nearly died of hepatitis in 1977. During his workout McCombs
tried to imagine what else he could possibly do to bolster the
Vikings. For all the turmoil in the front office, the Minnesota
roster had been one of the most stable in the league. There were
no major injuries to deal with. Every key player was locked to a
long-term contract, including Carter, Johnson, Smith, guard
Randall McDaniel, defensive tackle John Randle, wideout Jake
Reed and tackle Todd Steussie. Only one new starter joined the
team in '98, cornerback Jimmy Hitchcock, and the roster had just
10 new faces from a year ago.
As he chugged along that morning, McCombs came up with only one
aspect of the Vikings' operation that needed fixing. "I realized
that the only thing that could ruin this season was the
situation with Denny's contract," says McCombs. "At that point I
had seen enough to make up my own mind. I got off that
treadmill, grabbed the phone and offered him an extension."
A pleasantly surprised Green agreed to a three-year, $4.7
million deal, and the team of misfits and castoffs he had
assembled over the last seven years rejoiced. "What Denny has
had to put up with in this town is a bunch of crap," says Smith
of the fallout from a sexual harassment suit filed against Green
that was settled in 1993, and a subsequent accusation by a woman
that he'd paid her to have an abortion. "Some people formed a
negative opinion of him and just wouldn't change their minds. I
don't want to say race was the only reason, but it was part of
it. This town is way more conservative than it claims to be. All
we can hope is that playing like we are will help mitigate some
of those ugly feelings and attitudes."
These days Green is more popular than flannel in Minneapolis--a
purple mob follows him to his car after games--and calmed by his
newfound security, he has been in something of a coaching zone
lately. By clearly defining everyone's role on the Vikings, he
has tempered a locker room full of strong personalities.
"Blending a team is the difference between having a bunch of
good players and having a great team," Green says. His recent
pregame speeches have moved more than a few players to the verge
of tears. McCombs may hold the deed, but Green owns this team.
What Green has discovered is that the most loyal, hardworking
players are the ones who have gotten a peek at life outside the
NFL and come back to play again--reenergized or scared straight.
"We play because we get paid to," Smith says, "but Denny is a
guy you want to win for. He has stuck his neck out for so many
of us that we want to pay him back."
Hampered by injuries, Smith, a former first-round pick out of
Ohio State, started only 16 games in his first four years with
the Vikings. While the rest of the NFL saw a spindly legged,
injury-prone back, Green saw flashbulb speed and an upright
style reminiscent of Baltimore Colts Hall of Famer Lenny Moore.
Smith's contract was up after last season, but Green made sure
he was re-signed by Minnesota. Last year Smith set franchise
single-season records for yards rushing (1,266), 100-yard games
(six) and average yards per carry (5.5). This year he has 565
yards on the ground in six games and has gotten hurt just
once--when an overzealous teammate hugged him after a touchdown
and knocked out two of his front teeth.
By now everyone knows about rookie wideout Randy Moss, who,
because of his checkered past, dropped to the 21st pick in the
draft, where Minnesota happily snatched him up. He now leads the
NFL with six touchdown catches, 19 embarrassed general managers
and the quickest reputation rehab in history. At a recent
concert in Minneapolis, Garth Brooks introduced the crowd to his
mother, Colleen Carroll, who was wearing a number 84 Moss
jersey. On Sunday a sign in the upper deck of the Metrodome
read: RANDY MOSS WILL YOU MARRY ME?
Salvage stories like Moss's are common among the Vikings. Strong
safety Robert Griffith, who leads the league with five
interceptions, was playing with the Saskatchewan Roughriders in
the CFL before joining Minnesota in 1994. Johnson is a veteran
of the World League and was originally a ninth-round pick in
'92. The draft doesn't even go that long anymore.
"Denny believes in second and third chances, and that typifies
his own life," says Carter, who had five catches for 109 yards
and a touchdown on Sunday. "Denny is an overcomer. He's beaten
the obstacles, so he has sympathy for people who have been
there. I can remember seeing guys in our locker room and
thinking, That guy will never play in this league. A year later
he was on the field contributing just when we needed him."
Carter, a future Hall of Famer, was claimed off the waiver wire
in 1990 for $100. Against the Redskins he caught a pass in his
105th consecutive game, tying the Minnesota record held by
Anthony Carter, and he's one score away from Bill Brown's
Vikings mark for career touchdowns (76).
Nowhere, however, has Green's approach to personnel benefited
the Vikings more than at quarterback. Johnson was throwing
without pain before the game on Sunday and had planned to come
back this weekend against the Detroit Lions. But with backup
Randall Cunningham leading NFL passers with a 121.3 rating,
Johnson has the luxury of allowing his leg to heal for another
few weeks. Both Green and Cunningham insist that when Johnson
does return, the starting job will be waiting for him.
Three years ago, after he was cut by the Philadelphia Eagles,
Cunningham, 35, was out of the league, working 12-hour days on
his hands and knees laying marble in Las Vegas. After deciding
he wanted to play again, Cunningham signed with Minnesota in
April 1997. He completed half of his passes in five games,
including three starts at the end of the season after Johnson
suffered a neck injury. Although several teams expressed
interest in Cunningham during the off-season, he chose to remain
in a backup role with the Vikings out of loyalty to Green. In
Cunningham's last five games he has thrown 12 touchdowns and no
"I am in a state of grace and peace in my life, and it has
really helped me on the field," says Cunningham. "I'm so
grateful to Denny that I want to play my heart out for him, and
for that reason there will be no conflict about my role on the
If this keeps up, the season could turn into a purple-and-gold
cakewalk for McCombs and his Vikings.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY VINCENT MUZIK Mr. Smith goes through Washington Smith complemented Cunningham's passing by rushing for 103 yards and a touchdown in the rout of the Redskins. [Robert Smith with football evading defender]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Not so fast With Cunningham at the top of the NFL's quarterback ratings, there's no rush to get Johnson back into the lineup. [Randall Cunningham passing in game]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Gathering no Moss With 27 catches, Moss continues to show up the 19 teams that let him slip away. [Randy Moss with football in game]
Green has discovered that the most loyal players are the ones
who got a peek at life outside the NFL and have come back.