Leslie Frazier: An accidental coach who grew into the job

Seven times, Leslie Frazier has been a head-coaching candidate in the NFL. Seven teams, including the one he'll see across the field today, the Buffalo Bills, rejected him.

Tony Dungy and Leslie Frazier
Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy, left, and former Colts defensive backs coach Leslie Frazier.

Seven times, Leslie Frazier has been a head-coaching candidate in the NFL. Seven teams, including the one he'll see across the field today, the Buffalo Bills, rejected him.

But now he has an opportunity to seize. Another opportunity, actually.

This truncated tryout in Minnesota, six weeks as the interim coach of the Vikings, while not ideal, could be the last step Frazier takes in securing a full-time NFL head-coaching job, a trek that began 22 years ago, when he sat across from Dr. Kenneth Meyer in the Trinity College chancellor's office and realized potential he never knew he had.

"Here I am, an African-American, fresh out of playing ball, listening to him explain what he wanted out of this program and how he identified me as the person he wanted to be in charge," Frazier said the other day, sitting behind the desk of his corner office overlooking the Vikings' practice fields at Winter Park. "The implicit trust that he had in my decision making, in building that program, that's what I take from that situation when I'm working with Brett or Adrian or Jared -- whoever.

"They need to feel that they can trust me so that when I say something it's going to be true and I'm hoping that will be mutual because a lot of what we do in our business is based on trust and relationships."


Frazier's journey started by accident, thanks to a Super Bowl that gave him a championship the same day his playing career ended.

Coaxed to coach

In 1988, Meyer was chancellor of what now is Trinity International University in suburban Chicago when he recruited Frazier to start a football program. Frazier was only 27 years old and never had considered coaching, let alone learned how to build a roster, operate a budget, design uniforms and schedule games.

"He wasn't too interested. He wanted to sell insurance," Meyer said. "But I kept after him."

Frazier had spent two years rehabilitating his knee to try to resume his NFL career after a trick play in Super Bowl XX in January 1986 crumpled him on the turf of the Louisiana Superdome.

Frazier, a cornerback who led the Bears in interceptions in 1985 and never had returned a punt in his life, took a reverse handoff from returner Keith Ortego, planted his left leg to turn upfield and tore ligaments in his knee without being touched by a single New England Patriot.

Frazier never played another down. The Bears were leading the Patriots 20-3 in the second quarter of a title game they ultimately won 46-10, and the senselessness of suffering a career-ending injury on a gimmick play made the outcome all the more painful for Frazier.

But as one door closed, another opened.


"My career ended so abruptly I didn't have a chance to prepare for the end like some guys do. It was hard," he said. "I've seen some tragic situations, people I had a lot of respect for, all of a sudden they're falling apart because they're not on the team anymore.

"My faith got me through it. Just believing that God had a plan for my life, that he must have something better for me. I just didn't see it at the time."

Meyer did see something in Frazier, but he was flying solo.

"I had faculty that thought I was nuts," recalled Meyer, who retired from Trinity in 2007. "They were very interested in soccer. They didn't want a football team or a pro athlete with no coaching experience. But Les converted them."

Frazier won two Northern Illinois Intercollegiate Conference titles in nine seasons at Trinity and had the football field named after him before leaving to coach defensive backs under Ron Turner at Illinois.

Frazier joined the NFL ranks as secondary coach for Andy Reid's Philadelphia Eagles in 1999, when Brad Childress was quarterbacks coach. That was followed by two-year stints in Cincinnati and Indianapolis before Childress hired him in 2007 to replace Mike Tomlin, who left after one season to become the Pittsburgh Steelers' head coach.

"It's a goal of mine to one day be a head coach," Frazier said at the time. "Before that, I need to do a good job in Minnesota."

Seeing opportunity


Where many see the Vikings buried in the rubble of a disastrous season, Frazier sees opportunities to mine. Not only proving to owner Zygi Wilf that he deserves the full-time job but creating an environment for his talented roster to restore the potential and self-respect that weeks of losing and turmoil had destroyed.

"When I was asked to take over this role, I thought about the players. I really felt like I could help this team get on track to the point where these guys won't look back and say this was a lost year," Frazier said.

"My hope is they'll look back and say we got some things done in 2010. That was the primary reason I wanted to say yes. I really believe in those players in that locker room. They deserve to have success, and they deserve some of the things I thought I could help them achieve."

Plenty of Vikings players are pulling for Frazier, and it showed when he won his debut last weekend at Washington, when he was drenched with a Gatorade bath, squeezed with embraces and presented a game ball. But sentiment alone will not determine who fills the most important football job for a franchise in need of someone who can lead it past this season of discontent.

With so much to repair in such little time, he is meeting regularly with a committee of veteran players and emerging stars to reopen communication with the locker room, which had splintered under Childress before he was fired Nov. 22.

Receivers Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin are part of the group that includes such high-profile players as running back Adrian Peterson, quarterback Brett Favre, guard Steve Hutchinson, linebacker Ben Leber, defensive end Jared Allen and cornerback Antoine Winfield.

Frazier has made a point the past two weeks to poke his head in the offices of his assistant coaches and support staff to talk about the team and life outside football.

Frazier eschews the notion that a coach has to scheme until 3 a.m. and steal sleep on an office cot . His philosophy is work hard, be efficient and get home to your family.


A devout Christian since he was 13, Frazier dedicates time each day to celebrate his faith through prayer, connecting with NFL brethren such as his coaching mentor, Tony Dungy, or Mike Singletary, Frazier's teammate in the 1980s with the Chicago Bears.

"Just being able to find some time where I can mentally and physically get away from football to the point where I can communicate with God, whether it's early in the morning or late at night or getting on the phone with Tony or Mike -- people I can confide in or talk through issues so I know I'm not alone," Frazier said.

"The trappings of fame, they're there for coaches just like they are for players. You can get caught up and go in the wrong direction. So I'm always conscious of that. Having someone who can hold me accountable is kind of what helps me avoid the pitfalls."

Murky outlook

Frazier's steadying influence and soothing demeanor notwithstanding, uncertainty hangs over Winter Park like an arctic front as the Vikings (4-7) close out a season in which they entered as Super Bowl contenders but stumbled through one crisis after another.

Frazier, 51, and his assistant coaches are under contract through next season, but their job security hinges on whether the Wilf family makes a long-term commitment to their short-term solution. Moreover, the contracts of a half dozen starters are expiring, the only quarterback signed for next year is rookie Joe Webb and a lockout could disrupt the 2011 season.

Frazier said he has not talked to the Wilfs about any of those issues and insists he will not concern himself with the results of his six-game audition until the Vikings finish playing.

Still, he exudes the quiet confidence of a coach who already has the gig. And that is precisely what Frazier must do if he wants to keep it, according to Singletary, the San Francisco 49ers' coach. Singletary in 2008 was the most recent interim coach to turn a midseason appointment into a full-time job.


"From the time I stepped in, I felt like I was a long-term solution. I never looked at it as a short-term thing," said Singletary, under fire for a 4-7 record after the 49ers were preseason favorites to win the NFC West. "In my heart, mind and soul, if it wasn't enough, then fine, let's move on. I never thought, 'Let's see how it goes.' "

Singletary said there is no mystery to the type of man and coach the Vikings have in Frazier.

"What you've seen so far, if you like that, there's a lot more. He is about as straight a guy as there is," Singletary said. "What he tells you, that's what it is. He's not going to try to be somebody he's not. Players are gonna love him, and he's going to serve that team as best he can and help that team win.

"That's who Leslie Frazier is."

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