In two weeks, Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell will become head coach of the Minnesota Vikings and will commence his duties in the great, looming shadow of the man he beat out of the job: University of Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh. Exactly how O’Connell beat out Harbaugh, and if he even really did, is something that’s gonna stick around in Vikings anti-lore for a potentially long time.
Let’s go back. The Vikings fired longtime head coach Mike Zimmer a little under a month ago. Zimmer’s tenure was ugly, so much so that he reportedly wasn’t on speaking terms with general manager Rick Spielman—also fired—by the end of it. That ugliness has now spilled out into the ether, as Spielman is currently fending off public criticism from Zimmer’s supermodel girlfriend while trying to land a front-office job in Jacksonville. I hope all three of these crazy kids find what they’re looking for one day.
For their part, the Vikings brought in new GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah from the Browns to foster an atmosphere of collaboration and inquisitiveness, which would sound like a real load of shit if Adofo-Mensah didn’t come off as cool as he did in his opening presser. After that presser, Adofo-Mensah targeted three head coaching candidates for second interviews—O’Connell, Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris, and Niners DC DeMeco Ryans—and added a fourth candidate in Giants DC Pat Graham. He also conducted an exploratory interview with Harbaugh that, once leaked, made Harbaugh the only candidate in the minds of many fans. “Many fans” meaning me.
Now, Jim Harbaugh is a deeply strange man. Any photo taken of him coaching during games will invariably feature him baring his teeth with supreme gusto, like he’s about to bite you. He’s so intense I’d be afraid to fuck up making pancakes in front of him. But he was also, of the Vikings’ finalists, the one with the most experience and the most impressive resume. He took a formerly moribund San Francisco team to the NFC title game his first three years on the job, came within a crummy fade route call of a Super Bowl title, went 44-19-1 overall, and then fucked off to Michigan after a feud between him and then-Niners GM Trent Baalke ended in his ouster. As far as I know, no supermodel girlfriends were emotionally wounded in the course of that feud.
Harbaugh’s subsequent tenure in Ann Arbor was, until this past season, underwhelming. But Vikings fans (suckers) like me were more than willing to overlook that fact, fondly remember his success with the Niners (but not his exit), and covet both Harbaugh and the Offseason Championship energy he would surely bring to a franchise in dire need of relevance. Jim Harbaugh is many things, but boring is not one of them. He was a name-brand coach, and the allure of name-brand coaches persists even as they continually fail.
On Monday, Ryans ended up withdrawing from his second interview with the Vikings for reasons that would become clear later that night: Harbaugh would be flying into Minneapolis on Wednesday for his own second interview with the team. Harbaugh, who is a year older than Zimmer was when he was hired by Minnesota, was Adofo-Mensah’s top choice for the job and the biggest name left in the talent pool. This was a done deal. Indeed, on Tuesday night, senior editor of The Wolverine Chris Balas reported that Harbaugh was actively planning to leave the school to sign with Minnesota. The interview would be a “formality.”
The Vikings would make that interview TOO much of a formality. The longer they dragged out Wednesday’s vetting process—and God, it took so long—the less this seemed like a fait accompli. Not a single NFL reporter would back up Balas’ initial report. Another reporter with deep Michigan ties, the mysterious and delicious John Bacon, confirmed that Vikings minority owner Jim Stapleton was actively lobbying the team to NOT hire Harbaugh. I didn’t buy Bacon’s report. But when you’re a Vikings fan, you’re the last person to realize when everything has fallen apart.
And so it did. According to ESPN’s Courtney Cronin, Harbaugh assumed he was flying into the Minnesota to sign a contract. He didn’t expect an ACTUAL interview, which is precisely what Vikings’ brass subjected him to. All day. Jon Krawczynski—no, not the actor—and Chad Graff of The Athletic reported that the Vikings never offered Harbaugh a contract at all, realizing over the course of their time with him that O’Connell was the better man for the job. By the end of last night, Harbaugh had announced that he was returning to Michigan and didn’t care to coach pro football EVER again. The fit was that bad.
If you go by Krawczynski’s and Graff’s full tick-tock of yesterday (it’s worth reading in full), the fuckery with Harbaugh comes off as part of a normal vetting process that both Harbaugh and people on the outside blew out of proportion. Perhaps I am one of those people. Given my team’s history, you can hardly blame me. I went from being Harb-curious to Harb-obsessed all within the span of a week. I became invested in the man. Infatuated. So when he and the Vikings annulled everything last night, I was left confused, skeptical, and deeply irritated. Jilted at the altar, the way this team always jilts me. While I believe The Athletic’s report, this whole episode FEELS like a disaster, and is entirely in line with a franchise that, my whole life, has punished me for the sin of having dignity. The Vikings and their shiny new GM fucked this all up.
But it’s also entirely possible that the Vikings did the right thing, or had the right thing forced upon them. This is a team that dropped two spots in the NFL Draft 18 years ago because they couldn’t turn in their draft card in time. That draft netted them Kevin Williams, who would go on to become one of the greatest defensive linemen in team history. That’s one of the very few times a brainfart has worked out in their favor, but maybe it will again this time around. After all, O’Connell comes from a coaching tree that’s already borne wildly successful fruit. Perhaps Minnesota just avoided a colossal mistake in hiring a known megalomaniac instead of O’Connell. Perhaps they were wise to bring in an amiable young coach who’ll give Adofo-Mensah some breathing room. And perhaps it was better to have everything blow up with Harbaugh now instead of, say, Week 11. Perhaps this will all go down as a happy accident.
All I know is that this O’Connell guy better win the Super Bowl. And then drive Kirk Cousins deep into the forest and leave him there.