EAGAN, Minn. — When Mike Zimmer was hired as assistant defensive backs coach for Dallas in 1994, his first job in the NFL, he was a virtual unknown. Even Barry Switzer, then the head coach, admits he had never heard of him until defensive backs coach Dave Campo convinced him to make the hire.
That anonymity was gone in a hurry. Former Cowboys safety Darren Woodson remembers a game that season at San Francisco in which Zimmer was ready to fight Dallas’ star receiver, Michael Irvin.
“We gave up a big play to Jerry Rice, and Michael was upset we weren’t doubling Rice,” Woodson said. “All of sudden, I see him and Zim arguing on the sideline, going face to face and about to go to blows, and they’re pulling them apart.
“Zim won’t back down from a guy who is going to be a hall of famer and he’s a first-year assistant defensive backs coach. And I’m thinking, ‘There’s something about that dude.’”
Yes, there was. Zimmer went on to spend 13 seasons as a Dallas assistant coach, the last seven as defensive coordinator. He won his only Super Bowl ring with the Cowboys after the 1995 season, when he had been promoted to defensive backs coach.
On Sunday night, Zimmer, 63, will return to Dallas to face the Cowboys for the first time in the regular season as a head coach. He’s in his sixth season with the Vikings.
Zimmer did lead the Vikings to a 28-14 preseason win at Dallas in 2015. He was scheduled to coach against the Cowboys at U.S. Bank Stadium in December 2016 but was sidelined by emergency eye surgery, the only game he has missed in his 26-year NFL career.
“I personally think it’s going to be emotional for him Sunday,” said Woodson, who made five Pro Bowls while playing with Dallas from 1992-2003. “He raised his (three) kids in Dallas. He lost his wife (Vikki, who died in 2009) years later, but he and his wife were there and they experienced a lot of the good and some not so good. He got a Super Bowl ring out of it, and I think it’s a place where he was able to become the man and become the coach he is today.”
Asked this week if there would be any emotions flowing in his trip to Dallas, Zimmer responded with a quick, “No.” But his son, Vikings linebackers coach Adam Zimmer, said his father is grateful for his time there.
“I think we all are,” Adam Zimmer said. “They gave him his first chance and they were pretty loyal to him when he was there through four head coaches, so there will always be a place in the heart, for the city anyway. And the franchise was really good to us when we were there.”
‘He was honest’
Zimmer was 37 when hired by the Cowboys. He previously had coaching stints at Weber State from (1981-88) and Washington State, where he was defensive coordinator from 1989-93. Dallas paid him $40,000 in his first season.
“He took a pay cut to come to the Cowboys,” Campo said.
Campo was a Weber State defensive assistant (1981-82) when Zimmer was a linebackers coach. He was impressed with Zimmer and continued to follow his career after he left.
“He was a tremendous competitor,” Campo said. “That’s the thing that stuck out with me. From the beginning, he was a tough guy, he was a football guy.”
Campo tried to get the Cowboys to hire Zimmer when Jimmy Johnson was the head coach from 1989-93 but it never worked out. Then Switzer, who had won three national championships at Oklahoma, got the job and Campo lobbied Zimmer again.
“I had never heard of him, and I don’t think anybody else on the team did,” Switzer said. “But Campo believed in Mike, and he’s proven us all right.”
Switzer, who coached the Cowboys from 1994-97, hasn’t talked to Zimmer since he was hired by the Vikings in January 2014. But he will be at Sunday’s game and hopes to speak to Zimmer on the field before kickoff.
Don’t be surprised if Switzer jokes with Zimmer about giving him 10 tickets to Super Bowl XXX in 1996. They had a face value of $350, and Switzer thought he could sell them to supplement his income.
“If he gets to the Super Bowl with the Vikings, he owes me some Super Bowl tickets because he wasn’t making any money and I’m sure he made a few thousand bucks off those,” said Switzer, whose Cowboys beat Pittsburgh 27-17 for the championship. “So, he owes me some tickets so he can pay me back someday.”
But Zimmer did help Switzer as an assistant. Woodson gives Zimmer a lot of credit for turning him into a Pro Bowl safety, and Zimmer also worked closely with star cornerback Deion Sanders, who has continued over the years to speak fondly of Zimmer.
“Deion was a guy who, if he believed in you, he’s going to support you and you could see him supporting Mike right away,” Switzer said.
Woodson said there was no secret to how Zimmer quickly won over players.
