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Celebrating the Life of Bud Grant

Hall of Fame head coach of the Vikings is only part of his story

The passing of Bud Grant is an occasion to remember what a unique life he had as an athlete, Hall of Fame coach, standard bearer of the Minnesota Vikings franchise, and an icon of Minnesota sports. He was unique in having played professionally in two sports, basketball and football (both offense and defense), coached in two leagues- the CFL and NFL- and was part of league championship teams as both a player and coach. He’s also a link between two great Minnesota franchises- the Minneapolis Lakers and the Vikings- in addition to being a three-sport athlete at the University of Minnesota and an avid outdoor sportsman. He is a member of both the CFL and NFL Hall of Fame.

Here is a timeline of his extraordinary life.

Early Life: 1927-1945

Bud Grant was born Harry Peter Grant Jr. on May 20, 1927 in Superior, Wisconsin. His Dad was also named Harry, so he was nicknamed ‘Kid’ by his Dad and ‘Buddy Boy’ by his Mom, and it was the shortened version of his Mom’s nickname that stuck.

As a kid, the future star athlete and coach contracted polio, but was able to gain the strength back in his legs playing basketball and football- shooting baskets and catching passes. By seventh grade, he was organizing neighborhood football games and played three sports in high school- football, basketball, and baseball.

Bud’s first contact with professional football came during the summers between 1939-41, when the New York Giants football team came to Superior for training camp. Bud’s Dad ran a concession stand at the field and Bud had a chance to meet the first of three future Hall of Fame NFL coaches- Steve Owen- during those training camps and early in his life.

On Armistice Day (now Veteran’s Day) November 11, 1940, the Armistice Day blizzard hit while Bud and a friend were hunting early in the morning near Yellow Lake- about 60 miles south of Superior, WI. Bud was able to make it back through the deep snow to a gas station, where he remained for two and a half days, while his friends- who were trapped in car stuck in deep snow- were saved by a farmer.

Career Beginnings: Navy and University of Minnesota 1945-1948

After high school in 1945 he joined the Navy and was sent to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Illinois where he played football under future NFL Hall of Fame coach Paul Brown. He said later that from watching Paul Brown he learned how to make a team out of individual players. Bud also played basketball under future NFL Hall of Fame coach Weeb Ewbank while in the Navy, who was also Paul Brown’s assistant football coach there.

Bud then left the Navy after being accepted to the University of Wisconsin but went to the University of Minnesota instead. There he received a total of nine letters- four in football where he played end and was also named All-Big-Ten twice. He played forward on the basketball team and was named team MVP, and also pitched and played center field for the baseball team. He was later named the top athlete at the U of MN during its first 50 years, beating out Bronko Nagurski. He also first met young sportswriter Sid Hartman during this time, who also called him the best athlete he’d ever seen in all his years covering U of MN sports. Sid would later introduce him at his enshrinement in the NFL Hall of Fame.

In 1950, Bud was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in the first round (14th overall) of the NFL Draft, and by the Minneapolis Lakers in the fourth round (47th overall) in the NBA Draft.

Bud chose the Lakers.

Minneapolis Lakers: 1950-51

Bud signed a one-year deal with the Lakers after being drafted. The team, led by the All-Time Great and NBA Hall of Famer George Mikan, won the NBA championship that year. Bud was the oldest living NBA champion when he died. Bud signed on for another year with the Lakers after that, in part because his friend Sid Hartman was the general manager and offered him a bump in pay. But after two seasons as a bench player, Bud was ready to try something else.

Bud is #20

Philadelphia Eagles: 1952-53

Bud decided to play football again after his two-year stint with the Lakers and signed with the Eagles who had drafted him in the first-round two years earlier. He had a successful if unusual two-year career with the Eagles. His first season, Bud played linebacker and led the team in sacks. His second season, he switched to offensive end and finished second in the league in both receptions (56) and receiving yards (997).

