WALTON, Ky. — Avid outdoorsman Mike Zimmer long wanted a place of his own to hunt. But the volatile nature of the coaching profession kept holding him back — until he bought into a piece of advice from his wife, Vikki.
“I would always say I’d like to do something [buy property], but we might not be here next year or we might get a new job, we might get fired,” Zimmer said. “She used to always tell me that you can’t live life that way, worrying about what’s next. You can’t worry about it.”
Zimmer bought his first 40 acres in the rolling Northern Kentucky countryside, 27 minutes south of Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati, in September 2013, when he was the Bengals’ defensive coordinator. It meant no more arranging trips on Friday afternoons in the offseason to use someone else’s land.
Four months later, he got his first shot as a head coach with the Minnesota Vikings.
“I’m probably the dumbest person around to build a house 12 hours from where I work, but I really liked the property and I said, ‘What the hell, I’ll just build a house on it,'” said Zimmer, who is going into his sixth season with the Vikings.
Zimmer, 63, eventually expanded his plot to 160 acres, calling it Zimmer Ridge Ranch, with a five-bedroom, six-bathroom home totaling more than 8,000 square feet. If Vikki taught him anything, it’s that nothing is promised — from job security to life. Sometimes you just have to make the jump and not look back.
Vikki, his wife of 29 years, never got to see Zimmer Ridge Ranch. She died unexpectedly of natural causes at the age of 50 on Oct. 8, 2009.
Much of the design is based on the Dallas house where he and Vikki raised their three children. That, Vikki’s daughter Corri recalls, was her mother’s dream home.
“She would have loved this place,” Zimmer said.
Here, 700 miles away from his daily grind in Minnesota, even a man who idles with the worst of them is able to find solace. This place breeds patience and brings out a calm in Zimmer, allowing him to recharge before facing arguably the most pivotal season of his career.
Corri Zimmer refers to this version of her father as “offseason coach.” It’s the Zimmer who exchanges hours of designing third-down blitzes for clearing brush and mowing grass on his big, green John Deere tractor.
“Especially at the ranch, he’s a completely different person,” Corri said. “He’s not really worried about much. A couple weeks back when we were down there, my husband’s like, ‘He seems calmer this year.’ And I’m like, ‘Well yeah, the season hasn’t started yet.'”
Not long after the Vikings wrapped up their offseason program in June, Zimmer jumped on a plane to Kentucky. He isn’t trying to think about football at his ranch, but it’s impossible to unplug entirely. When he retreats to Kentucky for the bye week, he often takes his iPad into one of three hunting blinds on the property so he can watch game tape while he waits for a deer sighting.
But during the five weeks he has off in the summer, aside from perusing film on a couple players the Vikings would consider in July’s supplemental draft, Zimmer is far away from the game — and the outside world. The mega-sized flat-screens in his living room haven’t been turned on in weeks. Zimmer would rather be sitting on the back deck enjoying conversation, steaks and a bottle of red wine from his expansive basement cellar with his family and friends who come to visit.
While he’s away for much of the year, his neighbors, Lenny and Karen Collins, look after Zimmer Ridge Ranch. Lenny comes over to watch Vikings games on Zimmer’s massive TV on Sunday during the regular season. The tree Zimmer planted outside of his bedroom for Vikki sprouts purple flowers — her favorite color — every fall. While Zimmer is away working in Minnesota, they text him photos of the tree in full bloom.
The only animals on the property are wild, though Zimmer said he might buy cattle if he decides to retire in Kentucky. A commitment like that would require him to be around more than just a couple months out of the year. That’s not something he can do as he tries to bring the Vikings their first Super Bowl win in franchise history.
As Zimmer powers up the Polaris, an off-road utility vehicle he uses to get around the ranch, “Some of It” by Eric Church blares out of the vehicle’s speakers. It’s time to go for a ride.
The paths he breezes through in his Polaris side-by-side (he could have gotten one with air conditioning, but nixed the idea upon learning that model didn’t come in camouflage) are ones he cut himself. Deer stands rise high above the ground across the property and a vast lake sits south of the house, completing the look and feel of this picturesque oasis.
The names of past Triple Crown winners, including American Pharoah and Secretariat — an ode to the Kentucky Derby and horse racing in the region — distinguish various landmarks on the property. A dove field is marked by a wooden sign that reads “La Paloma,” the Spanish translation for the gentle bird and the name of the street on which Vikki’s dream home resided in Dallas.
Zimmer points to the place where he had an all-staff get-together several years ago when the Bengals hosted a joint training camp practice with the Vikings. With endless amounts of space to set up a party tent, or even a stage, he ponders the idea of hosting a country concert for the entire organization if the Vikings were to win the Super Bowl.
Which artist is on his short list?
“Someone not that expensive,” he said with a laugh.
Zooming past hay bales near the automatic gate at the ranch’s entrance, which is branded with the same Zimmer Ridge Ranch logo displayed on the coach’s baseball cap, Zimmer motions toward various points of interest: the purported oldest tree in Kenton County that troops camped under during the Civil War, the strawberries he needs to pick before he leaves for the season, and the soybean and corn fields. It’s apparent he knows every square inch of his property like, as he said, “the back of my hand.”
He stops in a shaded area near one of his deer stands to point out one of the 15 Reconyx trail and game cameras he has across the property. The bulky hunting cameras capture photos of the deer, coyotes, rabbits, quail and other animals, which are then sent to Zimmer’s iPhone.
“The funny thing about the guy who owns Reconyx … he’s a Packers fan and his wife is a Vikings fan, so just out of spite I’ll send him some Vikings stuff,” Zimmer said. “There’s some good Wisconsin people that like the Vikings.”
This land is Zimmer’s refuge, and he believes in keeping it in a naturalistic state.
