Paul Wiggin loves the game of football. It's what keeps the 88-year-old coming back after seven decades around the game.
Wiggin, a member of the Vikings’ front office since 1992, could write a book about all of the thrilling moments from his long career as a player, coach and NFL talent evaluator.
He became a College Football Hall of Famer at Stanford, played defensive end for legendary coach Paul Brown in Cleveland, won an NFL championship (1964) alongside Browns running back Jim Brown, worked for Vikings legend Bud Grant, coached future Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway at Stanford and identified countless stars during his career in the Vikings’ personnel department.
Those special moments, combined with the thrill of seeing players succeed, are reasons why Wiggin is still working for the Vikings as a player personnel consultant.
“From my standpoint, I love football and I was able to play football and I was able to take it to the next step and coach it. And then another step would have been scouting. So I’ve been able to live a football life,” Wiggin said. “I’ve had ups and I’ve had downs, but I’ve got a ring and I’ve been a world champion. When you’re part of a team that is the best in the world, that’s a pretty good feeling to wake up the next morning with.”
Paul has earned many major awards over the years, but not many match the one he recently received from the Minnesota Football Chapter of the National Football Foundation. Wiggin, the recipient of the Bud Grant Distinguished Minnesotan Award, said the honor means even more because it is named after an influential mentor.
“It means a lot to me because I’ll take anything that has Bud Grant’s name on it. You talk about respect. Respect comes at different levels and that’s the highest level of respect you can have,” Wiggin said, “It was just one year [that I coached with Bud], but I’ll never forget it. There were so many things about Bud that were just amazing.”
After playing 11 seasons for the Browns (1957-67), Wiggin launched his coaching career under head coach Dick Nolan and the San Francisco 49ers. He spent seven seasons with the 49ers (1968-74) before the Kansas City Chiefs hired him to replace Hank Stram. Wiggin was the Chiefs head coach for three seasons until he became available following the 1977 season.
That’s when Vikings head coach Bud Grant first reached out. Bud wanted to hire Wiggin for an assistant coaching position. Paul entertained the idea, but instead became Nolan’s defensive coordinator with the New Orleans Saints.
“I chose to go back with Dick Nolan at that time because I knew Dick, I knew the staff and I was confident I would be in the role that I had before and I liked that role,” Wiggin said. “I had interviewed with Bud at that time too and it was hard to turn that one down at the time because everybody said back in those days, if you ever get a chance to work for Bud Grant, take it as an assistant coach because he’s the ultimate [coach] in the way you want to be treated as an assistant coach.”
Wiggin spent two seasons in New Orleans before he was named head coach at his alma mater, Stanford. During four seasons there (1980-83), Paul played a role in developing future Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway and many others. Wiggin enjoyed his time in California, but eventually returned to the NFL.
Ahead of Bud Grant’s second stint with the Vikings in 1985, he offered Wiggin the defensive line coach job. That time around, Paul accepted the job and teamed up with Bud for one season.
“Working for him that one year was maybe one of the most meaningful coaching experiences of my life,” Wiggin said. “The wisdom that [Bud] has is unbelievable. I often wish that I had an opportunity to work for Bud when I first started.”
Wiggin particularly enjoyed learning how Grant viewed and studied human behavior. Paul said Bud’s unique ability to understand people was one of the reasons why he was so successful as a coach.
“Bud’s number one trait in my opinion was his ability to understand human behavior. He adjusted to players and players adjusted to him and it was almost magical. I don’t know if you can just do that,” Wiggin said. “I think you have to be really talented to do what he did. I have often said, having lunch with Bud Grant is like taking a two-unit course in human behavior.”
Grant retired for good following the 1985 season, but Wiggin was retained as the defensive line coach under new Vikings head coach Jerry Burns. Within that role, Paul ended up developing and identifying many star Vikings players, including defensive linemen Chris Doleman, Keith Millard, John Randle and Henry Thomas. Wiggin fondly remembers his time with each player he coached, however, while looking back, one of his most memorable football moments occurred during the 1989 season.
“We had 63.5 sacks with just linemen [that season]. That has not been broken since then. I’m a big believer that you can’t win without pass rush. I think you have to have a quarterback that can stymie them and a defensive line that stops their quarterback,” Wiggin said. “When you can do it with just linemen and you don’t have to bring a bunch of people, it’s a lot different. I was kind of proud of that because the Bears hold the record for sacks. We had 71, they had 72, but they only had 53.5 with the linemen. We had 63.5.”
Ultimately, Wiggin believes the lifelong relationships he forged with former players mean more than any on-field result. He is frequently reminded of this when he pulls out his phone and looks at old messages.
