First-year head coach Kevin O’Connell building Vikings’ culture via easy authenticity, strong acuity

EAGAN, Minn. — Following a joint workout with the 49ers last week, first-year Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell sat on one of the four manicured grass fields at the team’s training facility and leaned back, his long legs seemingly stretching from the 30-yard line to the end zone. He wore jogger pants, a T-shirt and an easy smile as rap music spilled from the raised, garage-like doors of the weight room.

If O’Connell had any stresses or concerns, they were invisible to fans, players and reporters who passed by during the 20 minutes he discussed his professional journey with a visitor. It felt like a lazy summer day spent taking in rays on one of the San Diego beaches O’Connell grew up around. He was that comfortable and relaxed, which, in turn, should make Vikings fans more at ease.

O’Connell’s demeanor was not a guarantee of future success, but it was a reflection of someone being true to who he is — a quality which many in the profession believe is the first step in building a stable foundation. That belief has been expressed to him by the Rams’ Sean McVay, the Raiders’ Josh McDaniels and the Patriots’ Bill Belichick — current NFL head coaches for whom he has worked or played — and from Kyle Shanahan, the 49ers coach who has gone to a Super Bowl and two NFC Championship Games over his first five seasons in the big chair.

In an age where coaches tend to be hypersensitive about appearing too close to the media, and where decision-makers tend to major in the minor for no other reason than to make themselves appear to be in control, seeing O’Connell kick back on a practice field … in full view of everyone … while chopping it up with a reporter … was … um … different. It also was a sign of authenticity, of him being willing to follow his own playbook, not someone else’s.

“Kevin is very bright and one of the best people I’ve ever met,” said McDaniels, New England’s offensive coordinator in 2008 when O’Connell, a quarterback, was a third-round selection of the Patriots. “You can do a lot with those two qualities because he’s smart and he knows who he is. People will love working for him and playing for him because he knows what it takes. It won’t shock me if he has success and has success early.”

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O’Connell, 37, saw himself traveling a different road coming out of San Diego State, where he threw for 15 touchdowns and 3,063 yards as a senior. He dreamed of making it as NFL starter and seemed to have the requisite traits: 6-foot-5, good arm strength, high football IQ. However, New England waived him after just one season. Detroit claimed his rights off waivers, but just a few days later, the Lions traded him to the Jets.

If O’Connell could not see that his calling was as a coach instead of a player after never taking an official snap in three seasons with the Jets, Mike Pettine, New York’s defensive coordinator back then, painted a vivid picture of his future in football.

“I think I might have said, ‘You’re not worth a damn as a quarterback’ — and I don’t know if I used the word ‘damn’ — ‘however, you’re going to make a hell of a coach one day,’ ” recalled Pettine, a close friend who is now O’Connell’s assistant head coach in Minnesota. “It was just obvious how natural the football discussions came to him.”

That was most evident during weeks when New York was preparing to face New England. Seeking to exploit O’Connell’s knowledge of the Evil Empire, as the Patriots were known to divisional foes because of their immense success, the Jets would mine O’Connell’s memory bank for everything he knew about the Pats and quarterback Tom Brady.

“He would spend the entire week with the defense,” said Brian Schottenheimer, the Jets’ offensive coordinator at the time. “He’d be in their team meetings and staff meetings. He’d run the scout team. He would mimic all of Tom’s mannerisms because he had been around him. He truly helped us design blitzes to attack their protections. He knew Tom’s reactions so well that he could tell us what Tom would do. ‘If we put a piece here, he’s going to this, so here’s our answer to that.’ We literally beat New England at least two times because of the free runners we got on Tom in the protection part of it, and that came from Kevin.”

O’Connell likes to say Pettine and the Jets saw his future before he did, even if the path remained murky after New York released him following the 2011 season. He tried his hand at broadcasting and showed a lot of potential, not that anyone close to him was surprised. Bill O’Connell, his father, tells the story of Kevin throwing passes to himself as a 3- or 4-year-old while narrating the play in real time.

