In choosing O'Connell, Vikings stick to their vision for the future – La Crosse Tribune

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FILE – Los Angeles Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell plays catch before an NFL football game against the San Francisco 49ers on Jan. 9 in Inglewood, Calif.
Hours after the Vikings fired General Manager Rick Spielman and coach Mike Zimmer on Jan. 10, Mark Wilf discussed the most significant set of changes in his family’s 17 years of team ownership by outlining a vision perhaps more familiar to corporate meeting rooms than NFL locker rooms.
That vision — of collaborative leaders who could connect with younger players and refresh the club after a fractious end to Spielman and Zimmer’s eight years together — will be fully realized in the days after Super Bowl LVI on Feb. 13. Barring a last-minute change, Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell will be introduced as the Vikings’ 10th head coach, joining General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah as the faces of an organization the Vikings want to be more modern, more inclusive and more forward-thinking.
Adofo-Mensah, the 40-year-old former Wall Street analyst, and O’Connell, the 36-year-old product of Los Angeles coach Sean McVay’s rapidly-expanding coaching tree, will each be in their respective roles for the first time. They will have to show they can bring consistent success to an organization that’s only reached the playoffs eight times since 2000.
But the fact they will be here together at all shows the Vikings, for better or worse, are committed to seeing their new strategy through.
Their 2022 job searches will be remembered as a moment where the Vikings committed to being different, committing to Adofo-Mensah’s unorthodox background as an NFL executive and, just as significantly, betting on O’Connell instead of Jim Harbaugh, the former 49ers coach who was eyeing a return to the NFL after taking Michigan to the national semifinals in his seventh year there.
This story is based on conversations with multiple sources familiar with the Vikings’ coaching search, who spoke on conditions of anonymity because the team cannot announce its plan to hire O’Connell publicly until after the Super Bowl. They detailed the process by which O’Connell, Adofo-Mensah’s co-worker in the 49ers organization, became the Vikings’ pick over three other finalists: Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris, Giants defensive coordinator Patrick Graham and Harbaugh, who decided to stay at Michigan after leaving the Vikings’ facility without an offer Wednesday.
Harbaugh had won everywhere he’d been, going to three NFC Championship Games in his four years with the 49ers and coming within a play of possibly beating his brother John’s Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII. But by the time he interviewed with the Vikings on Wednesday, O’Connell had charged to the front of the team’s search following an in-person interview in Los Angeles on Monday that had Vikings leadership buzzing.
The Vikings’ decision not to hire Harbaugh claimed plenty of local and national coverage, much of it with an I-hope-you-know-what-you’re-doing tone, in the days after the team chose to move forward with O’Connell on Wednesday. Bringing Harbaugh back to the NFL might have registered as the splashiest move of the hiring cycle, had the Vikings opted to do it.
Instead, they are banking on the idea O’Connell can follow in the footsteps of McVay acolytes such as Packers coach Matt LaFleur (who won 39 regular-season games in his first three seasons) and Bengals coach Zac Taylor (who will face McVay in the Super Bowl). The idea that O’Connell could bring the Vikings’ offensive scheme to a fuller expression of itself helped him edge Morris and Graham in the search, and the former NFL quarterback will have a key voice in the Vikings’ path forward at the position.
The Vikings are also betting on their presumptive coach being the kind of partner for Adofo-Mensah that the GM described in his introductory news conference, where strong opinions and formidable egos are subsumed into the greater good.
“I always say that with a coach, a coach that I would work with, I would work for. It’s somebody that I would want to partner with,” Adofo-Mensah said, when asked if his contract gives him full control of the Vikings’ 53-man roster. “I wouldn’t care about that distinction because they understand about personnel and about living in today and living in tomorrow that would make us a great partnership.”
Energized in L.A.
Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell had worked together for a year with the 49ers, and the Rams offensive coordinator’s profile rose to the point where he’d talked with several teams — including the Vikings — about head coaching jobs before Adofo-Mensah became Vikings GM and took the lead on the coaching search on Jan. 25.
The day after the Rams beat the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game at SoFi Stadium, Adofo-Mensah, Vikings co-owner Mark Wilf and executive vice president of football operations Rob Brzezinski boarded a plane from Holman Field to Los Angeles for interviews with O’Connell and Morris. It was there, sources said, where Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell really clicked.
