Behind the scenes, whenever he might have been shooting the shit or just taking questions from reporters when there weren’t cameras around, Jerry Burns had a penchant for weaving curse words into whatever he was saying.
“That was how he talked all the time,” Patrick Reusse, the longtime columnist for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, told me.
Burns coached the Minnesota Vikings from 1986–91. According to Reusse, Burns would generally be a bit more careful with his language during a press conference or whenever there were cameras around, even when he was grouchy. But his postgame presser after the Vikings defeated the Rams on Nov. 5, 1989, was a major exception. On that day, Burns let his foul-mouthed id do the talking.
Certain coaching rants—Dennis Green’s “They are who we thought they were” shoutfest, Jim Mora’s “Playoffs?!” tirade, Lee Elia’s fusillade of fucks, to name three—have long been hardwired into the public consciousness. Burns’s meltdown might be well-remembered by Vikings fans of a certain age, but it’s largely been neglected by most everyone else. On this, its 29th anniversary (plus three days), Burns’s rant deserves to be savored in all its profane glory. Behold:
Burns began by saying a few words about the game. Out of nowhere, he pivoted into this:
“Let me say something: As long as I’m in this fucking job, [Bob] Schnelker will be the offensive coach. There will be no quest—fucking about that. No fucking questions about that. I don’t like to name names after a fucking, after a fucking game. But we can’t be responsible for the blocking, we can’t be responsible for the fucking guys jumping offside, we can’t be responsible for fu—we get down there, and it was a dumb play by [Alfred] Anderson. I love Anderson. But it was a dumb fucking play when his shoe was coming off, up to the line of scrimmage, we were hollering to take [a] timeout. We had a fucking trap play called, and his fucking shoe comes off. That ain’t Bob Schnelker’s fault. We had another fucking trap play, and if [Rick] Fenney picks up his fucking feet, he walks in. We got the fucking pass to AC [Anthony Carter] out there in the flat, and that ball’s thrown low. That ain’t Schnelker’s fault.”
Fuck, what an opus of obscenities. It’s made all the better by the way Burns sounds as he gets going, from the kinetic agitation that sometimes causes him to trip on his words to the crotchety timbre of his voice to that grandfatherly midwestern accent. Burns dropped 13 of his 18 f-bombs right out of the gate.* There was a long, stunned pause before Star-Tribune reporter Bob Sansevere spoke up to ask sarcastically whether the Vikes, you know, won the game. “I think we did, yeah,” Burns answered. (They did, 23-21, but seven Rich Karlis field goals and a rare overtime safety accounted for all of their points.)
What set Burns off was the treatment Vikings offensive coordinator Bob Schnelker was getting from fans and some media, even though the win improved the Vikings to 6-3, putting them in sole possession of first place in the old NFC Central. Reusse outlined some of the backstory in his column the following day:
Before yesterday’s game, there was a middle-aged man standing in front of the Dome in the rain, handing out large decals of a slashed circle, with the initials B.S. inside of it. Below, the name Bob Schnelker was printed.
It was what happened inside the Hump that had Burns fuming later. When a sideline shot of Schnelker was shown on the scoreboard, the crowd took note by booing viciously. When the Vikings left the field at halftime, leading 12-7 and having marched for 16 first downs and 228 yards, fans stretched their necks over the railing leading to the tunnel and cursed Schnelker.
Some additional context: Just a few weeks earlier, on Oct. 11, the Vikings had traded a boatload of draft picks to the Cowboys for running back Herschel Walker, a blockbuster deal that hadn’t yet morphed into the lopsided swap that laid the foundation for the early-’90s Cowboys dynasty. The Vikings in ’89 were pretty damn good, and the acquisition of Walker was sold by GM Mike Lynn as move that would fill a key void for a team with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations. Burns, according to Reusse, did not want to trade for Walker.
“Burnsie thought he was too much of a downhill runner, and that he wasn’t a good fit,” Reusse told me.
Walker rushed for 237 yards and averaged 6.2 yards per carry in his first two games with Minnesota, but things came to a head after a 24-14 loss at the Giants on Monday Night Football the week before the Rams game. Afterward, Burns benched quarterback Tommy Kramer for Wade Wilson, a Pro Bowler a season earlier who had been injured. Walker had carried the ball just 12 times against the Giants, and the supremely talented wideout Anthony Carter had just six catches in his previous three games. This was how the Los Angeles Times set the scene on the morning of the Rams-Vikes game:
“The Vikings’ offense, operated by the independent-thinking coordinator Bob Schnelker, may need some rethinking. How can an offense with wide receiver Anthony Carter and Walker in the same lineup be so ineffective?”
