McNiff: The Best Vikings GM You Never Heard Of [Exclusive]
If you believe even half of what is circulating in the NFL rumor mill right now Minnesota Vikings GM Rick Spielman is spending most if not all of his time on the phone these days, either fielding offers for Quarterback Kirk Cousins or, he’s got almost every other NFL GM on speed dial trying to deal the Vikings QB away.
Kids, that’s why we don’t believe even half of the NFL rumor mill, it’s better to go with what we know, instead.
What we know is that Rick Spielman has been the Minnesota Vikings General Manager since 2012 and before that he was the team’s Director of Player Personnel from 2006-2011.
After that? Even after all those years and hundreds of moves, let’s just say the best you can say about Rick Spielman’s track record in those two positions is, “It’s complicated.”
What I mean is, for every acquisition of Jared Allen there’s a Sam Bradford. For every drafting of Stefon Diggs there’s a Laquon Treadwell. If you’re looking for a guy who knew how to build a winner you have to look elsewhere.
Wait! I’m not advocating for Spielman’s removal, at least not yet. What I am saying is that he would be wise to copy one man’s formula that turned the Minnesota Vikings from expansion laughingstock into one of the NFL’s super-powers for more than a decade.
Minnesota was granted an NFL franchise in January of 1960, and in late summer of that year Bert Rose, previously the PR Director of the Los Angeles Rams was named the team’s first general Manager.
Here’s lesson #1 children – Do NOT hire a PR Director to run your football operation.
From the logo to the uniforms and everything in between, Bert Rose did a LOT of great things for the Vikings franchise, but ultimately you want a football guy running your football team.
So, after the expansion Vikings struggled through their first three season, posting just 10 wins against 30 losses and 2 ties, Bert Rose stepped aside and the Vikings grabbed a “football guy” to be their next GM.
Right now you’re like ”Wait a minute! Rick Spielman is a “football guy!” Relax, I never said he wasn’t, he just hasn’t been able to produce the consistent success that this guy did.
Jim Finks was first a star quarterback in Salem, Illinois, before filling the same role at the University of Tulsa. A 12th-round draft choice of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1949, Finks played six seasons in the NFL as a quarterback and defensive back, retiring after the 1955 season.
In 1956 Finks took a coaching position at Notre Dame where he must have made quite an impression with somebody because the next year, he was named General Manager of the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football league.
Within three years the Stampeders made the playoffs, then in 1961 and ’62 they advanced to the Semi-finals, the first time Calgary had achieved that success since the late 1940s. After a 10-4 season in 1963 Finks was lured back to the United States by the Minnesota Vikings, and the transformation was about to begin.
In the 1964 NFL draft Finks selected Defensive End Carl Eller from the University of Minnesota with the 6th overall selection in the draft. If that sounds like a pick you could have made, drafting an All-American who played his college ball in your backyard, consider that among others, Finks also added longtime guard Milt Sunde in the 20th round with pick # 271, and that fall the Vikings produced a winning record of 8-5-1.
The next three years didn’t see a lot progress in terms of wins and losses, but Finks was slowly laying the foundation for what was to become a juggernaut.
And then came 1967.
Let’s just say that ’67 got off to a rocky start when Finks decided to trade the team’s starting quarterback and arguably their best player. Quarterback Fran Tarkenton had demand to be traded to the New York Giants and shrewdly, Finks made it happen.
Jim Finks shipped the future Hall of Famer to the Giants for 1st and 2nd round draft choices in ’67, a 1st round choice in 1968, and a 2nd round selection in ’69.
Someone must have been watching because just three days later Bud Grant agreed to leave the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, who he led to 4 Grey Cup Championships during a 10-year tenure in the Canadian Football League. The Vikings had tried to sign Grant in 1961, but with Finks now at the helm the Superior, Wisconsin native decided to return to the state where he had been a multi-sport star in college, and a member of the NBA’s Minneapolis Lakers.
On draft day Finks was holding three first-round choices but he was also dealing with a major health emergency. Finks’ gallbladder needed to come out but there was NO WAY that Finks was going to miss THIS draft! So, he got the surgeon to reluctantly agree to postpone the surgery by allowing Finks to turn his hospital room turned into the Vikings draft headquarters, where Finks, who was being treated with pain killers, could draft while being monitored.
