Stepping to the Mike

Posted: 10 p.m.

Bill Zimmer, who is in the Illinois Hall of Fame as both a prep football and wrestling coach, didn't quit the mat until he was in his mid 50s and his kid visited from Illinois State.

"We went down to the gym and he kicked my butt," Bill Zimmer said Wednesday from retirement in Naples, Fla. "That's when I figured it was time to give up. He got me pretty good."

If you want to meet Mike Zimmer, the Bengals' new self-described tough defensive coordinator who still dared to play catcher even though a neck injury knocked him out of college football, you have to meet his father.

The tough guy he played for and wrestled for at Lockport High School in the Chicago suburbs.

Or meet his son, Adam, a third generation coach grinding as a defensive assistant with the Saints at age 23 who grew up watching Cowboys instead of playing them.

"He didn't push me into football," Adam Zimmer said. "But once he knew I wanted to play, he put me through drills and helped me get better. And it was just fun always hanging around watching."

But it was his father that Mike Zimmer thought of a few years ago when Dallas coach Bill Parcells had him shift from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense.

"He was always fanatical about trying to stay one step ahead of everybody," Mike Zimmer recalled. "He wasn't afraid to try things. I thought of that when I went from a 4-3 to a 3-4. I thought about my dad going from the wishbone to the run-and-shoot. He didn't care."

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Mike Zimmer

Now Zimmer is going from eight seasons as a defensive coordinator in the NFC to his first season in the AFC with a head coach he knows but with whom he has never been on the same team.

Head coach Marvin Lewis has followed through on his promise. He doesn't care about the past five years. The word is the coaches came back from their break Wednesday starting over. They have saved data from 2003 on their computers, but the notebooks and folders and paper trail have been ditched in an effort for a fresh start. They may be shredding more paper than the Nixon White House.

Yet Zimmer does have a past with Lewis from the Big Sky Conference of the 1980s and various skull sessions as fellow coordinators.

"We have been somewhat joined," said Lewis of the philosophy he shares with Zimmer, a philosophy he didn't have with first coordinator Leslie Frazier and couldn't mesh with second coordinator Chuck Bresnahan.

Like Frazier, Zimmer cut his teeth coaching in the league in the secondary. Like Bresnahan, he is a coach's son. But after five seasons in which his defense has failed to rank above No. 27 four times, Lewis seemed to pay particular attention to the fundamentals of his interview with Zimmer 10 days ago.

"He's a stickler for the technique of things and I think that's important. You have to build that from the ground up," Lewis said. "It comes down to a simple thing and that's ultimately what we're looking to fix and change. To get our guys to consistently play well together technically sound and do it right."

Mike Zimmer sounds like a coach's son.

"I'm big on technique," he said. "I want to make sure guys do the things we're asking to do to do it right. Play hard all the time. Hands in the right place. Feet in the right place. I think in pro football a lot guys get to the point where they worry so much about who you're playing or the scheme, your technique goes bad. Especially late in the year. Typically I'm a little bit of a hollerer and screamer."

Zimmer has been doing it right for a long time. He did it as a rookie secondary coach when the 1995 Cowboys won the Super Bowl and he had cornerback Larry Brown in the right spot to intercept two passes and win the MVP award even if it was courtesy of two Neil O'Donnell Folly Floaters.

He did it in 2003 when he had a starting rookie cornerback in Terence Newman and the Cowboys blitzed their way to a No. 1 ranking. Then he did it in 2005 and 2006 in that new 3-4 scheme and coaxed out rankings of 13 and 10.

"You've got 11 guys. You can put them out there. The scheme doesn't really matter," Zimmer said. "It's how the players fit within the scheme. If the best thing for us is to play two down linemen and nine DBs, it doesn't matter to me. We'll just figure what is the best personnel we have and the best way we can do it and what Marvin thinks is the best."

Zimmer makes no bones about how he'll do it, either. He'll yell and challenge guys, and father and son have seen it.

One time Bill was at Cowboys training camp and Newman wandered over to say hello.

"He said to me, 'Mr. Zimmer, can you talk to him and tell him to get off my butt?' and I told him, 'He doesn't listen to me, but I'll ask his mother,' " Bill Zimmer said with a laugh. "I saw him the next year and I asked him if he remembered the conversation we had and if he got off his back and he said, 'Yeah, because I'm playing better.' "

Adam Zimmer, who says the nicest guys to him were the best guys, like Pro Bowl DBs Deion Sanders and Darren Woodson, saw his father get on the best and brightest.

"He's a perfectionist," Adam said. "He wants to get it right."

Bill admires his son's competitiveness. And he's not exactly a shrinking violet. He played college ball at Bradley and before he had a cup of coffee with the 49ers in the mid-'50s he played football in the Army.

But when Mike was an all-conference quarterback for him, Bill would have to calm him down if he didn't throw a perfect spiral. And years after he beat him on the mat, Mike takes him on in golf.

"Me, if I miss a short putt, I say, 'Oh well,' '' Bill said. "But Mike has to make everything. He had trouble getting out of a sand trap and I tried to give him some advice and he tells me, 'I don't need you to tell me what to do.' He's got a nice swing, but he's his own worst enemy."

That fire may not help him to get up and down, but it may be just what the Bengals defense needs to get back up after being down. Zimmer's breakthrough year came in his second season as a coordinator.

Zimmer admits as a long-time college defensive coordinator he thought he had all the answers in his 2000 debut. But the Cowboys got splattered, 31st in the NFL against the run. His competitive pride stung, Zimmer visited coaches he respected during the spring, one of which was Lewis, and the unit rebounded to finish 13th against the run and fourth overall in 2001.

"We had a whole bunch of guys that just wanted to line up," Zimmer said. "They said, 'Who is this guy and who is that guy?' It was Dexter Coakley, Dat Nguyen, (current Bengals tackle) Michael Myers, Mario Edwards, Darren Woodson.

"They were just a bunch of guys if you told them to line up here and do this and do that ... it taught me if you put all the guys on the same page doing the right things and they care about football and they care about winning and they care about doing what you want them to do, you've got a chance to be pretty good."

Get Zimmer talking about former Bengals linebacker Kevin Hardy and you get the idea about the kind of guys he wants.

"I loved him," he said. "Just what you want in a guy. Tough. Smart. Good."

Zimmer considers himself a "tough" coach, and Bill saw it from a physical standpoint when Mike had to give up playing linebacker at Illinois State following a neck injury that required fusion of two vertebrae in his neck. But he went back behind the plate in the spring.

"Yeah, it was dangerous with those guys sliding in there," Bill said. "But he didn't care. He wanted to play."

At the moment, Mike Zimmer is watching film to see which Bengals step up to his plate this spring.

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