But after two seasons with the Eagles, Bud reportedly told Eagles’ team president Frank McNamee he didn’t like Philadelphia nor the people of Philadelphia and decided to move back closer to home- to Winnipeg. It was also reported that the Eagles weren’t willing to pay Bud what he thought he was worth, so he contacted the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and became the first professional football player to “play out his option” and switch teams. Apparently, the Blue Bombers offered Grant the rich sum of $10,000/year to play for them, while the Eagles offered only $7,000.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers: 1953-1966

Bud began his career with the Blue Bombers playing both ways at wide receiver and defensive back. He was named a Western Conference All-Star in three of his four seasons playing for the Blue Bombers, led the conference in receptions three times, and in receiving yards twice. He also holds the record for most picks in a professional football game (NFL or CFL) with five, which he had in a playoff game against the Saskatchewan Roughriders on October 28, 1953.

Brush with Death

In 1956, Bud was selected to play in the CFL’s East-West All-Star game in Vancouver but decided he wanted to go home earlier and decided to take an earlier flight. The flight he was scheduled to be on – Trans Canada Air Lines Flight 810 – crashed into Mount Slesse in B.C., killing all 62 passengers, including the five CFLers.

Move to Coaching

After four seasons as a player for the Blue Bombers, the team decided they needed a change of head coach and offered Bud the job, which he took- becoming the youngest head coach in CFL history at age 29. Bud took the job on a one-year deal, thinking if it didn’t work out, he’d go back to playing. But he never played another snap the rest of his life.

Bud, who was nicknamed the Silver Fox in Winnipeg, showed early on he had what it took to be a head football coach, going 12-4 his first season and ushering in the golden age for the Blue Bombers- taking them to six Grey Cup championship games, winning four of them, and compiling a 118-64-3 (.646) regular and post season record as head coach over ten seasons. He was voted CFL Coach of the Year in 1965. Bud is the winningest coach in Blue Bomber history. He was elected to the Blue Bomber Ring of Honour in 2016 and to the CFL Hall of Fame in 1983. Bud is the only person elected to both CFL and NFL Halls of Fame.

Bud had fond memories of his time in Winnipeg, and returned there to visit regularly long after he finished coaching there. In an interview in 2016 when he was inducted to the Ring of Honour, Bud had this to say of his time in Winnipeg:

“I made a lot of friends up there; I loved it up there. The whole experience left quite an imprint on me. I enjoyed playing so much. I enjoyed Winnipeg so much. I enjoyed my teammates so much. I enjoyed the atmosphere around the Bombers, Canadian football… everything. The town, the people. It wasn’t only the football; it was the whole experience.”

The Winnipeg Years

Bud’s Early Years

Minnesota Vikings: 1967-1985

When Minnesota was awarded an NFL franchise in 1961, Bud was team president Max Winter’s choice to be head coach of the team and offered Grant the job. But he turned it down. It wasn’t until 1967 when Winter and Vikings’ then GM Jim Finks were successful in bringing Bud Grant to Minnesota as head coach. A good part of convincing Grant to move to Minnesota was the success they had building up the roster. By the time Grant coached his first game for the Vikings, he already had Purple People Eaters- Carl Eller, Alan Page, Gary Larsen, and Jim Marshall on the roster. He also had Mick Tingelhoff at center, Joe Kapp at quarterback, Gene Washington at WR, and Grady Alderman at left tackle. They would add Paul Krause, Ron Yary, and Bobby Bryant the following year.

But after a poor first season for Grant- going 3-8-3- he brought the Vikings their first of his eleven NFC Central division titles in 1968, losing in the divisional round of the playoffs. But he built on that in 1969, bringing the Vikings the NFL league title that season, but losing the Super Bowl to the AFL champion Kansas City Chiefs 14-3. Bud was named NFL Coach of the Year in 1969, which remains the best season in Vikings history. The team motto that year, “40 for 60” meaning 40 players giving it 100% for 60 minutes (there were only 40 players on the active roster back then) was the essence of Bud’s team-oriented philosophy which carried throughout his coaching career with the Vikings.