Purple cone flowers and brown-eyed Susans are tucked into tall fescue grasses that were planted across the 160 acres, allowing the animals a place to seek refuge “so they feel secure and safe,” Zimmer said. The corn harvested on his property is knocked down annually for the animals to feed on. Zimmer planted chestnut trees because he knows the deer like them.
“I wanted to make it better for the wildlife and hunting,” he said. “I’ve had wildlife biologists out here to help teach me.”
Aside from the Super Bowl ring he won with the Dallas Cowboys in 1995 and two NFC North titles Minnesota claimed in 2015 and 2017, Zimmer’s next-biggest achievement is less known.
In 2017, the same season the Vikings reached the NFC Championship Game, Zimmer was awarded the Bluegrass Region Landowner of the Year, “in recognition of exemplary work in the management of private lands for fish and wildlife habitat.”
He proudly displays the certificate near the fireplace on the first floor of his house, surrounded by memorabilia, including a good-luck rock given to him by legendary Vikings coach Bud Grant.
Though he won’t admit it, those closest to Zimmer know how much this award meant based on how much time and energy he’s dedicated to his land.
“I had a lot of help,” he said.
When Zimmer was scouting potential properties, he fell in love with the shooting range that once belonged to the Kenton County Police Department, situated to the west of his house. He’s since turned it into an area where he blasts clay pigeons like a skilled marksman.
The 2016 season was marred by a disastrous finish in which Zimmer lost his quarterback, his offensive coordinator, and nearly his right eye — when his retina detached after a play card flew into his eye during a Monday Night Football game in Chicago.
After eight surgeries, Zimmer had to relearn how to shoot his gun and hunting bow using his left eye and changing the positioning of his body.
How did he master that challenge?
“Just practice,” Zimmer said.
At the shooting range, Zimmer finds himself unable to turn off his inner coach, offering tips for a first-time skeet shooter.
“You’re going to follow the bead on the rifle and try to lead it where it’s going, unless it’s going straight out, then you just blast it,” he said. “Set your cheek down on the gun … follow my hand.”
When it comes time to demonstrate the proper alignment and technique for nailing the orange clay disks, Zimmer puts on headphones. The bullet leaving the chamber makes a loud explosion, which could damage his hearing.
“You should listen to what it’s like on game day,” Zimmer quipped.
Aiming his gun to the sky, Zimmer barks out instructions.
The echo of the bullet making contact with the orange clay disk and shattering the bit into a million pieces breeds satisfaction in the sharpshooter.
Zimmer comes to the ranch to unplug and recalibrate not just his mental but also his physical well-being. Last year, Corri posted a message on her Instagram about her father losing 16 pounds because of “stress.” Zimmer attributes the weight loss to not having time to run down to the cafeteria in the Vikings’ new facility, and he wants to continue to see the pounds drop.
He added a workout routine to his regimen this summer. He bought an elliptical for the ranch and does free weights three days a week, the latter of which he says he wants to fit into his routine this season during those 16-hour work days.
“Since he’s had the ranch, he’s been able to relax more,” said Adam Zimmer, his son and Vikings linebackers coach. “There’s always something for him to do there, keeps him busy. He can get away from everything … He’ll come back with a million ideas. I think the ranch has helped him unwind better than anything.”
The one place you won’t find Zimmer that often is the lake in front of his house. There’s a two-seater fishing boat that sits idly next to the dock. Beneath the surface, crappie and bass are usually the catch of the day. Shaded by tall hickory, oak and walnut trees, it’s the perfect setting to spend a lazy afternoon waiting for a catch.
That is, unless you brand yourself as an “impatient fisherman.”
“If I catch something in 10 minutes, I’ll stay out. If I don’t, I’ll find something else to do,” Zimmer said.
The downtime at Zimmer Ridge Ranch breathes life into his professional and personal life, but there’s only so much vacation mode he can take. “Offseason coach” is slowly waning away and being replaced by in-season Zim.
“This year I feel like I guess I’ve got the itch because when people are saying things about you that you don’t believe are true, you want to prove them wrong,” Zimmer said. “I want to prove some people wrong.”
After the Vikings no-showed in a Week 17 loss at home to the Bears, putting themselves out of contention for the playoffs, rumors began to swirl about Zimmer’s future in Minnesota. It wasn’t the speculation about being fired that bothered him most — though that’s always been in the back of his mind, despite it never happening during his career. It was the gossip that spread after the loss that he might quit.
With the daunting task of another season fast approaching, Zimmer is at peace with his career and his place in life.
“People get fired a lot in this business and …. [long pause] … I know a lot of the fans probably don’t think this, but I have a pretty good reputation throughout the league and I don’t worry about it as much,” Zimmer said. “I don’t want to get fired, I want to coach the Vikings for the rest of my life if I can, but — and if I did get fired, I don’t know if I’d coach anymore or not — but I know I’ve had people call me and say, ‘If anything ever happens, I’ll hire you in a minute.’ So, I’m not afraid of not being able to get a job, if that’s what I want to do, and maybe somebody would want me as a head coach again. I don’t know.
“There was a lot of talk after the season about this might happen and all this stuff. That bothered me. So I guess … if [ownership] thinks one of these guys are better than me, fine. But I think I’ve had a decent track record of what I’ve done but I’m not going to beg anybody. That’s just not who I am.”
Zimmer’s overarching success in Minnesota, with two division titles in three seasons and a perennial powerhouse on defense, earned him an extension this offseason through the 2020 season. But there’s no guarantee if the Vikings have another disappointing year.
No matter what happens, Zimmer is going all-in this season. How does he end up on the right side of that equation?
“Win,” he said. “Win. That’s the only way to do it.”
If the Vikings do that, Zimmer could be busy next February planning that country concert on his property after all.