A champion in two sports, Bud Grant: 1927-2023

Hall of Famer Forever Published on : 3/11/2023
The football world today is celebrating the unique career of Bud Grant, a professional player in two sports who would become one of the winningest coaches — and a Hall of Famer — in two football leagues.The football world today is celebrating the unique career of BUD GRANT, a professional player in two sports who would become one of the winningest coaches — and a Hall of Famer — in two football leagues.

A member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 1994, Grant died early Saturday in Minnesota, where he lived following his 18-year career as head coach of the Minnesota Vikings. He was 95.

"There are so many adjectives appropriate to describe Coach Bud Grant: legendary, determined, successful. Underneath his outwardly stoic demeanor that many misunderstood as a coldness laid the warm heart of a man who truly loved his players and the sport of football," said Jim Porter, president of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"Coach Grant remained connected to the Hall well into his 90s," Porter said, "often reaching out to staff members in Canton to share his opinions about the game and how the Hall was representing it and his beloved Minnesota Vikings."

At the time of his retirement, Grant ranked in the top 10 for NFL coaching victories. Adding wins from his illustrious career in the Canadian Football League, where he still ranks in the top 10 despite nearly 55 years out of the league, he would trail only DON SHULA, Bill Belichick and GEORGE HALAS for professional football coaching victories.

Few fans realize that before donning a headset Grant was an accomplished athlete, both in professional football and basketball. He played two seasons with the Minneapolis Lakers in the NBA, winning a championship in the 1949-50 season. He also was a standout player in the NFL and the CFL.

Grant's prowess in multiple sports began in Superior, Wisc., at the high school that also produced Hall of Famers TUFFY LEEMANS and ERNIE NEVERS.

Born May 20, 1927, as Harry Peter Grant Jr., Grant was nicknamed "Buddy Boy" by his mother and "Kid" by his father, Harry Sr., who on occasion practiced with Nevers and the Duluth Eskimos. As a child, Bud was diagnosed with polio, and doctors encouraged athletics to strengthen his weakened muscles. He started with baseball, learning to throw accurately and building his arm strength by pitching rocks into a tin can. He later added basketball, then football.

After graduating high school, Grant enlisted in the Navy. He was assigned to Great Lakes Naval Station and played for another future Hall of Fame coach.

"I learned from watching PAUL BROWN how to make a team out of individual players," Grant recalled years later in an interview with the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

He then enrolled at the University of Minnesota, where he excelled in three sports and earned eight letters.

Sid Hartman, Grant's friend for 70 years and his Hall of Fame presenter, was a sportswriter in Minneapolis who wrote a regular column well into his 90s. Having seen countless Gopher athletes across several decades, he called Grant "one of the best, if not the best, in the history of the University of Minnesota."

Grant was named to the All-Big Ten team in football as a junior and senior. Drafted by both the Lakers in the NBA and the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFL, he jumped at the opportunity to join the Lakers when the 1949 football season ended. His first NBA points came on a half-court shot that beat the halftime buzzer.

In the summers around that time, he often could be found pitching in local baseball games, telling a reporter from the Star Tribune he could earn more money in those sandlot games than he did in salary with the Lakers.

"For $50 a game, I'd pitch overhand, sidearm, submarine — everything — three nights a week," he said in a 2018 interview. "Sometimes I'd ask for $100. If the team couldn't afford it, I'd tell them to bet the $50 they were going to pay me against someone from the other town. I'd guarantee we'd win, and I'd get the $100."

After two seasons in the NBA, Grant contacted the Eagles, and they struck a deal for him to join the team for the 1951 season. He played defensive end and led the team in sacks (an unofficial statistic in that era). In 1952, he moved to offense, playing all 12 games at receiver. He caught 56 passes for 997 yards — second in the league — and seven touchdowns.

Unable to reach an agreement on a new contract with the Eagles, Grant headed to Canada, launching a Hall of Fame career in the CFL with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

Success in Canada

Over the next four years, he caught 216 passes for 3,200 yards and 13 touchdowns for coach Allie Sherman. He also played defensive back and set a CFL record that hasn't been broken: five interceptions in a game.