(For the record, the ’89 Vikings finished the season ranked 16th in offensive DVOA.)
A football lifer, Burns was 62 years old in 1989; the ex-analyst John Madden once described his heavily lined face by saying, “It looks like you can draw plays on it.” A former quarterback at the University of Michigan, Burns spent 12 seasons coaching at the University of Iowa (including five as a head coach) before landing with Vince Lombardi’s Packers, with whom he won titles as an assistant in Super Bowls 1 and 2. Burns then latched on as Bud Grant’s offensive coordinator with the Vikings in 1968, a job he would hold until he took over for Grant in 1986. Burns had cooked up the offenses for all four Vikings teams that reached the Super Bowl in a span of eight seasons from 1969-76.
“He was really doing a lot of that West Coast–type stuff—throwing to running backs and all that—before Bill Walsh was doing it,” Reusse told me.
Reusse said Burns had great affection for “old football coaches,” which would explain his loyalty to Schnelker, another lifer who spent nearly 30 years as an NFL assistant for a half dozen teams. During Burns’s rant, it was Reusse who brought the conversation back to Schnelker at the 4:12 mark of the video, after Burns had answered several game-related questions. That set Burns off again.
“Yeah, yeah, he felt like shit afterwards,” Burns shouted. “Everybody booing the shit out of him—he works his ass off. No smarter a coordinator in football. Fuck, they put his picture up there [on the scoreboard], and the fuckers boo him.”
Then, after a pause, Burns bit off one last word, barely above a whisper but loud enough for the microphones to catch it: “Fuckers.” And he walked off.
The Vikings made three playoff appearances in Burns’s six seasons as head coach. The ’87 team lost all three of its scab games during the strike and did not have any players cross the picket line, except to receive medical treatment. But they made the playoffs and upset the Saints and 49ers before stalling out at the 6-yard line in the last minute of a 17-10 loss to Washington in the NFC title game, all on the road.
“They were a couple of plays from making one of the greatest runs ever,” Reusse said.
Reusse described Burns as a likable, colorful character. Unlike Grant, an outdoorsman, Burns liked to play golf. “They couldn’t be more different,” Reusse said. One time, Reusse was in Sarasota, Fla., for a quick stop on the beach while covering the Twins during spring training. As he was walking along, Reusse suddenly heard someone shout, “Hey, Big Nuts!” in his direction. He turned and saw Burns sitting there with Burns’s wife, just having a beach day.
“He called everyone ‘Big Nuts,’ Reusse said. “It was just a name he liked to call people.”
A final anecdote from Reusse: Once, during a trip to Tampa Bay to play the Buccaneers, a member of the Vikings’ PR staff invited a few reporters up to a hotel room to interview Burns (man, this was a long time ago, huh?) after practice. The room had a bathtub full of beers and ice. Burns proceeded to regale the reporters with old stories peppered with lots of curse words as they all knocked a few back. Once the beer ran out, Burns got up to take a piss and proceeded to walk down the hall toward his room. At that moment, Reusse said he and the other reporters realized they hadn’t asked Burns a thing about practice or the team—the stuff they’d need to fill out their stories.
“When the beer runs out, the bullshit stops,” Burns told them, and he kept right on walking.
The ’89 Vikings finished 10-6 and won the NFC Central, but they got blasted by the eventual-champion 49ers in the divisional round of the playoffs. Schnelker was fired after the 1990 season; he died two years ago at the age of 88. Burns, who retired after the ’91 season, is now 91, and he still lives in Eden Prairie, Minn. I got him on the phone the other night. The voice had that familiar rapid-fire quality to it, even if it sounded older, as one might expect. Burns would only say he couldn’t really remember anything about his rant, but that he still thought the world of Bob Schnelker. I gently pressed him one time, just to see if I could jog his memory.
“You seem to know more about it than I do,” he said. “That was a long time ago. Maybe someday you could come over to the house and we can sit down and have a long talk about it.” I told Jerry Burns I’d like that, and we said our goodbyes.
* After further review, the total number Burns’s f- bombs, both out of the gate and overall, has been updated.