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Eden Prairie head coach Mike Grant talked to his players during a meeting on Tuesday, July 23, 2013 in Eden Prairie, Minn. ] (RENEE JONES SCHNEIDER * reneejones@startribune.com)

 

The golf cart sits idle on the edge of a football field, a perfect spot for Mike Grant to observe a summer practice without getting in the way. ¶ “I don’t even know who is here,” he says. “We don’t take attendance.” ¶ On this July afternoon, Grant seems more interested in telling stories and sharing his fascination with YouTube than worrying about whether his Eden Prairie High School team can win its third consecutive state championship and ninth under his leadership. Not even a fumble in his favorite quarterback drill can sour his mood.

 

“You know what quarterbacks who fumble are called?” he asks. “Guards.”

This remains Grant’s sanctuary, high school football practice, still the best two hours of his day, he says. He sought last winter to replace his legendary mentor, John Gagliardi, at St. John’s but withdrew from consideration at the 11th hour.

That job, he says, requires a 10-year commitment and, at age 56, he can see retirement in his near future. One particular idea tugs at him: spending a fall hunting with his father, Bud, the former Vikings coach and a Hall of Famer. Bud turned 86 in May, and Mike wants to do this while his dad is still active.

Grant has nothing left to prove in coaching. In 21 years at Eden Prairie, he’s 229-24 with six undefeated seasons and 15 conference titles. But his competitive spirit still rages on those Friday nights when, according to one former player, the laid-back coach transforms into “a different human being.”

That, in essence, is Mike Grant, a paradoxical personality who doesn’t fit neatly into one box.

Sarcasm as life’s soundtrack

Grant built his football dynasty from scratch and maintains a visible presence in the youth organization because he believes a healthy feeder system is the foundation of a strong program. Rivals snidely attribute his success to large enrollment figures — a city of 62,000 has only one high school.

Eden Prairie remains the gold standard in Minnesota prep football, but the patriarch laments “all the macho b.s. that permeates sports,” so he made humor an underlying tenet of his coaching philosophy.

Sure, he’s a stickler for fundamentals and preparation — his entire coaching staff breaks down film at his house after every game until the wee hours — but Grant insists that practices include jokes, and he concludes his quarterback camp with a stupid human tricks contest. The kid who could swallow his tongue stole the show this summer.

“It freaked out every kid at camp,” Grant says, clearly pleased.

That’s Grant in a nutshell. Beneath a gruff exterior lies a gregarious, aw-shucks character who considers sarcasm the soundtrack of life. Someone once asked him for his favorite travel destination. Otter Tail County, he replied. On that, he’s serious.

A former economics and history teacher, Grant views football as a “mathematical equation” based on a probability of mistakes. He counts a high school English teacher as one of the most influential people in his life because he admired that a man could feel so emotionally inspired by Shakespeare.

Good coaches, he believes, focus more on relationships than strategy. He has a no-cut policy and still runs the same offense he brought from Forest Lake back in 1992, save for new wrinkles he adds each season. He quotes Steve Jobs on leadership and recites Gregory Peck in “Pork Chop Hill” or scenes from “Gettysburg” in explaining why a certain play won’t work.

He has only one rule: If you screw up, the only acceptable answer is, “My fault, Coach.” He has no time for excuses. In exchange, he promises that coaches won’t belittle or swear.

“Our kids know when they come here they can be relaxed,” he says. “I don’t know if I have any idea how to coach. We just kind of do what we do.”

Team that others love to hate

Eden Prairie’s success has bred under-the-breath contempt around the state. “It’s like the Yankees or Duke [basketball] of Minnesota high school football,” former quarterback Jason Kapsner said. “You love to hate the guys who are on top.”

Grant doesn’t cower to that pressure and says this year’s team might be his best yet. Beloved inside his city limits, he is viewed differently elsewhere. One rival coach said a perception exists that Grant is arrogant and that jealousy over Eden Prairie’s size fuels hostile feelings.

Grant knows that outsiders believe his program wins only because it has more kids and more coaches than everyone else. He insists he doesn’t care what people think, but then he sarcastically says he wants to add 50 “stand-ins” to act like assistants so that opponents will think every player has his own coach.

The enrollment criticism, in particular, touches a nerve.

“The only reason I care is that it diminishes how hard these kids work,” he says. “What they’re saying is Eden Prairie kids don’t work hard.”

