SMITH COLUMN: Remembering Bud Grant

Published 10:30 am Thursday, March 16, 2023

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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 a.m. and duck hunt for an hour and a half and make it to the office by 8 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.

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.”