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Vikings Are Far More Than Just a Hobby to Max Winter

October 03, 1985|CHRIS DUFRESNE | Times Staff Writer

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — It's early Monday morning, and Mr. Minnesota Viking, Max Winter, all 5 feet 5 inches of him, sinks into his chair and disappears behind a desk the size of a football field in his office at Winter Park.

By 8 a.m., Winter, dressed neatly in suit and tie, already has done 100 push ups. He used to do 400 a day but, at 81, he figures it's time to quit acting like Jack LaLanne.

By 9 a.m., the knot is starting to form in his stomach, the same one that always appears six days before his team's next game.

Winter already is wearing his game face.

"I don't know if we're a match for the Rams," Winter said of Sunday's opponent at Anaheim Stadium.

Winter sounded worried, but you could tell that, deep down, he was loving every minute of it.

It was time to start another week in the life of the Minnesota Vikings. His Minnesota Vikings.

It seems only fitting that a man named Winter should be founder, president and part owner of the Vikings, a team so long associated with frostbite.

Winter has been at his desk nearly every morning since he was granted a National Football League franchise in 1960. He built this team from scratch and has seen it grow through the dreary days of Coach Norm Van Brocklin and the the glory years with Fran Tarkenton and Bud Grant.

There have been highs, four Super Bowl appearances, and lows, four Super Bowl losses. He's seen the game and the league change dramatically.

Winter runs his organization with a firm hand. The Vikings, through the years one of the most successful NFL franchises, have always had one the league's lowest payrolls. Last season, the Vikings were one of the NFL's biggest moneymakers, despite a 3-13 record.

But another thing you should know about Max Winter is that he isn't anything like the tyrannical owners we have come to know these days.

Amazing Stories:

--In 25 years, he's never fired anyone.

--In 25 years, he's never stormed into a locker room and offered a pep talk.

--In 25 years, he's never chewed out a coach from a car phone or ordered a trade while sailing a yacht. And how many football coaches can say they really like their owners?

After 17 seasons, 4 Super Bowl appearances and 11 division titles, Grant retired as coach of the Minnesota Vikings in early 1984. He wanted to spend more time with his family. It scared him that Alabama's Bear Bryant coached until he was 67 and died a month after his last game.

Grant was 57 at the time and there was so much left to do.

But when the franchise plummeted to a 3-13 record last season under Les Steckel, Grant came back.

It wasn't because he grew tired of duck hunting. Nor was it his undying love for the game. He returned because of Max Winter.

"I didn't think he'd come back until I said that we had to have him back," Winter said. "He felt he owed me something. He really didn't. He gave me so many good years of his life."

The relationship between Grant and Winter is an unusual one in sports.

"In all the years, we've never had a heated discussion," Grant said. "Really."

No, this isn't Martin and Steinbrenner. Or even Martin and Lewis.

It isn't much of a secret why Grant and Winter get along so well.

"He's not the kind who has to be up front and taking the bows," Grant said of Winter. "And that's important. Sometimes, it's a matter of who's going to get the credit. And sometimes there's not enough credit to go around. Max has never addressed the team, he's never been to training camp. Yet, he has an office here."

Grant and Winter go way back. It was Winter, then the general manager of the Minneapolis Lakers of the National Basketball Assn., who signed a multisport star named Bud Grant from the University of Minnesota to a contract worth $4,500. That was in 1949. They've been friends ever since.

"I respect him so much," Winter said of Grant. "But we talk only about three or four times a month, that's all. He's the same way every day. I like to be like Bud. I like to emulate him. I don't get heated up at anybody."

And that's why everyone likes Max Winter. Around the office, you never hear employees saying "Mr. Winter, sir." They call him Max. His office door is always open. The Viking offices and training complex, completed in 1981, were named Winter Park in his honor.

Winter was embarrassed.

Those around him can trace his success to his humble roots and genuine love for the Vikings. He's truly one of the last of a breed of owners whose livelihood depends solely on the success of the franchise.

He and Pittsburgh Steeler owner Art Rooney are the two remaining owners who have run their teams from the beginning.

To Winter, the Vikings weren't a toy bought with the interest of a bulging savings account.

And that is important, linebacker Scott Studwell said.

"The team is his primary source of income," Studwell said. "It's his bread and butter. This is not just a hobby with Max. This is not something he has because it's a tax write-off."

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