Though cool, broadcasting did not fill the void of being intimately involved with the game. He was exploring other opportunities behind the scenes, but the right coaching fit failed to materialize. Finally, in 2015, the phone rang. Pettine was entering his second season as head coach of the Browns and needed a quarterbacks coach who possessed both the people skills to potentially get through to Johnny Manziel, the immature quarterback Cleveland had selected in the first round one year prior, and the communication skills to take complex schemes and break them down into digestible bites for the players.

“I couldn’t get there fast enough,” O’Connell said.

He quickly affirmed his value. The Browns were in search of a veteran quarterback to counterbalance Manziel, who had struggled on and off the field as a rookie. They focused on Josh McCown, who was everything Manziel was not, notably widely respected for his maturity, leadership and work ethic.

There was just one problem: McCown had questions about potentially playing for a QB coach who was six years younger than he was. He needed more clarity about what he was getting himself into. Would they see the game in the same way? What about protection schemes? Would they speak the same language? “Come with me,” O’Connell said to McCown, guiding the veteran quarterback into a meeting room and closing the door. Over the next hour to 90 minutes, they got on the white board and designed and discussed protections. They focused not only on the “what” but the “why.”

“It resonated with me,” McCown recalled last week. “It was such a good moment because it gave me the peace of mind that there is someone here who understands and sees the detail, which was important after being at different stops where that wasn’t the case. For him to walk me through it the way he did, it showed a level of preparation to put my mind at ease.”

Perhaps O’Connell appears so outwardly poised about his situation because he’s smart enough to know what he doesn’t know. It’s why he has stacked his staff with experienced coaches like Pettine, Ed Donatell (defensive coordinator), Wes Phillips (offensive coordinator), Greg Manusky (inside linebackers coach) and Keenan McCardell (wide receivers coach).

At the same time, he has a mental notebook of details and best practices he has culled from seven years as an assistant coach, things that contribute to the type of “we” culture he wants for the team. Many of his beliefs were affirmed the past two seasons with the Rams, where McVay’s attitude toward his players and staff was to push hard and love harder.

“I had always kind of thought to myself, This is what I want my culture to be like, this is the positive work environment where people can thrive within their roles. Then I got around the guy that does it as well as anybody in our league, as far as building a culture and allowing players to have some ownership and thrive in their roles, which ultimately builds something that can withstand the adversity that inevitably comes,” O’Connell said. “Every NFL team faces adversity in stretches of the season, some more than most, but it’s how you handle it in those times. I think you handle them the best in the type of culture we want to build here, where these players look inward and they look to us for leadership and we look to them for the same thing. And then, ultimately, you just be the same guy every single day, right, wrong or indifferent. You push these guys and coach them hard and let them know that you love them and you care about them and their families and everything that goes into it. We won a Super Bowl doing it that way last season.

“I don’t know that there is another way that you could tell me that works — at least for me. Anything else would be a lack of authenticity, and I believe the players would notice it. If the football is right, things will go well. But when it doesn’t, that’s the true test of … How do you come together? How do you overcome that adversity together? How do you figure out a way like we did last year?”

While the 2021 Rams eventually edged out the Bengals in Super Bowl LVI, netting O’Connell a ring, the road to the Lombardi Trophy wasn’t entirely smooth. In fact, Los Angeles went winless in the month of November.

“There were 30-plus days where there were multiple opportunities for that team to start to point fingers and blame coaches, blame me, blame the offense, blame the defense. Not one time did it ever happen or even lean that way, because of the guy leading us and the guys working for him and the leadership of our team. We were all in on that ‘we not me’ philosophy,” O’Connell said. “We haven’t played a (regular-season) game yet (in Minnesota), and we have a long way to go before we’re even ready to do that, but I just feel like our team, our organization, has at least embraced my intentions of building football philosophy and character that will ultimately hold true for me being my authentic self.”

With that, O’Connell rose from the grass field. Having asked his players and staff to commit to the process and give all they can, it was time for him to do the same. There was film to be broken down, evaluations to be made, lessons to be learned — though he appears to have already mastered one of the most vital coaching fundamentals: being yourself.

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter.

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