By this time Grant had already made his reputation for stoic sideline demeanor, which masked a more genial off-field personality. He was a disciplinarian, in that he had rules his players knew and followed- or paid the price. He was famous for not allowing heaters on the sideline and practicing outside in the winter, which helped maintain a big homefield advantage- particularly in the playoffs. Bud’s teams were 6-1 in home playoff games- the only loss being the infamous Drew Pearson push-off game.

He didn’t yell at players, wasn’t a hard-driving coach in practice, and maintained a work-life balance few head coaches- then or now- do. He usually started training camp a week later than other teams, often had one practice a day rather than the 2-3 other teams were doing, and if an older player looked tired in practice, he might get the rest of the day off. He allowed his players to have fun within the confines of his rules. In all this he was ahead of his time- by a few decades at least.

He also wasn’t much of an Xs and Os coach either. He left most of that to his coordinators, although he did like to help draw up plays on special teams to block punts and kicks- which they did with some success. Alan Page still holds the record for most blocked kicks with 27 during his career. Matt Blair had 20, Carl Eller 10, and Paul Krause 9.

Bud also wasn’t much of a player's coach in the sense that he didn’t hang out much with his players and was a man of few words in talking with most of them. His genius for coaching was in first setting the standard of conduct he expected, establishing relatively simple, easy to understand schemes based on the talent he had, and letting his players play. He got them to buy into working and playing as a team. He didn’t yell at them, he treated them how he wanted to be treated as a former player himself. That wasn’t so common among coaches back then. And they respected him not only for who he was as a coach and former player, but for how he coached and treated them. When he talked to a player, it may only have been a few words, but they resonated and made sense. He sought to provide players with incentives, let them take the initiative, and gave them the credit for success. If he had to discipline or critique a player, he never did it in front of his teammates. They could count on him to be the same, level-headed personality every day, authentic and straight-forward, with an even-handed approach. Players liked playing for him for those reasons. When it came to keeping the team inline, he often delegated that to two team captains- Mick Tingelhoff and Jim Marshall, who he considered the two toughest guys on the team.

Unlike most head coaches, then or now, Bud wasn’t a workaholic. He wasn’t up all hours watching film or designing plays, would often go hunting on Saturdays before the game on Sunday, and usually went home at 5pm during the week. He famously said in a New York Times interview after his first retirement that:

“A good coach needs a patient wife, a loyal dog, and a great quarterback, but not necessarily in that order. I happen to have been blessed with all three, and when I did happen to have any extra time, I didn’t spend it with the quarterback.”

Bud Grant went on to become the winningest coach in Vikings’ history, chalking up eleven division titles, one NFL league title, three NFC titles, and four Super Bowl appearances along the way to a 168-108-5 (.607) regular and post season record over 18 seasons as head coach. He retired initially after the 1983 season, but after the Les Steckel disaster in 1984, Grant was brought back for one more season, after which he retired for good.

But for all his success as a coach, he said he learned early on that coaches don’t win games, players win games. So to be successful, you need to have the best players. He remained humble about his own contributions throughout his career and retirement.

Grant was also able to put the ups and downs of his career in perspective. He was grateful to have never been fired, and I suspect the success he had early in his coaching career in Winnipeg helped him absorb the disappointment of losing four Super Bowls. But he maintained a healthy perspective that sports are entertainment, not life or death. Players are stars, not heroes. And when he finally retired, he was happy to pursue other things in life- particularly as an outdoorsman.

Perhaps my favorite Bud Grant quote is his response to the question of having the worst Super Bowl record. He replied succinctly: 0-4 isn’t the worst Super Bowl record. 0-0 is.

