I struggle with the reality Bud Grant passed away suddenly last Saturday. I kept track of Bud and knew he was 95, but I wasn’t prepared for the news. He had been stooped over for years and sometimes used a wheelchair, but his mind was sharp, and he was active.
It felt like Bud would be around forever. Why wouldn’t the man who belongs on the Mount Rushmore of most famous Minnesotans live at least past age 100?
Longevity, durability, courage and good fortune were hallmarks of Bud’s life. He had survived a near fatal airplane crash just a few years ago. In his youth he walked miles and miles to safety in the famous Armistice Day blizzard of 1940. Even in old age, with his body failing, he willed himself to hunt and fish, hold garage sales and occasionally make public appearances.
Bud’s heart apparently gave out last Saturday and it marked the end of his relationships with many people including this writer. I respected him from the outset and although we weren’t close friends through the years, we had a cordial and professional relationship.
Among my earliest memories was in the 1970s after I had been around the Vikings coach a couple of times. “Are you going to shake my hand every time we meet?” asked Bud.
That intimidated me and that probably was his intent. Bud was tough and could send not so subtle messages about respect and who he was. Just his stoic demeanor and steely blue eyes could put a reporter or team on notice.
Bud, an authentic man to the bone, made a lasting impression on so many people and his influence went way beyond all the games and championships his teams won in the NFL and Canadian Football League. His common sense about football and life is a huge part of his legacy.
“Bud Grant had more common sense than anyone I know,” former Viking quarterback Fran Tarkenton wrote in his book Every Day Is Game Day. “I always wanted to stand next to him at practice and in the games because I wanted to soak up everything he had to say.”
Bud grew up in Superior, Wisconsin and went into the Navy out of high school. He was an All-American end for the Gophers in 1949 when coach Bernie Bierman had a great team. He later played both pro football with the NFL Eagles and CFL Blue Bombers, and pro basketball with the Minneapolis Lakers (he referenced George Mikan as the greatest competitor he ever saw). In 1957, at age 29, he became head coach of the CFL’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers and made them champions. He took over as Vikings head coach in 1967, leading the franchise to 11 division titles and four Super Bowls in 18 seasons.
Bud retired as Vikings coach after the 1983 season. But he came back for one more season in 1985 to rescue the Vikings who had made a disastrous head coaching hire in Les Steckel. Steckel, with his marine-style approach, was fired after the 1984 season with a 3-13 record.
Not only were the Vikings losing games but fan interest, too. Lou Holtz was mesmerizing the football public and the Gophers were coming to life in 1984. Vikings GM Mike Lynn saw the surging interest in the Gophers and countered by convincing Grant to make a coaching comeback.
Holtz left for Notre Dame after the 1985 season (the Gophers sold 56,000 season tickets in 1986). Bud didn’t want to continue on beyond 1985 and was replaced by offensive coordinator Jerry Burns. At age 58 he wanted to devote his healthy years to his beloved pursuit of the outdoors, including far away travel to hunt and fish.
Many of those outdoor times were spent with his son Mike, the revered football coach from Eden Prairie High School. “He says ‘let’s go hunting’ and I just drop everything,” Mike told Sports Headliners in 2012.
Bud had enough money to live comfortably after he retired. He was a frugal guy (word was that as a perk he used to gas up the family vehicles at the team’s practice facility) and he found various gigs including endorsements and card shows to generate income and supplement his NFL pension.
Like the coach, Bud’s teams were known for their consistency. Also mirroring their leader, the Vikings were focused but not overly emotional. Fairly or not , critics have suggested a lack of fire contributed to his teams going 0-4 in Super Bowls.
Coach Bierman was known for being physically demanding with his teams. Bud, though, wasn’t about to follow his mentor’s example. He didn’t want his teams so spent from practicing they had nothing left on Sundays. Fatigued or injured players, no matter how talented, didn’t win games. He always said ability was useless without “durability.”
When Bud was coaching, he used to ask scouts about the instincts of players they were evaluating. The scouts spoke about the measurables of players like size and speed, but Grant wanted to know more. “I said, ‘No, instinct is not measured. It is observed.’ All the great players have good instincts.”
Bud didn’t believe in God, but he was a close observer of the natural world and people, including in the woods or on the football field. His instincts were keen and powerful.
“Weather is a great equalizer,” Grant told Sports Headliners awhile ago. “You can have certain skills either in the kicking game, in the passing game, the catching game, and running game, but wind, cold, rain or snow can reduce any advantages you may have in those departments because the ball takes funny bounces…(and) what not. I always felt that if the other team was better, we wanted bad weather. If we felt we were better than they were, we wanted good weather.”
Bud and Minneapolis sportswriter Sid Hartman were close friends, dating back to Grant’s years as a Gopher in the late 1940s. In the book Sid, Hartman wrote about Bud’s charmed life with nature. He told about a pet crow Bud had that could land on an unsuspecting shoulder and “give you a heart attack.”
There was a night long ago when Bud and Hartman were driving home from Superior. Hartman’s car got a flat tire on a cold evening, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. It was 20 below and Hartman saw a bright light in the distance. He figured it was a spotlight and started walking toward what he presumed was a town not too far away.
“I took a few steps and sunk up to my arms into a snow-filled ditch,” Hartman wrote. “Bud started laughing and said, ‘Hey, Sid, it’s going to take you awhile to get to that spotlight. That’s the moon.”
Bud got a kick out of that. He could also be a prankster with Sid. He once put a squirrel inside Hartman’s car and the unsuspecting sportswriter almost drove off the road when he felt something strange running up his pant leg.
On April Fool’s Day Bud was the mastermind behind practical jokes at the Vikings’ offices. Secretaries best beware of a reptile or mammal that might be ready to jump out of a drawer or file cabinet.
Bud told me he was shy growing up and there was an aloofness that stayed with him through the years. It could be on display even in the presence of Vikings ownership. Bud’s son Mike told a story about how former Vikings owner Red McCombs arranged for his dad to shoot turkeys in Texas. At day’s end Bud’s hosts were nervous about how to entertain the famous coach, suggesting a nearby bar or a game of billiards. “You know what? I like quiet,” Bud said. And then, Mike recalled, his dad sat and read a newspaper for two hours.
McCombs passed on last month. Gone, too, are so many of Bud’s friends like Hartman, Burns, Billy Bye, Paul Giel and Verne Gagne. Bud outlived them all. Maybe his instincts told him last week it was time to move on.
Harry Peter Grant, aka Bud. May 20, 1927, to March 11, 2023. I’d like to shake his hand one last time.