Socrates once said that friendship was not something to rush into, but once you are in it, you should continue firm and constant.
Mike Zimmer and Marvin Lewis met in the early 80s as college coaches. Zimmer was an assistant coach, and later defensive coordinator, at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah while Lewis was the linebacker coach at nearby Idaho State, whose nickname, as fate would have it, is the Bengals.
The teams were both members of the Big Sky Conference and played each other regularly. But Lewis and Zimmer became close when the assistant coaches in the conference organized their own golf tournament.
The two stayed close when Lewis became linebackers’ coach at Long Beach State in 1985, and took the same job at the University of New Mexico in 1987. He was hired to coach linebackers at the University of Pittsburgh in 1990. Zimmer, meanwhile, became defensive coordinator at Washington State University in 1989, a position he held through the 1993 season.
Their NFL careers began roughly at the same time. Lewis started as the linebackers’ coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1992 and Zimmer was hired as an assistant coach with the Dallas Cowboys in 1994.
“It was good times for all of us then,” Lewis recalled. “We would see each other. We played against the Cowboys, obviously, quite a few times. I remember riding on the bus to the Pro Bowl game, and his son Adam being just a young boy then and riding up front with Mike and I. So we spent a lot of time together.”
Lewis stayed with the Steelers through the 1995 season, after which he was hired as the defensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens. He was with the Ravens for their Super Bowl season of 2000 and became the defensive coordinator of the Washington Redskins in 2002.
Zimmer, meanwhile, began coaching defensive backs for the Cowboys in 1995, and was named defensive coordinator in 2000. He took the same job in Atlanta in 2007. When Falcons head coach Bobby Petrino bolted to Arkansas prior to the end of the 2007 season, Zimmer found himself looking for work for the first time since 1979, when his coaching career began at the University of Missouri.
Chuck Bresnahan was the defensive coordinator for the Bengals in 2007, and his unit finished 27th in total defense as Cincinnati stumbled to a record of 7-9. The Bengals needed to make a change, and Zimmer needed a job.
“When we had the opportunity to sit down and discuss Mike coming here to Cincinnati, we were in the room for six or eight hours and forgetting to eat dinner. We were just filling up all the (dry erase) boards. It was fun.”
Zimmer’s first season as defensive coordinator with the Bengals saw the unit rise all the way to No. 12 in the standings, but it was just the beginning. Cincinnati finished in the top 10 in defense four of the next five years, and wound up as the No. 3 unit in the NFL in 2013, Zimmer’s last season with the Bengals.
After that first season, when Cincinnati finished with a record of 4-11-1, the Bengals posted a combined record of 44-36 over the next five years. The only blip on the radar screen came in 2010 when Cincinnati finished at 4-12. Not coincidentally, that was also the only season that the Bengals’ defensive unit finished outside the top 10. Cincinnati was ranked 15th in total defense that year.
“When he first started, they weren’t very good,” Zimmer told Ben Goessling of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “He got them to a place where they got to six playoffs games [in seven years]. I think he’s a heck of a coach. He does unbelievable things in the community. I learned a lot for him.”
Zimmer also learned to overcome adversity. On October 8, 2009, Zimmer’s wife, Vicki, died of natural causes at the age of 50. Zimmer coached in the Bengals’ 17-14 win over the Ravens three days later, and broke down after Lewis presented him with the game ball.
“Really, honestly, the support of the football players was probably as important as everything else,” Zimmer explained. “It was a tough time that we had to lean on each other. All those other people were there to support me and I was there to try to support my kids.”
And when Zimmer finally got his chance to become a head coach himself, when he was hired by the Minnesota Vikings after the 2013 season to become the ninth head coach in Vikings’ history, it was his daughter, Corri, who was one of the first ones there to support him.
"I'm overwhelmed with emotion” Corri wrote on her Facebook account. “Over the last 6 years I have grown such a love for the Bengals organization. Since then the Bengals have actually become a team that is taken seriously and I have watched my dad turned their [defense] into something great.
“With that being said I have also watched my dad be passed up for head coaching jobs year after year after year when he clearly deserved it. I am in tears as I am finally able to say that he is getting what he worked his BUTT off for all these years. It's about time … and I am still in shock as I'm saying this … but my dad is officially the HEAD COACH of the Minnesota Vikings!!!!!!!!"
The friendship Lewis and Zimmer first cultivated in the early 80s remained firm and constant.
“We spend a lot of time together at the owners’ meetings now,” Lewis said. “It’s just fun to have a friend, and him be so successful, and be a part of it.”
Zimmer’s first season with the Vikings ended with a record of 7-9. In 2015, though, Zimmer led Minnesota to a record of 11-5 and a first-place finish in the tough NFC North. The Vikings lost in the NFC Wild-Card Game to the Seahawks.
The Vikings ran off five straight victories to open the 2016 season, but stumbled down the stretch and finished at 8-8. The frustrating finish did not quell Zimmer’s enthusiasm in the least.
“Every year is a new year,” Zimmer said. “I have a lot of confidence in this football team. The way they work. The talent level that they have, and I think we’re going to go out and play good.”
While Lewis and the Bengals have struggled to a 5-8 record so far this season, and are assured of their second straight non-winning season, the Vikings have sprinted out to a 10-3 record and are comfortably in first place in the NFC North, three games ahead of the Lions and Packers.
Minnesota is currently locked in a battle with the Philadelphia Eagles for homefield advantage in the playoffs. Standing in its way is Marvin Lewis and the Cincinnati Bengals as the teams prepare to face off Sunday at US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
While analysts such as Pete Schrager of Fox Sports are already talking Zimmer up as a Coach of the Year candidate, most people are also calling for an end to Lewis’ 15-year career as head coach of the Bengals. Zimmer is not one of them.
“Honestly, he deserves to be there as long as he wants to be, in my opinion,” Zimmer said. “I know how good of a coach Marvin Lewis is. I know what kind of person he is. I know he’s good for that community. And I know what he’s done for 99 percent of the players there. It would be a tremendous loss if he wasn’t back.”
“In my opinion he should be able to stay there as long as he wants.”
In the NFL, though, nothing lasts forever. Even the best coaches, like Hall-of-Famer Tom Landry of Dallas Cowboy fame, and perspective Hall-of-Famer Chuch Knox, who led the Rams to a combined record of 54-15-1 over five years, get fired. Fame is fleeting, and the question is always, “What have you done for me lately?”
“We all realize when you sign up for these jobs it’s not forever,” Lewis said. “I think we all accept that.”
Whether Lewis is back in Cincinnati after this season is a question that has yet to be resolved. But his friendship with Zimmer will continue regardless.
“But that’s great,” Lewis said in reference to Zimmer’s comments. “I appreciate that support from Mike. When things don’t go well for us, that’s all we have is each other.”