Steve Sabol, 1999 Interview

Bud’s Vikings Years

Post-Coaching: 1986-2023

Bud remained a consultant for the Vikings, who maintained an office for him- including a new one when they moved to Eagan from Winter Park several years ago. He provided his wisdom to coaches- and players- over the next nearly 40 years since he retired from coaching and even met once a week with Kevin O’Connell over this past year at age 95.

NFL Hall of Fame Enshrinement, July 30, 1994

Throughout his career, particularly as head coach of the Vikings, Bud Grant rarely showed any emotion. Nor did he ever wear sunglasses. And so it was odd to see him wearing sunglasses for his Hall of Fame enshrinement speech. We soon learned why.

In the edited part of his enshrinement speech, Bud gave credit for the honor to the people around him- coaches, players, team execs, trainers, family- something that was consistent with him in all his post-career award speeches. He also lamented that more Vikings hadn’t been enshrined. Noting several Vikings he coached should be enshrined soon. He campaigned throughout the years for both Mick Tingelhoff and Jim Marshall particularly. Tingelhoff was finally enshrined in 2015- Jim Marshall still hasn’t received the call.

Stadium Appearances, Garage Sales, and Letters from Bud

In more recent years, Bud has introduced himself to younger generations with stadium appearances, garage sales, and other appearances. His most iconic was his coming out for the coin toss in the Vikings’ last outdoor home game at TCF Bank stadium for the playoff game against the Seahawks in a short sleeve shirt at age 88, back in 2015. It was 25 below zero windchill that day.

Bud blowing the gjallarhorn at the inaugural game at US Bank stadium in 2016:

A few years ago, Lindsey Young put together a great series call Letters to Bud that centered around letters Bud had received over the years from various people- players, coaches, public figures, fans- and in some cases his letters too- that add so much detail to Bud’s relationship with those people and provide many interesting stories as well. It’s well worth a read.

Bud’s Later Years

The Legacy of Bud Grant

In many ways, Bud Grant was the Minnesota Vikings - the personification of the franchise. But in addition to his legacy during the golden age of the Vikings franchise, he also led the Winnipeg Blue Bombers during their golden age and had a memorable career as a player in both college at the U of MN, and the NBA, NFL, and CFL. He also embodied much of what it was to be a Minnesotan in his era.

He will always be on the A-list as one of the most accomplished figures in Minnesota sports history, and a cornerstone of the Minnesota Vikings franchise.

Bud Grant by the Numbers

  • Only person in both the CFL and NFL Hall of Fame
  • One of only two people to play in both the NBA and NFL (Otto Graham)
  • 1x NBA champion
  • 3x CFL Western Conference All-Star
  • 1x CFL Coach of the Year
  • 1x NFL Coach of the Year
  • 4x CFL Grey Cup Champion
  • 0-4 Super Bowl record
  • 1x NFL league champion
  • 3x NFC champion
  • 50 Greatest Vikings
  • Top U of MN athlete in first 50 years
  • Vikings Ring of Honor
  • NFL regular season record: 158–96–5 (.620)
  • CFL regular season record: 102–56–2 (.644)
  • NFL postseason record: 10–12 (.455)
  • CFL postseason record: 16–8–1 (.660)
  • NFL career record: 168–108–5 (.607)
  • CFL career record: 118–64–3 (.646)
  • Combined CFL & NFL coaching record: 286-172-8 (.624)
  • Combining his CFL and NFL coaching record, he’s the 4th winningest head coach in North American pro football history, behind only Don Shula, Bill Belichick, and George Halas.

It will be interesting to see how the Vikings choose to honor Bud Grant’s legacy, now that he’s passed. I wouldn’t be surprised if they put his initials on Vikings’ jerseys or helmets permanently. If it wasn’t the era of owners getting millions for naming rights, I’d think they’d rename US Bank stadium after Bud Grant, or TCO Performance Center after him.

But however the Vikings choose to mark his legacy, he was always be remembered.


Has there been a better coach in the history of Minnesota sports than Bud Grant?

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