“When you’re a coach, you don’t make much of a dent in Western civilization, so you have to kind of think of the things that you may have accomplished. I look back at guys with the 49ers - Tommy Hart and Cedrick Hardman. I look back at ‘my gang’, as I called them, with the Vikings - Chris Doleman, Keith Millard and Henry Thomas was a great player. And bringing along John Randle in the early days,” Wiggin said. “You remember those guys and you know what’s nice? They kind of remember you. I’ve got two or three things on my phone that are from players that said, ‘I really appreciate the way you coached me' and I kind of like that.”
Six years later, the Jerry Burns era concluded and assistant coaches went their separate ways. Wiggin was prepared to accept an assistant coaching job with the Seahawks and head coach Tom Flores, but the Vikings wouldn’t let him interview for the position.
“I went to Jerry Reichow (a top Vikings executive at the time), and I said, 'What’s going on?' And he said, ‘They want you to go into personnel and that pro personnel is starting to come into its own now and they want you to be in charge of pro personnel if you’d be interested,’” Wiggin recalled. “I talked to my wife and she said, ‘Coaches move and scouts don’t seem to move and I like it here.’ So we decided to do it.”
The Vikings, like many NFL teams of that era, never had a pro personnel department before. At the time, Wiggin was one of the main people tasked with building Minnesota’s new department from scratch.
“It was a new field. We put together computer programming and that kind of a thing. We put together many different things and pretty soon we had a system and I think we did a decent job,” Wiggin said. “I was lost for a while. It was a new thing and I didn’t know anything about it, but I enjoyed it and I do enjoy studying people. I spend a lot of time studying.”
Over the years, Wiggin paid particularly close attention to the evolution of offensive and defensive line play. Wiggin once built a film reel that included tape of about 50 different defensive linemen from across the NFL, including the Purple People Eaters. His goal was to find some common denominators that every successful defensive linemen possessed. Wiggin noticed a few trends, but ultimately discovered that the best coaches maximized what each player did best.
“What I found was that everyone is different,” Wiggin said. “Rather than try to make them what you saw on film, I think a good coach sees what they have and judges what they have, and then helps them develop their own ability based on what their capabilities are.”
Wiggin said Vikings defensive lineman John Randle provided the perfect case study for maximizing unique talent and athletic ability. Randle, a 6-foot-1, 290-pound Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive lineman, took his game to another level once he developed a diverse mix of pass rushing moves.
“[John] had one rush and it was a dynamite rush, except, if you do the same thing every time, it’s not too complicated for an offensive tackle. But once we worked on some counter moves and some things, all of the sudden that little guy was a great player and then became a big guy and an even greater player,” Wiggin said. “I was on the very ground floor though. He got a lot of help along the way from a lot of good coaches.”
Wiggin often sits down with current Vikings scouts and talks about the new world of offensive and defensive line play. He said the traits and physical requirements are quite different in this era of the NFL.
“There has been an evolution of things in both [offensive and defensive line play]. What you are seeing now is the edge rushers, there are some, they have mastered that particular skill. I mean, they are barn burners. And, I mean, offensive linemen, it is a whole different world,” Wiggin said. “I sit down with some of the young scouts and we talk about some of the things and it’s amazing how the traits and the physical things that you have to do in each one are so different.”
Wiggin also can’t believe how many resources are now available for NFL teams. He said organizations only had about 11 people in the building when he first started out in the league. Now, a few decades later, that number is 20 times as big.
“[The game is] more sophisticated. When I started out, there were seven coaches, there was one secretary, one general manager, one trainer and one equipment man in the building. Today, in the [Vikings] building, we’ll have a staff gathering and there’s well over 200 people that sit down in those seats,” Wiggin said. “There is so much more detail to everything.”
In addition to larger staffs, football research is changing the way teams view the game. Wiggin has witnessed it firsthand while watching Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah blend data and information into the player evaluation process. Paul said he really admires how Adofo-Mensah not only approaches the game, but his staff.
“[Kwesi] clearly has a great temperament. I mean, I think he runs a great meeting. I like his meetings. He doesn’t embarrass anybody. He lets everybody express what they choose to express. I like that about him and I think he gets the most out of them doing that. There’s a comfort to that. He is a very, very good match, I think, to be there with Kevin [O’Connell] as the coach,” Wiggin said. “He’s brought people in that are really taking [the football research] side of it, that was not in football 50 years ago, to a new level, and I admire that.”
More than seven decades after Wiggin began his football journey, he isn’t backing away from the game any time soon. The energy surrounding a new era of Vikings football is keeping him energized and excited.
“I just love it. I love being a part of it. I really enjoyed this year. I really enjoy the energy that we have in this building right now,” Wiggin said. “I feel bad that we were one of the 31 teams that didn’t make it, but we took a step or two.”
About the Author: follow Daniel House on Twitter (@DanielHouseNFL) and check out his work on GophersGuru.com and Vikings Corner (mnvikingscorner.com)