Nearing halftime of the 1994 NFC Championship Game, the superstar-laden Dallas Cowboys were teetering on the verge of collapse.
This was America’s Team, aiming to reach and win its third straight Super Bowl. And it was getting dominated by the San Francisco 49ers.
Clawing back from an early 21-0 deficit, the Cowboys went blow for blow with the 49ers in this Ali-Frazier-like matchup. With eight seconds remaining in the second quarter, Jerry Rice caught a 28-yard touchdown to put the 49ers up 31-14.
Out of the corner of his eye, Darren Woodson caught two men screaming at each other so aggressively that players and coaches stepped in to separate them on the Cowboys’ sideline.
Wide receiver Michael Irvin was venting his frustrations with Dallas’ defensive game plan, upset that the defensive backs weren’t doubling Rice, who ended up with just two catches for 36 yards in San Francisco’s 38-28 victory. Bearing the brunt of Irvin’s anger was a 38-year-old Mike Zimmer, in his first season with the Cowboys as the nickelbacks coach.
“And that’s when I knew. I was like, this guy is crazy,” said Woodson, who spent his entire 12-year career in Dallas. “For one, Michael Irvin is a future Hall of Famer, two-time Super Bowl champ and you’re the new guy … Physically, Zim wanted to fight Michael Irvin and I was like, OK, this guy’s crazy. He’s something we’re going to have to deal with.
“Zim didn’t back down from anyone at that time. You just knew he had that special ‘it’ about him.”
Three jobs and 13 years stand between Zimmer and the place where his NFL career started. On Sunday, the Minnesota Vikings coach returns to Dallas, where he spent 13 seasons (1994-2006), first as a position coach and later as defensive coordinator.
The Cowboys gave Zimmer an opportunity to mold his defensive philosophy, win a Super Bowl and cultivate countless relationships with players and coaches, several of whom serve on his staff in Minnesota.
His time with the Cowboys prepared him to become a head coach. As his Vikings take the field Sunday at AT&T Stadium (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC), it’s evident that the coach Zimmer is today grew out of the time he spent working with one of the best franchises in history.
Following the 1995 season, his second in Dallas, Zimmer and the Cowboys reached Super Bowl XXX, where they met the No. 2 seed Pittsburgh Steelers.
This was familiar territory for many of Dallas’ defensive backs who had been to three Super Bowls in four seasons and won rings following the 1992 and 1993 seasons. It was brand-new for their position coach.
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“You guys got your rings, I didn’t get one last year,” Woodson recalls Zimmer telling his position group. “I want to get this ring so you win this damn game for me. As if we don’t have enough pressure on us already.”
The Cowboys had a comfortable 10-point margin entering the final moments. With the championship all but won, defensive coordinator Dave Campo made his way down from the coaches’ box to the sideline, where he ran into Zimmer, who was intent on staying locked in despite the game’s inevitable outcome.
“I’m looking at Zim trying to get the calls in,” Woodson said. “There were three plays at the end of that game where I couldn’t get his attention, so I’m calling the last three plays because he’s pissed off at Campo and screaming at him about not staying up in the booth. They’re arguing on the sideline — people are pulling them apart. I’m looking to get a call and I thought, ‘This is Zim, to a T, this is the guy.’
“He always said the game doesn’t end until that damn ref blows the whistle. It’s like baseball. That spoke directly to who that man was. We’re in one of the biggest moments, about to win a championship, and it’s his first championship, and he would rather be arguing with the defensive coordinator than celebrating a damn championship. We’re on the field, myself and Deion [Sanders], we’re laughing at him arguing with Campo. That defines who the guy was.”
In the peak of celebration, a trying season had finally come to an end. There was little jubilation postgame. For several minutes, Woodson, Sanders, Super Bowl MVP Larry Brown, Brock Marion and Kevin Smith quietly sat at their lockers with their pads on, exhaling in relief after accomplishing what had been expected of them all season. But they knew in the back of their minds that this dynasty — the one that won three Lombardi trophies in four seasons — was about to end.
Across the way in the coaches’ locker room, Zimmer shared the same sentiment.
“The year we won the Super Bowl in Dallas was one of the hardest years I’ve ever had coaching because we were supposed to win,” Zimmer said. “We had ups and downs that year and I actually remember going in after the game and sitting down in a chair in the locker room saying, ‘Whew, that was a long season.’ It was hard, it was difficult. I feel like people believe it’s an easy road. It is not.”
Zimmer was promoted to defensive coordinator in 2000 when Campo was named Cowboys head coach. Three straight seasons of 5-11 records put Campo on the outs and ushered in the Bill Parcells era. Zimmer was the only coach retained from Campo’s staff.
Zimmer built his defense with smaller players whose abilities allowed him to tinker with various coverages and blitzes predicated off speed. Parcells wanted to switch up the defensive scheme from the moment he arrived, unimpressed particularly with the linebacker corps.
Parcells wanted to change from Zimmer’s 4-3 defense to the 3-4 he ran with the Jets, Patriots and Giants. But he didn’t have the personnel to make the switch during his first two seasons as head coach (2003-04).