One thing is certain, those meds didn’t cloud Fink’s decision-making on that day. With Grant having final say on player personnel, Finks drafted seven players who would become starters for the Vikings. Four would go on to become Pro Bowl players, while one, defensive tackle Alan Page, would become the first defensive player to be named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player, on his way to a Hall of Fame Career.
That 1967 draft, conducted from a hospital bed, set the Vikings on a run that included five playoff appearances and two trips to the Super Bowl between 1967 and 1973.
In that span Finks added NFL all-time interception leader and Hall of Famer Paul Krause, and drafted Hall of Fame Offensive Tackle Ron Yary in 1968. And remember Fran Tarkenton? The disgruntled quarterback who set the table by demanding to be traded?
After watching his Vikings lose to the Dallas Cowboys 20-12 in the 1971 playoffs, a game in which his quarterback tandem of Gary Cuozzo and Bobby Lee turned the ball over four times, Finks reacquired Tarkenton before the 1972 season, setting the stage for a run of dominance that would include five consecutive division titles, two more NFL Championships, and two more Super Bowl losses.
Problem is, Finks watched that part happen from Chicago.
Against Finks’ Minnesota Vikings the once mighty Chicago Bears had gone 5-8-1, a fact not lost on legendary Bears owner George Halas. So, when the relationship between Finks and his boss Max Winter went sour, “Papa Bear” swooped in.
Before Finks the Bears hadn’t had a winning season since 1965 and hadn’t won more than four games in the previous two seasons. Finks didn’t arrive in Chicago in time to run the Bears 1974 draft but let’s just say he more than made up for it the next year.
The Bears had the 4th pick in the 1975 NFL draft and with that pick Finks selected an unheralded running back out of Jackson State by the name of Walter Payton, a man who would retire as the NFL’s All-time leading rusher and a player who would torture the once mighty Vikings defense, for years to come.
But Finks was far from done. Chicago’s 1975 draft brought six players who would start at least three seasons for the Bears, forming the nucleus that would end the longest playoff drought in team history.
Like his tenure in Minnesota, Finks didn’t produce overwhelming success right away, and like his tenure in Minnesota, a couple of bold moves would launch the Bears to dominance.
First, in 1978 he signed a castoff from the Minnesota Vikings, an underweight defensive tackle by the name of Alan Page and suddenly the Bears locker room culture started to change.
Then, in 1979 Finks traded three-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Wally Chambers to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the Bucs 1st round pick the next year. That pick became Hall of Fame defensive end Dan Hampton, but Finks was just getting started.
Between 1975 and 1983 Jim Finks drafted 10 players who would go on to become Pro Bowlers, including four eventual Hall of Famers. In the nine seasons AFTER Finks’ departure the Bears drafted only four Pro Bowlers and exactly ZERO Hall of Famers.
What Finks created became the ’85 Bears, the team widely recognized as having the most dominant defense in NFL history, and with it came a lopsided Super Bowl win.
Of course, Finks was gone by then. Just like in Minnesota his relationship with his boss had soured and when Halas went around Finks and signed a head coach by the name of Mike Ditka in 1983, Finks knew his time with the Bears was over.
Finks left the Bears in August of ‘83, going across town to become the President and CEO of Major League Baseball’s Chicago Cubs. You shouldn’t be surprised to learn that both teams would make the playoffs the next year, the Cubs for the first time in 39-years.
Finks returned to the NFL in 1986, producing perhaps his biggest reclamation project, turning around the hapless New Orleans Saints, an organization that hadn’t won in almost two decades of NFL participation.
Between 1986 and 1992 Finks drafted eight players who would become Pro Bowlers and signed two of the top free agents from the defunct USFL, in linebackers Sam Mills and Vaughan Johnson. Together with Finks’ draft picks Pat Swilling and Rickey Jackson they formed what might have been the most talented linebacking corps in NFL history, and of course the Saints started to win.
Under Jim Finks the Saints made the playoffs four times in a five year span. How good the Saints might have become we’ll never know because in 1994 Jim Finks, a man who was passed over to replace retiring NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle back in 1989 because of the behind-the-scenes skullduggery of Mike Lynn, his replacement with the Minnesota Vikings, died from lung cancer at the age of 66.
Finks was far from perfect, he did pass up a quarterback by the name of Joe Montana in 1979, and both Dan Marino and Jim Kelly in 1983. But Finks did have a great eye for talent, and he wasn’t afraid to trade a player at the peek of his career to position his team for greater success down the road.
Something for a “football guy” like Rick Spielman might want to consider.