Embracing life as Bud’s kid

Grant knows his obituary likely will include a comma after his name. Even now, almost every introduction begins, “Mike Grant, son of former Vikings coach Bud Grant ...”

Once, as a young teacher, he had a district administrator who was from Iowa and apparently not a football fan. The woman met Grant’s dad at an event.

“You’re Mike Grant’s dad, aren’t you?’ ” she said.

Bud didn’t flinch.

“Yep,” he answered, “that’s who I am.”

Mike learned at an early age that being Bud’s kid could be viewed as either a privilege or personal albatross. He chose to embrace the life that it afforded him, more than worry about the comma attached to his name.

He served as Vikings ball boy in training camp, played pingpong with players in the dorm and mingled with Fran Tarkenton. He remembers his mother, Pat, lowering him from the stands into his father’s arms after games.

“He was raised in the locker room,” Bud said.

Father and son never talked football, though. Bud purposely left football at the office. Even after painful losses, he’d come home for dinner and the family would discuss the week’s activities or their next hunting trip over Pat’s goulash.

Mike’s first memory of discussing strategy with his father came in 1980, when he was offensive coordinator at Minnetonka. He called a quarterback sneak at the goal line late in the game that got stopped. Bud was at the game and walked out of the stadium with his son.

“He goes, ‘Never run sneak on the goal line,’ ” Mike recalled. “I go, ‘So, you wait 24 years to tell me that one?’ ”

Influenced by creativity, fun

Mike’s vision of coaching was shaped by observing his father in the locker room and on the practice field. He never heard his father curse at players or force them to beat each other to pulps in practice. He saw a man command respect through stoicism and a piercing stare of steely blue eyes.

Mike learned about offensive creativity and unconventional thinking as a star tight end and later as an assistant coach under Gagliardi. He discovered that a team can have fun and win games without adhering to the rigid code of a fire-breathing leader.

Those powerful influences stuck with Grant. Though he demands dedication and attentiveness, his practices are light on physical contact and focus more on repetition of fundamentals.

A visiting coach once attended his practice and watched as players attempted to throw cones onto the goal post before Grant arrived. The coach anticipated a volcanic eruption as Grant came on the field. Instead, Grant spent 10 minutes trying to execute the trick himself.

“I’m a state fair competition kind of guy,” he says.

At his first practice at Eden Prairie, Grant walked out to find every kid standing silent. He asked someone to tell a joke to lighten the mood. That became a staple of his practices.

“Now our kids, you can’t shut them up,” he says. “All they do is tell jokes.”

Even so, his program’s foundation is built on talent, structure and a group of coaches who’ve been with Grant for years. Youth players learn the basic concepts of Eden Prairie’s offense and Grant’s philosophy so they are engrossed in the culture at an early age.

No matter how casual he keeps things, Grant is fueled by extreme competitiveness, a trait he inherited from his father. It wasn’t enough for Mike to play racquetball socially; he made himself an “A Division” player. Kapsner describes Grant as “one of the most fiercely intense people” he’s ever seen on game day.

“It’s literally like a flip of a switch,” Kapsner said. “In his pregame speech, it’s like his head is going to pop off. Everyone gets really excited and pumped up when he gets fired up.”

‘Joke’ program to powerhouse

With a click of the mouse at a team meeting in the high school, Grant starts a video that transports a new team back to the beginning of a dynasty. It begins with his first game in 1992. He had 44 players in uniform, and roughly the same number of Eden Prairie fans sat in the stands at Minnetonka.

“Look at us,” Grant says, “We’re fearsome.”

His players laugh, but the Eagles pull off an upset, 21-6. And they keep winning. Grant includes clips of the first state championship. And second. And third.

He shows more highlights, more championships, until his message resonates.

“You can be good, but are you special?” Grant says later. “In order to be special at Eden Prairie, you’ve got to win a state championship. Our job is to explain to them and show them how to be special. If they want to, we have a chance. If they don’t, we go deer hunting.”

Grant loves to hunt, whether with his dad, his wife, Colleen, or friends. He wants to write a book chronicling an entire season of hunting expeditions with his father. His plan involves visiting places where his father hunted ducks and deer as a young man.

“I want to retire before my dad can’t go and do these things with me,” he says.

Mike envisions a series of three-day excursions that begin in Saskatchewan, continue in Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Dakotas, and finish in Arkansas. He loves the idea of spending quiet time with his father, hunting and sharing stories.

He has it all planned out in his head, except one important detail.

“I need a title to the book,” he says.

Give him time. He’ll come up with something original.

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