“Bill didn’t want no ‘midget’ linebackers,” former linebacker Dat Nguyen said, referencing Parcells’ sentiments about the position group he inherited. “I remember every day after we worked out, Dexter Coakley and myself would come into the locker room and any time we saw Zim, he gave us that look and would come up to us and say, ‘Don’t worry about it, guys, we’ll prove to Coach that we can play a 4-3 defense.'”
Dallas had the No. 1 defense during the 2003 season but dropped to 16th the following year.
“In the offseason, even when we were No. 1 in the league, he had me studying 3-4 teams,” Zimmer said. “And he kept bringing in, having these big ol’ linebackers in there that couldn’t run real good. You could kind of see where it was going. So he walked in and said ‘Hey what do you think about going to 3-4,’ like it was a question.”
In 2005, the switch was made. Growing pains ensued.
Dallas had drafted Greg Ellis with the eighth overall pick in 1998 as a defensive end. In this new scheme, he made the switch to outside linebacker, which he initially fought.
“I never did it so I was concerned,” Ellis said. “Bill had me playing defensive end in the scheme, so my reluctance was I’m going against guys who in some cases weigh a whole 100 pounds more than me and I don’t get to use my quickness. In a 3-4, I’m lined up face-to-face with them.
“Zim would call me the ‘worrywart’ because I always wanted to be good and I felt like, y’all want me to play outside linebacker, I don’t know if I can be good at doing that, and I want to be good. But he hung in there with me and was very, very patient. More patient with me than I was with myself.”
Parcells tested Zimmer’s ability to adapt and succeed (the Cowboys had a top-10 defense the first year of the 3-4). The defensive coordinator had to do more than understand the intricacies of how to beat an offense in a scheme he had little experience with. He had to figure out how to teach a defense to players who were learning along with him.
“That might have been the best thing, in my opinion, for Coach Zimmer,” Nguyen said. “When I see him now and what he does … he has his own philosophies, but I think he learned a lot from Coach Parcells.”
Zimmer left Dallas in 2006 for a one-year stint as the defensive coordinator with the Atlanta Falcons, followed by that same job with the Cincinnati Bengals (2008-13) before he received his first shot as a head coach in Minnesota at the age of 58.
Football brought him to Dallas, but it was here where his family established long-standing roots, friendships and memories.
His daughter Corri lives in the Southlake suburb of Dallas in the home Zimmer bought for himself and his late wife, Vikki. Corri, who was 4 years old when Barry Switzer brought her dad on staff, spent her formative years around the Cowboys organization, along with brother Adam, who is the Vikings linebacker coach, and sister Marki. The family used to spend the Fourth of July riding four-wheelers at Sanders’ house. The Zimmer girls babysat Sean Payton’s preschool-aged children when the current New Orleans Saints coach was the offensive coordinator under Parcells. Their homes were just four or five blocks apart.
Corri can still envision the environment at Texas Stadium, the way it smelled on game days when she attended games with her mother and younger sister.
“Every now and then the fans would get bad and my mom, she’d be sitting in the stands and yell at someone ‘You don’t know how hard they work!'” Corri Zimmer said.
She witnessed her father’s NFL career from the very start and remembers hearing the garage door open at 4 a.m. most mornings when Mike Zimmer headed to work as DBs coach and later defensive coordinator.
Years later, very little has changed.
“I always remember him having the same intensity,” Corri said. “It never really grew as he moved up the ladder. I think he’s always been intense, he’s always been a hard worker and it got him to where he is today.”
From owner Jerry Jones to the coaches who came through the organization, the Cowboys created a family environment that welcomed the Zimmers. But every relationship has its share of ups and downs. It wasn’t until after Zimmer and Parcells parted ways that their bond grew into what it is today.
“When Parcells got there, he was so strict,” Corri said. “Luckily he gave my dad a chance and we got to stick around. He was so strict and he was set in his ways. My dad, he really had a hard time adjusting, but Bill Parcells is his mentor now. He’s learned so much from him in that time that they spent together that I think he’s really grateful for it, too.”
Added Woodson: “Parcells was molding Zim into being a head coach. He was putting him through some steps that would help him grow and be more understanding of defensive concepts through the years. It was hard because you had two stubborn men. I saw those two go at it a ton. Zim wouldn’t back down from Parcells as well. I think it made Zim who he is today, made him much more well-rounded on how you attack teams with a 3-4 defense and a 4-3 defense as well on both sides.”
Mike Zimmer, now 63, has moved on after 13 seasons in Dallas, but his daughter remains in the place where he began his path toward becoming a head coach. So too do the ties to a place that gave him his shot in the NFL, even after all these years.
“I think he learned something from everywhere he goes,” Corri said. “Some of the great head coaches he was under, he has a book for each of them — the things he liked, the things he learned from them. Being under different head coaches and working for an organization that was winning as much and so successful, I think that has a lot to do with his standards now and the way that he coaches now.”