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Offseason | 2024

Spagnola: Zimm's return just what 'Boys need


FRISCO, Texas – Welcome back, Zimm.

Been a while, hasn't it? Been gone for 17 seasons, but sure it's great to be back to where your NFL coaching career began in 1994. And the Cowboys sure need you back as defensive coordinator, the job you had for the final seven seasons of your 13-year stay here.

And, OK, will out myself. To me, it's OK to be biased if you're right, and sure feel right about this. Plus, Cowboys former longtime secondary coach, defensive coordinator and three-year head coach Dave Campo agrees with me, saying of Zimm, "He's a good football coach. That was a good move," and we'll get to their relationship in a moment.

Mine, first met Mike Zimmer in 1979. He arrived as a part-time defensive assistant at the University of Missouri, his first career coaching job back, my goodness, 45 years ago. Me, was working at the Columbia Daily Tribune covering the Missouri Tigers.

Spent two years there together, Mike moving on to Weber State and myself to the Jackson (Miss.) Daily News. And by mere coincidence, here I was covering the Dallas Cowboys when Zimm walked in one day at The Ranch in 1994, hired as a defensive assistant. We looked at each other, and it was one those, "Wait, I think I know you" moments.

How he got to the Cowboys is a long and winding road. Not today when he was introduced as the defensive coordinator taking over for the departed to Washington Dan Quinn, and for a mere few of us, re-introduced at an afternoon press conference out here at The Star.

And after all these years, he's back.

"It feels outstanding," Zimmer said at Wednesday's media conference with head coach Mike McCarthy. "I've got two grandkids, twins, my daughter has. I'm excited to be around more. I've always loved Dallas. I've always loved the Cowboys. … Did I ever think I'd be back? I don't know, I always hoped I would be. … I wanted to be somewhere where I knew people, where I trusted people, so when this opportunity came up, I was excited."

When asked about "retirement," Zimm said he previously had a couple of opportunities but "didn't want to go somewhere I wasn't comfortable with."

Lucky Cowboys.

But here is the backstory, where all these coincidences begin. Mike was the son of a football coach, his dad Bill Zimmer the head football coach at Lockport High School, just north of Joliet, Ill., and a good one at that, along with coaching the wrestling team. Back then, Lockport was in the same conference as my high school, Bloom Township. Oh, about 20 miles south in Chicago Heights, Ill. The South Suburban Conference back then, a football, basketball and track powerhouse in the state of Illinois. Who knew then about this somewhat connection one day when growing up back in the 1960s?

Mike began his football career as a quarterback, moved on to Illinois State, where he finished up as a linebacker, his athletic career cut short with an injury. So it was a natural to follow in his father's 30-year coaching footsteps, a chip off the old block since, after getting to know Mr. Zimmer during Zimm's years with the Cowboys, he knew the game and was a no-nonsense guy. Straight shooter. Same as Zimm.

Well, as is this coaching fraternity, it's not always about what you know, but who you know. When Zimm arrived at Missouri, Mike Price was the quarterbacks/receivers coach. Then in 1981 when Price won the head coaching job at Weber State, he brought Zimmer with him to Ogden, Utah. Price, a one-time assistant at Washington State along with Campo, also hired Camps as his defensive coordinator. Zimm coached linebackers and defensive backs there through 1988, forging just a two-year relationship with Campo.

Then Price moved into the head coaching position at Washington State and named Zimmer his defensive coordinator. As Campo tells the story, Zimmer would visit the Cowboys for several years after Jimmy Johnson had hired Campo as a defensive assistant and then defensive backs coach with the Cowboys.

"I went on the chalkboard with him a bunch of times about what we were doing," Campo said of those offseason visits with the Cowboys, "and when Barry (Switzer) became head coach, that's when I was able to get Mike (to the Cowboys)."

Zimm arrived as a defensive assistant in 1994, and in 1995, when Campo was named the Cowboys defensive coordinator after Butch Davis left to become the head coach at the University of Miami, Zimm was elevated to the Cowboys defensive backs coach. There he coached the likes of Deion Sanders, Darren Woodson, Kevin Smith, Brock Marion and George Teague.

"My first impression of Mike (at Weber State), he was extremely smart and detail-oriented," Campo said. "Now the one thing he always had, all the way through, he was never a yes-man. He was his own person, and he was going to do things. Until he was told not to, he was going to do things his way, and that's the way he's been his whole career.

"And I liked him because he was a pain in my ass … smart and very competitive."

Liked him so much that in 2000 when the Cowboys elevated Campo to head coach, Zimmer became his defensive coordinator. In 2000, when Campo took over for Chan Gailey as head coach. And while the Cowboys hit the pits with three consecutive 5-11 seasons, struggling under salary cap restraints and Quincy Carter as the quarterback those final two years, Zimm's defense actually ranked No. 4 in 2001, No. 2 in the NFC.

Even Bill Parcells recognized a good man when he arrived in 2003, and Zimm remained his defensive coordinator those four years with the Cowboys. In fact, while Parcells is credited with a heck of a coaching job in 2003, leading the Cowboys to a 10-6 record and a wild-card playoff berth with Carter as the starting quarterback – the Cowboys first winning season since 1998 and only the second in seven seasons – it was Zimm's defense leading the way, ranking No. 1 in total defense.

And even after Parcells decided to change the Cowboys defense from the 4-3 Zimmer was versed in to a 3-4, the Cowboys defense ranked in the top seven those next three seasons. In fact, the University of Nebraska was offering Zimm the head coaching job during that time but decided to stay with the Cowboys.

Along those lines, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and COO son Stephen Jones thought so much of Zimmer, they likely would have considered him the next head coach after Parcells retired following the 2006 season. But out of a contract, and with Parcells dragging his feet on a decision, Zimmer decided to become Atlanta first-year head coach Bobby Petrino's defensive coordinator.

So it's no wonder that after Petrino left his staff high and dry near the end of that 3-10 season in 2007 to become the Arkansas head coach, Zimmer moved on in early January of 2008 to become Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis' defensive coordinator. He would remain with the Bengals six seasons before the Vikings hired hm as head coach (2014-21).

And think about this as a coaching endorsement. Even after the Vikings let Zimmer go after the 2021 season, Sanders consulted with him at Jackson State in 2022 as an analyst and did the same this past season at Colorado.

Good reason. Good coach. Great knowledge.

"The one thing (the players) will find out about him is, he'll get after you over accountability, but he doesn't window dress it," Campo said, always wanting to remind Zimm he was in his wedding when he got married during their two years together at Weber. "In other words, you will know exactly how he feels about everything.

"And he'll also hug their neck when they do something good."

Man, what goes around comes around, you know. Zimm and I started our respective careers about the same time in the same place. Met up again 14 years later, Zimm spending 13 seasons with the Cowboys. And now 31 seasons after Campo said, "I got him here," Mike Zimmer returns to where his NFL career began, where he is needed. This time joining McCarthy's staff.

Rather amazing, and with regards to John Sebastian's Welcome Back song:

Welcome back,

Your dreams were *your ticket out.*

Welcome back,

To that same old place

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