“We had just won Super Bowls (after the 1992 and 1993 seasons) and we were flying high, but Zimmer was, ‘You’ve got to get better at these things,’” said Woodson, who has remained close with his former coach. “I and a lot of guys in the locker room really appreciated that. He was honest. He kept his criticism real and he was the kind of competitor to make us better.”
He also had a temper. Adam Zimmer, 35, started holding his father’s headset cord in 1994, when he was 10, and one incident from 1994 sticks out.
“My dad got really mad and he broke one of those sideline clipboards over his knee,” he said. “Bill Bates, a DB at the time, went over to me and said, ‘Can you believe your dad broke that board?’ It was in the middle of the game and he’s fired up, and Bill Bates is making jokes about it with me.’”
After Switzer left, Zimmer remained as defensive backs coach under head coach Chan Gailey from 1998-99. When Gailey was replaced in 2000 by Campo, he promoted Zimmer to defensive coordinator.
The Cowboys went 5-11 in each of Campo’s three seasons as coach, but in 2001 they were fourth in the NFL in total defense, something Bill Parcells remembered when he took over as head coach in 2003.
“He was an outstanding coach,” Campo said. “He was good enough to get a one-million-dollar contract (when Parcells retained Zimmer). He had been making about $350,000.”
The defensive success continued under Parcells, the Hall of Fame coach who had been a defensive coordinator before taking over the New York Giants and leading them to Super Bowl wins after the 1986 and 1990 seasons. In 2003, the Cowboys were No. 1 in the NFL in total defense and No. 2 in scoring defense.
“I think from Day 1, Parcells saw Parcells in Zimmer,” said Babe Laufenberg, the Cowboys longtime radio analyst who was a Dallas backup quarterback before Zimmer arrived. “I think he looked at Zimmer and said, ‘That was me 20 years ago,’ just from the way they go about their business and what they demand.”
Zimmer considers Parcells his mentor and continues to keep in regular touch with him. But despite the close relationship, that didn’t stop Parcells in 2005 from changing from Zimmer’s preferred 4-3 defense to his preferred 3-4. The Cowboys had dropped to 16th in total defense in 2004, and Parcells wasn’t happy.
“Zim’s a 4-3 guy, but he didn’t cry and he didn’t complain about it,” said Greg Ellis, a Cowboys defensive end from 1998-2009. “He figured that, ‘Hey, in life, if you got lemons, you’ve got to figure out how to make lemonade out of this.’ That gave me another level of respect for him.”
In two years of running the 3-4, the Cowboys were 10th and 13th in total defense. Then Parcells retired from coaching after the 2006 season at age 65.
Parcells will watch Sunday’s game from his home in South Florida. He declined to talk about Zimmer going back to Dallas. “I’m just trying to stay off the radar with him,” he said. “I care about what happens, and I’m very interested, but I just want to stay quiet.”
When Parcells left Dallas, Zimmer hoped to get an interview to succeed him. Some thought he was ready to be a head coach, and Campo said he was “irked” to not even get an interview. The Cowboys hired Wade Phillips as head coach and Brian Stewart as defensive coordinator.
“I would have loved for Zim to become the head coach,” said Ellis, who has remained close to Zimmer and worked with Vikings defensive linemen at training camp in 2014 and 2015.
Woodson had retired but was rooting for his former position coach.
“I think in his heart deep down he felt and I felt — and I think a lot of people in the organization felt — like he was going to be the next head coach when Parcells left,” he said. “If you know Zim, he’s super competitive and I’m sure he’d like to show (Sunday) that they made the wrong choice.”
Zimmer moved to Atlanta for a year as defensive coordinator before spending six years as Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator. Minnesota hired him as head coach in January 2014. He was 57.
In 2016, the Vikings were preparing to face the Cowboys at U.S. Bank Stadium when Zimmer had emergency eye surgery the night before the game. He was ruled out for the game, and Minnesota lost 17-15 with then-special teams coordinator Mike Priefer serving as interim coach.
“Zim’s a tough guy,” Laufenberg said. “I was surprised I didn’t see a hospital bed on the sideline with Zim on it with a patch on his eye calling things. If there was any way he could have been out there, he would, and I just know that because it was the Cowboys it would have been more special for him to see what he could have done against them.”
As for Sunday’s game, Zimmer said he admires longtime Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, executive vice president Stephen Jones and coach Jason Garrett, a Dallas backup quarterback from 1993-99. But Zimmer said the game means “nothing” from a personal standpoint because was he was in Dallas “so long ago.”
Not everybody buys that.
“You’re going against your former team,” Ellis said. “You want to really have a good performance. You want to win every game, but I think human nature would say there’s a little extra salt and vinegar in this one.”