Loran Smith: Remembering Bud Grant

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Loran Smith: Remembering Bud Grant

Loran Smith
Loran Smith

On the way to a pheasant hunt in South Dakota one brisk November day about ten years ago, I made a stop in Minneapolis to visit with Bud Grant, an extraordinary football coach and passionate outdoorsman.

With assists from Fran Tarkenton and Bob Hagan, Viking public relations director, I was fortunate to spend most of a morning in a sprightly conversation that lasted through lunch, talking football with an accomplished athlete who became an accomplished coach. 





The central objective of my trip to the Twin Cities was to video tape a conversation with Grant about Tarkenton, who played quarterback in the National Football League for a remarkable 18 years.

It is doubtful that there has ever been a greater mutual admiration society between a coach and a player than there was with Bud and Fran.  The coach thought the quarterback was the greatest he ever saw, and the quarterback, a very opinionated man, never found fault with the coach.  That is very unusual, especially at the pro level.

John Unitas was not, especially at the end of his career, philosophically compatible with Don Shula, according to those close to the Colt hero.  Apparently with the passing of time, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady felt that a parting of the ways was best for each of them.   It was oil and water with Tarkenton and Norm Van Brocklin.  Bart Starr, however, was never at a loss for words when speaking of his admiration for Vince Lombardi. Same with Tarkenton and Grant.





Spending relaxed and unhurried time with Grant, with about an hour of our conversation being videotaped for the UGA football archives, was one of the most enjoyable times I have ever experienced.  Before the taping began, there was little football talk.  Knowing of my impending pheasant hunt, the old coach preferred to discourse about his days when he could knock down cock pheasants in a Minnesota grain field with the best of hunters.

He remembered his favorite dogs and their legacies.  He recalled shooting ducks in a blinding snowstorm.   The biting cold did not bother him.  That negative was trumped by the good fortune he had in bringing home a generous bounty for his freezer.  A successful hunt to him was like a seasoned golfer breaking par on the golf course. Such experiences never get old.

His players became mentally toughened with Grant’s refusal to put heaters on the sideline during Minnesota’s harsh winters, enhancing the Viking home field advantage.  He grew up in the snow and cold, so it was only natural that he was compliant with playing and working in those conditions.

When he coached the Vikings, there were times when Bud would arise before 5:00 a.m. and duck hunt for an hour and a half and make it to the office by 8:00 a.m.  Merging deep and abiding loves brought about enduring fulfillment.

As the coach of the former Bulldog quarterback, Grant expressed the consummate regard for Tarkenton’s mental and physical toughness.  “He never missed a kickoff,” Bud said, visibly moved by his recall of Tarkenton’s resilience.  “A quarterback’s greatest ability is durability,” Bud told me.  “He was the best I have ever seen.  He was such a competitor, he was brilliant and accurate—in fact, I don’t ever remember him missing an open receiver.”

Grant, who died last weekend, won an NBA title while playing for the old Minneapolis Lakers and holds the North American record for interceptions in a playoff game—five for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.  As an NFL player, he led the Philadelphia Eagles in sacks as a defensive back one year, and the next year, he was moved to offense and led the team in receiving.

Bud knew what it took to play defensive back in the league, and he also knew what it took to succeed as a receiver, all of which led him to the conclusion that winning is all about the players.  “If I have better players than you do, I should win, but to win a championship you have to be very lucky.”

His luck ran out four times in four trips to the Super Bowl, but he had a cogent philosophical take about that.  How long did it take him to get over losing those Super Bowls? “About a day,” he said.  “Football is entertainment, and you can’t let your defeats defeat you.  In sports, we want to see who No.1 is, but those who lose the big game are winners by being able to play in the championship.  You play your best and move on.”   He never watched film or tape of any of those Super Bowl losses.  When the games were over, there was no moping about, carping and complaining.  He went hunting.

Grant’s consistency of success, those Super Bowl Sunday’s notwithstanding, was exceptional.  His first move when he took over the Vikings, after ten years in the Canadian League where he won four Grey Cup titles, was to find a way to bring Tarkenton, who had been traded to the Giants, back to Minnesota.   With the quarterback’s mastery of the short passing game, the team’s ability to run the football and playing great defense, the Vikings were annual playoff contenders and won the NFL Central Division title seven out of nine years.

If you want to vicariously experience Bud Grant’s exciting life, get a copy of his extraordinary story by connecting with his book, “I Did It My Way,” with Jim Bruton.  You’ll be graphically impressed with the story of a man who never tried to impress anybody.  Bud Grant was as genuine as the tail feathers on a cock pheasant. 





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