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Father-son camp

Mike Zimmer

GEORGETOWN, Ky. - Nothing has changed and everything has changed.

Duck into Mike Zimmer's makeshift office here at training camp that he shares at Georgetown College with the rest of his coaches and there he is watching tape with his father.

Bill Zimmer is 80 now and he can't move like he could when he visited his son here last year or in Dallas a few years back and Cowboys head coach Bill Parcells told him, "You're not going to be here and not work," and made him evaluate a position.

"He loved it," Mike Zimmer says.

Of course he would.

If you want to know what makes the best Bengals defense maybe ever tick, the one that has people talking Super Bowl, don't go to Mike Zimmer. Go to the older guy that looks just like him sitting in the scooter on the sidelines watching warmups and shaking hands with various defenders as they walk by. The standard line is they can't tell who is who. Especially in the tight-slit eyes that have laserd through chalkboards and players since the '50s. Mike Zimmer is Bill Zimmer 30 years ago.

"We were talking about this today at lunch," says Bill Zimmer. "They seem to have the same amount of desire that he puts in them. All the defensive linemen, they're saying, 'I don't want to be the last guy to get to the quarterback. I want to be the first.' They want to please him and please themselves."

The annual camp visits ends just after a few days and Bill heads back to Florida. But it keeps the line going. The one that began in Lockport, Ill., about the time Mike, 54, could walk in the early '60s and he'd spend his summer nights watching his father's high school team work out.

One of those first memories is tagging along with his dad and one of his players that was being recruited by Kansas. They went to Gale Sayers' house, where the future Hall of Famer played pool with the nine-year-old.

"I'm not a contributor," Bill Zimmer says. "If he asks me something, I'll tell him. I don't provoke him. I enjoy doing this. I enjoy coming down here. I don't know how much longer I can do it, so you keep doing it."

Mike would drive down to the hotel in Georgetown a couple of miles away and pick up Bill for the day. He'd sit in meetings, watch tape, go to practice in the age-old reversal of age. 

Mike was always on the sidelines at his games. Another early memory? Going into the shed they used at halftime and chalk splintering as his dad threw it. Bill Zimmer didn't have many of those halftimes. He made the Illinois High School Hall of Fame as a football and wrestling coach and he could do it on the mat, too. He was well into his 50s before Mike could handle him and he had to come home from Illinois State to do it.

"I didn't wrestle him to prove my superiority to him," Bill Zimmer begins to say and Mike cuts him off with, "That's a bunch of bull."

They laugh.

Two tough guys that have made a career of saying what they think. Especially to each other.

If Bill Zimmer was slamming it into his 50s, Mike Zimmer was catching for Illinois State baseball after the doctors at the Mayo Clinic told him never to play football and hockey again after he suffered a neck injury making a tackle.

"But if he was in a collision, the same thing still could have happened," Bill Zimmer says of paralysis.

Tough guys.

But maybe not as tough as the night they sat by themselves in a Baltimore hotel watching tape before the players joined them on the eve of the Ravens game.

Just 48 hours before, Mike's 50-year-old wife Vikki suddenly died. He had thought it strange when she didn't answer a couple of his calls late in the day and even stranger when no one else had heard from her, either. He found her when he got home from practice Thursday night. They said it was natural causes, which is a strange term when dying young is just so unnatural to those that are left.

Especially when it was the woman who was always there, win or lose, moving south or east, kids or pets, rain or shine, in sickness and in health.

Twenty-seven years.

Mike got through that Sunday in Baltimore with the help of Bill Zimmer and his mother and his daughters and his son, but Mike Zimmer is still getting through.

Tough? There is football-and-coaching-and-sports tough. Then there is this.

"It's different," Mike says.

"That was different," Bill says. "That was a very difficult thing for the whole family. His mother still talks about Vikki all the time. Tomorrow is tomorrow."

Being together helps. The mantra of coaching helps.

"You have to be better than what you were," Bill Zimmer says. "You can't live in yesterday. You have to plan for tomorrow."

That's what Mike Zimmer was watching growing up. His dad would change from the Wishbone to the run and shoot like a man changing socks if need be.

Bill Zimmer: "If I didn't know the answer, I was going to find somebody that did."

That's what sent Mike Zimmer on his pilgrimage through the NFL 10 years ago after his first season as the Cowboys defensive coordinator. He needed to stop the run and one of those pick-your-brain sessions was with Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis. Neither forgot when Lewis went looking for a coordinator before the '08 season in what looks to be the best hire of his eight seasons.

Using his bluntness, sharp tongue, and eye for simplicity, Mike Zimmer gutted the defense. He started with its low self-esteem and built it with tough love. As linebacker Brandon Johnson says, Zimmer hands out praise "very judiciously." Yet listen close, and he's excited about these guys.

The defense has dominated the first week of practice. Pass rushers seem to be coming from everywhere. Not without certain pride Zimmer relates a conversation he recently had with a former NFL assistant coach now in college who has been talking to some offensive coordinators in the league.

"They say we're driving them crazy trying to figure out what we're trying to do," Mike Zimmer says. "A lot less mistakes are being made. We've got more stuff in. I think it's a little easier. We're building off the last three years. We've been telling the players the exact same things. We practiced some things last year that we haven't run, that I think we might have the personnel to use this year with the (versatile) linemen and linebackers we've got."

Bill Zimmer says Mike hasn't changed in the last year. In fact, he thinks he's more relaxed because the players are communicating better and more things are in place and…

"I don't think," Mike says, "that was the question he was asking you."

Bill Zimmer thinks behind the narrow eyes.

"Always the same," Bill says. "Mad."

Mike's kids say he has changed. One daughter calls him "Mr. Mom," and the other calls him, "Sergeant." But his players say he hasn't changed. Zim, they say, will never go soft. Michael Johnson, a highly-rated second-year player who has flourished under Zimmer in two different positions, has seen it.

"He's still coming to work every day with a purpose and that's to make us the best defensive in the league," Johnson says. "He gets on you, but he gets on everybody. That's what he told us the other day. He doesn't care who you are. And that's all you can ask. He's fair."

Brandon Johnson is just the opposite of Michael Johnson. A fifth-rounder, he was cut by Arizona and struggling to find a spot in the league. Now under Zimmer he's arguably the team's most productive linebacker as he bounces around in situational roles.

"Coach Zim says he's best when things aren't really going that great," Brandon Johnson says. "He's better at fixing things and my career definitely needed fixing and he's done a good job of maximizing my talents. I don't do everything well, but the things I do well, he allows me to do and coaching me up on the things I don't do well. He doesn't let little things slide."

Johnson pauses and thinks.


"I just don't see a change," he said. "He'll never go soft. Not Zim. And that's the thing about him. He's always the same. You know what you're getting, Coach Zim."

Well, maybe.

The other day after Mike dropped Bill off at the hotel following practice, he called to see if his dinner plans were still on. No answer. He called a couple of more times. No answer. Before last October, he would have shrugged.

This time he jumped in his car, headed to the hotel, and called his mother asking if he heard from him.

Yes, she said, he's over next door at the restaurant having dinner.

"Scared the crap out of me," Mike Zimmer says. "It's a bad deal when every time you call somebody and they don't answer you worry about the worst possible scenario. Hopefully someday I'll get over it."

As planned, Zimmer put him on the plane to Florida the next day.

"God, I can't tell you how proud I am," Bill Zimmer says. "He's amazed me his whole life. He was a great baseball player, a very capable wrestler. Whatever he did, he did it to the best of his ability. Yes, he's still doing it."

Everything is the same and nothing is the same.

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