In 1957, Sherman left Winnipeg to become coach of the New York Giants. The Blue Bombers chose Grant, who was just turning 30, as his replacement. Over the next 10 years, he went from youngest coach in CFL history to its winningest. His teams claimed six Western Division championships and four Grey Cups. He won 102 regular-season games and 13 more in the playoffs from 1957 to 1966.

Along the way, the Vikings offered Grant the opportunity to coach the expansion team in 1961. He declined but didn't turn down a second offer in 1967.

Within two years, the Vikings won the NFL's Central Division, along with the NFL title with a convincing 27-7 victory over the Cleveland Browns. They lost to the Chiefs, 23-7, in Super Bowl IV, the last championship game before the merger of the AFL and NFL.

Over the next 10 years, the Vikings won nine division titles and three NFC Championship games. Overall in the NFL, Grant's teams won 158 games in the regular season and 10 in the postseason, a total that still ranks him 20th on the league's all-time list.

"I've never met a more interesting person," former Vikings quarterback and Hall of Famer FRAN TARKENTON told the Star Tribune. "Bud brought dignity to the Vikings. He didn't raise his voice. He didn't yell. But if he said something, you listened. Because it made sense."

In the introduction to Grant's biography, "I Did It My Way," Hall of Famer Tarkenton wrote: "Bud Grant never did anything halfway." In a later television interview, he said of Grant: "I learned more from him than anybody else who ever lived. ... He is probably the most remarkable man I have ever known."

Tarkenton told NFL Films: "He never yelled. He never screamed. He never berated. He was a great, great leader and a great, great coach. I was privileged to play for him. If you could not play for Bud Grant, you could not play."

Grant built Vikings teams in his image. They were rugged and suited for playing in the challenging cold and windy conditions on the old Metropolitan Stadium. His teams posted a 6-1 record in home playoff games.

"He looked at the talent that he had, and he built the team around the talent that he had," defensive lineman Jim Marshall told NFL Films.

Hall of Fame safety PAUL KRAUSE said Grant "knew what it took to win football games. He knew what type of person he wanted for his football teams. We loved to play for him."

Team discipline important

Grant's teams were notably disciplined. They stood at attention for the national anthem. They eschewed heaters on the sidelines.

His demeanor, the well-documented sideline stoicism, more accurately reflected his belief that controlling emotions led to better athletic performance than it did in reflecting his off-the-field persona, Hartman said. And the old friend often found himself on the receiving end of Grant's constant pranks.

"Even as a very young man, he loved the outdoors. He took it upon himself to try to get me to appreciate his love of nature," Hartman recalled in his presenter's speech. "Like the time he borrowed my car for the night. About a week later, I started to notice this strange smell.

"Bud told me I was crazy, but the smell got worse and worse until I found three dead crows that he hid in the trunk of my car. When that failed to convert me to a nature lover, he hid a squirrel in the glove compartment of my car, and I didn't find that squirrel until it started up my leg in rush-hour traffic."

Grant was an avid outdoorsman and naturalist his entire life.

Over the years, Grant survived several airplane mishaps — from small fires to crash-landings and even an ill-fated flight in his CFL days.

Not wanting to spend hours waiting for his scheduled flight following the 1956 CFL All-Star Game in Vancouver, Grant changed planes. He got several Blue Bombers teammates to join him. Later that night, the plane those players would have been riding crashed, claiming the lives of five CFL players from Winnipeg and Saskatchewan and all 62 passengers and crew overall in one of Canada's worst aviation disasters.

Grants' most recent incident involving an airplane occurred only a few years ago on a hunting trip. Any of those accidents could have rewritten his life story many chapters sooner.

"Luck is a big part of everything," Grant told the Star Tribune. "I've been lucky."

It is said, "It's better to be lucky than good."

Bud Grant was both.

His legacy will be preserved forever at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.