The coach’s thoughtful preparation shone through the interview, and experience as quarterback Kirk Cousins’ final quarterbacks coach in Washington gave O’Connell special insight into the team’s most important offseason decision. The search committee left Los Angeles energized by how it had all gone, as the vision of a 40-year-old GM and 36-year-old coach leading the organization started to take shape.
But there was one coach left on Adofo-Mensah’s short list whom the Vikings hadn’t yet interviewed: Harbaugh.
Adofo-Mensah worked with the Michigan coach from 2013-14 when Harbaugh was in his final two years with the 49ers. There were enough whispers about Harbaugh’s interest in an NFL return, and the GM thought enough of the 58-year-old coach, that it seemed worth the Vikings’ time to at least explore the possibility.
A preliminary conversation on Jan. 30 went well enough for the Vikings to make arrangements on Monday for an interview with Harbaugh in Minnesota. When Adofo-Mensah helped organize the search that led the 49ers to Kyle Shanahan in 2017, he’d emphasized a detailed process that took the same approach — the same format, the same questions — to each candidate, no matter their background, and the Vikings would do the same with Harbaugh.
But the coach’s history of success, as well as his polarizing nature, quickly made him the headlining figure in the Vikings’ search, as media reports cast the job as Harbaugh’s to lose. Even though college football’s national signing day has lost some of its luster with colleges able to sign recruits in December, the fact Harbaugh would be leaving Ann Arbor to interview for another job on this day suggested he was serious about the Vikings job.
The Vikings planned to go from L.A. to the Bay Area for an in-person interview with 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans, but Ryans informed them Monday afternoon he would stay on Shanahan’s staff, pulling out of the Vikings’ search right as Harbaugh began to cast an outsize shadow on it.
The headliner
A second interview with Graham — whom Adofo-Mensah had put on his short list — went well on Tuesday, as the coach spent nine hours at the Vikings’ facility meeting people throughout the organization. Harbaugh flew to town Tuesday evening for the Vikings’ final in-person interview on Wednesday, almost as if he were the headlining act in a theater performance. His presence in the search intrigued several Vikings assistant coaches enough that they waited to take other jobs while the possibility of working with Harbaugh remained.
Harbaugh’s 44-19-1 record with the 49ers, though, would not exempt him from the Vikings’ process, especially not when some in the search committee retained some questions about how the bombastic coach would mesh with the new culture the Vikings envision.
As impressive as Harbaugh’s success with the 49ers was, it had been seven years since he last coached an NFL game. His interview, sources said, never left the Vikings fully confident he’d have the same success this time around, or assuaged the concerns they’d carried into the process. Some in the building were enthused by their interactions with him; others left puzzled by the coach.
His interview ended without the Vikings making an offer. By 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, as two of the Wilfs’ planes idled on the runway at Holman Field in St. Paul, Harbaugh reportedly told Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel he would return to the university for the 2022 season.
“I’m an honest person,” he said in an interview with the Detroit Free Press’ Mitch Albom about the Vikings interview. “There was a large pull there [for the NFL]. But I didn’t feel it was that way for both parties. And that’s it. That’s my mind-set now.”
O’Connell had kept his spot atop the search committee’s list; the Texans and Jaguars were still interested in talking to him, but the Vikings’ courtship of the Rams offensive coordinator, perhaps propelled forward by the possibility of Harbaugh snatching the job, reached betrothal around 7 p.m. The Vikings called the other two finalists — Morris and Graham — to tell them O’Connell was their pick, and the Wilfs’ planes departed for home in New Jersey shortly after 8 p.m.
O’Connell can be announced as the Vikings’ new head coach as soon as Valentine’s Day, a day after he tries to help the Rams win Super Bowl LVI in their home stadium.
The path the Vikings took to replace Spielman and Zimmer, even with a couple of side streets, ultimately ended about where they said it would. They have a partnership of two young leaders with relatively low profiles, and every chance to show that all the talk of a culture change can generate the only currency that counts in the NFL: wins.

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FILE – Los Angeles Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell plays catch before an NFL football game against the San Francisco 49ers on Jan. 9 in Inglewood, Calif.
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