EAGAN — NFL owners approved Zygi Wilf’s purchase of the Vikings for $600 million in late May 2005. It only took four months before Wilf was introduced to the dysfunction for which the franchise had become so well known.
The infamous “Love Boat” cruise on Lake Minnetonka set sail on Oct. 6 during the team’s bye week, leaving Wilf fuming about the conduct of his players and causing embarrassment for the entire organization.
Thirteen years later, Wilf and his brother, Mark, are veteran NFL owners and the Vikings, now valued by Forbes as being worth $2.4 billion, are in many ways an unrecognizable organization when compared to that time.
The aging and unimpressive Metrodome has been replaced by the state of the art U.S. Bank Stadium in downtown Minneapolis. Winter Park, the team’s longtime and run-down practice facility in Eden Prairie, now sits vacant, with the franchise having moved all of its operations to the enormous campus of the TCO Performance Center in Eagan. The new practice facility also has enabled the Vikings to move training camp out of Mankato.
All of these changes — and most importantly the right people being in charge — have established a stability with the Vikings that did not exist for years. It took Wilf time to find the correct formula, but the Vikings no longer seem to live in fear of when the next off-the-field embarrassment will hit.
There also is no longer the need to take visiting free agents out to dinner first and get a few drinks in them before showing them the team headquarters. (A former Vikings employee told me this was done at one point because Winter Park was so unimpressive.)
A mention was made to my radio partner, Phil Mackey, a few days ago that this is the first time I considered the Vikings to be the most stable of the four major men’s professional franchises in Minnesota. The Vikings often have been competitive on the field, but there always seemed to be a cloud hanging over the team.
There also is a case to be made the Vikings are now among the most stable teams in the NFL.
This discussion took place on Monday and then Tuesday came word that wide receiver Stefon Diggs had signed a five-year extension reportedly worth $81 million. The new agreement will keep Diggs with the Vikings through the 2023 season and include just north of $40 million in guaranteed money.
It was the latest in a long line of extensions done by the Vikings’ front office. Players under contract through at least 2020 now include quarterback Kirk Cousins; running back Dalvin Cook; wide receivers Adam Thielen and Diggs; left tackle Riley Reiff; center Pat Elflein; defensive tackle Linval Joseph; linebacker Eric Kendricks; defensive ends Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter; safety Harrison Smith; and cornerback Xavier Rhodes.
A season after winning 13 regular-season games and then losing badly in the NFC title game in Philadelphia, the Vikings are picked by many to make their first Super Bowl appearance since the 1976 season.
So who deserves the credit for the Vikings being in this position?
Spielman, who was hired as the Vikings’ vice president of player personnel in 2006 after Fran Foley’s brief and forgettable tenure, pointed to the changes made by ownership following a 3-13 finish in 2011. Spielman was promoted to general manager and given final authority over the roster after he and then-coach Leslie Frazier had spent an unsuccessful season sharing authority.
The Vikings had success under Frazier in 2012, going 10-6 and making a surprise playoff appearance, but Frazier was fired after a 5-10-1 finish in 2013. It was at that point the Vikings hired Zimmer — the no-nonsense, football-focused coach who had been passed over by a handful of teams.
Spielman and Zimmer have combined with Rob Brzezinski, the Vikings’ longtime executive vice president of football operations, to build a roster, develop players and keep them around with shrewd management of the salary cap. Spielman spoke Tuesday about how much time he spends in Brzezinski’s office discussing contract matters and in Zimmer’s office talking football.
“We spent a lot of time together before (Zimmer) was hired on what we envisioned,” Spielman said. “Hopefully, we’ve had some success — not the ultimate success that we’re looking for — and we’re going to continue to strive for that. But everybody knows what direction we’re going, what we’re looking for and I think the continuity and stability that we have — not only on the front-office side but the coaches and working together as one — hopefully will benefit us.”
Spielman is right in that the Vikings haven’t reached their ultimate goal, but 12 years into his tenure, and 13 years after Wilf bought the club from Red McCombs, the Vikings are at least now the type of franchise of which ownership can be proud.