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Barry Hirstius

FRIEND OR FOE? Top Coaches (and Friends) Face-Off During Saints-Vikings Tonight

When the Saints visit the Minnesota Vikings tonight at U.S. Bank Stadium in downtown Minneapolis, it will not only mark the beginning of another regular season in the now 51-year history of the New Orleans NFL franchise; but will also be memorable for a handful of other reasons, most of which have been covered over and over again several times throughout the week.

But yet here's another quick one as we stand just hours away from kickoff right now:

A "marquee" match-up with regard to the two head coaches in tonight's contest, Saints head coach Sean Payton and Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer.

Photo courtesy of USA TODAY Sports

Payton vs. Zimmer is a classic text-book example of a match-up featuring a "brilliant" offensive mind versus a defensive "guru".

And when you take into consideration that both men have actually had the entire off-season to prepare for each other, it suddenly becomes evident that what we might get to see could end up being an epic battle in front of a live national television audience.

Part of that reason is because both men are among the very best in the world at their current occupations, and the other glaringly obvious reason is that the two men know each other personally off of the field and are very good friends in their lives away from football.

Payton and Zimmer became close friends as colleagues and fellow coaching assistants on former NFL head coaching legend Bill Parcells' Dallas Cowboys coaching staff over a decade ago.

Tonight as Payton embarks on his 11th year (10 seasons as a head coach, 1 season suspended without pay in 2012) with the Saints at U.S. Bank Stadium, the 61-year-old Zimmer -- who has had to battle some notable health issues this past year -- will be in his 4th season as Vikings head coach.

Payton and Zimmer and their families became very good friends in Dallas. His son Adam Zimmer even worked on Payton's staff as a young assistant in New Orleans during the Saints 2009 Super Bowl run; and is now the Vikings linebackers coach.

“Sean and I have always been good friends,” Zimmer said back in a 2014 interview. “Our kids were good friends with their kids. Sean’s a great football coach and obviously he’s done a fantastic job with the Saints. It’s always a fun test to go against somebody that you respect.”

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

Payton and Zimmer were together on the Cowboys staff from 2003-2005. Zimmer left Dallas after the 2006 season when Parcells retired.

He spent one year with the Atlanta Falcons and six years with the Cincinnati Bengals where he became recognized as one of Pro Football's top defensive coordinators, before he was eventually hired by the Vikings prior to the 2014 season.

This will actually be the 2nd time the men have met in their current head coaching positions. Payton defeated Zimmer and the Vikings in Week #3 of the 2014 regular season, a 20-9 win at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The two men still maintain a close friendship, though it probably would be fair to say that Zimmer is much more squarely focused on tonight's game and stopping Drew Brees and the Saints offense -- based on his comments to the media in a scheduled conference call session this past Thursday. 

 

Conference Call with New Orleans Media --- Thursday, September 7, 2017

 

(QUESTION): When (Sean) Payton came to the Cowboys what were your first impressions, working with him for the first time?

(Zimmer): He is a heck of a coach, smart. We got a chance to go against each other every day at practice (on offense and defense). He was very innovative. Sean’s not changed much. He’s a fun guy to be around, great guy.”

(QUESTION): Do you remember Bill Parcells calling Sean Payton "Dennis the Menace"?

(Zimmer): “You’d have to ask Sean about that. I’m not going to comment on that.”

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

(QUESTION): What is your relationship with Sean Payton right now?

(Zimmer): “Good, we talk once in a while. If I have a question I’ll call him, but it’s not like we’re working together anymore, but we have a good relationship.”

(QUESTION): Does the experience working together give either of you an advantage?

(Zimmer): “I don’t know, he kind of knows me and I kind of know him. That was however many years ago, ten years ago at least. We got a chance to go against each other in practice, but it’s a different deal. We’ve played against each other before so I don’t know that there is an advantage either way.”

Advantages may be few and far between in tonight's contest, but you can believe that both men will be seeking to gain an advantage over each other; in an a concerted effort to get their respective teams to a 1-0 start to begin the season; and to hopefully avoid an 0-1 start --- a start that the Saints have become all too familiar with for the past several seasons.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

And they'll do it with both men having reached the pinnacle of their profession:

Payton with a Super Bowl title in 2009 and an offense under his command (for the most part) that finishes ranked in the Top 5 NFL offenses annually; and Zimmer with a defense that has emerged as one of the sport of Pro Football's very best, including a #2 overall ranking last year in 2016.

To say that both men have gone on to bigger and better things would be stating it mildly.

But when the two men meet tonight in what is the only time during any normal 365-day calendar year in which the two men would even consider themselves to be "enemies" of each other, it will be the friend who comes out on top up on the scoreboard that will have "bragging rights" --- as well as that critically and ever-so-important 1-0 start to the 2017 regular season........

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Saints News Network Editor / Featured Columnist Barry Hirstius is a 51-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and columnist previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints football team. Additionally, he is a recurring guest on a variety of local Sports Talk Radio programs. Barry is also a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the team while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium in the early 1970’s, originally following and now covering the team for a span of over 40 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.....

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