- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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One week after news surfaced that Minnesota Vikings players had behaved wantonly and recklessly cruising on Lake Minnetonka, team owner Zygmunt Wilf stepped aggressively into grassroots damage control mode.
On Tuesday morning, he addressed the Rochester, Minn., Chamber of Commerce at the Ramada Inn. Later, he met with the St. Cloud Rotary Club at the Radisson Hotel. Wilf made brief remarks at both stops and fielded some difficult questions from disappointed fans.
"You have to go through some tough love sometimes," he said in St. Cloud. "My goal is to win championships. But now, my goal is to make sure the organization does this with class."
After returning to his office in Eden Prairie, Lester Bagley, the Vikings' vice president of public affairs, offered this perspective:
"Our ownership was as shocked and appalled by the behavior that was reported as our fans were. The way Mr. Wilf is looking at it is it's a chance to set a new course, a new tone and build a strong foundation.
"That's really the only thing we can do, look at it as an opportunity to get it right."
One of Wilf's first acts as the new owner of the Vikings in June was to refurbish the decaying viking ship that marks the team's Winter Park training facility.
A few new planks and a fresh coat of paint restored the authentic replica from Norway to its former glory. In retrospect, it was a purely cosmetic exercise. For the Vikings' ship is listing badly -- considering all that has happened in the last six weeks, the franchise finds itself at arguably its lowest point in a rich 45-year history.
Just when folks thought it couldn't get any worse than head coach Mike Tice's Super Bowl ticket scalping scandal, wide receiver Randy Moss' mooning episode, the missteps of penny-pinching former owner Red McCombs and the laugh-out-loud attempts of running back Onterrio Smith to avoid drug detection with a contraption known as the Whizzinator it, amazingly, got worse.
On Oct. 11, the very day Wilf was winding up a two-day Vikings management retreat (subject: How to build the Vikings into a first-class organization) in Chaska, Minn., the dark secret leaked into the public domain. The previous Thursday, when the players should have been soul-searching and focusing on turning around a 1-3 start, they were partying hard on Lake Minnetonka.
The Hennepin County Sheriff's Office is investigating a complaint by Al & Alma's Supper Club and Charter Cruises in Mound, Minn., that alleges 17 Vikings players participated in a sex and alcohol party aboard two boats. The cruise company charged that some players brought strippers on board and participated in numerous lewd acts. Crew members, including an 18-year-old, were invited to participate with cash as an incentive, according to attorney Stephen Doyle. Fearing for its safety, Doyle said, the crew ended the cruise, scheduled for 3½ hours, after 40 minutes.
There has been no formal action yet, but misdemeanor charges for lewd behavior could soon be filed against some players. If it is discovered that prostitutes were flown in from out of state, as some sources have suggested, the FBI would likely enter the case and felony charges could be part of the fallout.
On Sunday, at Soldier Field, the scandal seemed to affect the Vikings adversely. Despite having two weeks to prepare for a team with an anemic offense, they lost 28-3 to the Bears. In Minnesota's five games (four of them losses), the offense has scored exactly five touchdowns. In the past 25 offensive series, the Vikings have produced a single touchdown.
Quarterback Daunte Culpepper, a Pro Bowl player a year ago, has been awful. In 2004, Culpepper set an NFL record for combined total offense, passing for 4,717 yards and running for an additional 407. His passer rating was 110.0, one of the best single-season totals in history. This year's figure is 62.8, ranked 29th among the top 30 quarterbacks. Culpepper has already thrown 12 interceptions, one more than each of the last two seasons.
Though people at the team's Winter Park facility insist that the loss of Moss to the Oakland Raiders is not a major factor, it is clear Culpepper misses him. With Moss gone and no comparable threat on the roster, teams are throwing exotic defenses at Culpepper, who, in his seventh season, has looked like a rookie again. Gone, too, to Miami, is former offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, who successfully convinced Culpepper he didn't have to make a big play on every play.
Tice pulled Jerry Rhome out of retirement during the bye week and his first game with the title of Vikings offensive assistant/passing game resulted in a total of three points.
While much of the pressure has fallen on the broad shoulders of Tice, a 14-year tight end in the NFL, Wilf has maintained that he will not fire Tice this season.
"I'm behind the coach," Wilf said Tuesday in St. Cloud. "We're trying to be like a family, and when you're going through a difficult time, everyone needs each other's support."
On Monday, the coach himself said -- against his better judgment? -- he would not resign.
You can see the strain when Tice massages his temples on the sideline and discusses the state of his interminably queasy stomach.
"Stress does that to you," Tice said. "Sometimes you wake up and you say, 'Man, I didn't have anything to drink last night. I didn't have anything fattening. Why do I want to puke?'
"Then you realize, 'Oh, that's right.'"
The Vikings are sooo bad -- how bad are they? Jay Leno of the Tonight Show skewered them in his nightly monologue last week.
"And the government today rounded up a group of sex peddlers and perverts in their war against indecency," Leno said, pausing with a smile, " but enough about the Minnesota Vikings."
And then there was this:
"Did you hear about this story?" Leno asked his Burbank, Calif., audience. "Several Minnesota Vikings players are being investigated after a boat cruise on a lake turned into a wild sex party on this boat. What are they, 1-3? One and three. That's the only offensive thing they've done all season, actually."
The "Love Boat" scandal, as it became known in some quarters, penetrated the national consciousness, which considering the competition -- the war in Iraq, President George Bush's Supreme Court nominee, Hurricane Katrina, the earthquake in Pakistan -- is telling.
On Monday, St. Paul Pioneer Press columnist Bob Sansevere cornered injured center Matt Birk for a one-on-one interview.
Birk, a cerebral Harvard man, observed, "We put the fun in dysfunctional, don't we?"
As of late Tuesday, the names of 15 of the 17 Vikings on the charter boats, as identified by crew members, had been made public in various reports. Included on the list were: Culpepper, defensive tackle Kevin Williams, tight end Jermaine Wiggins, receiver Nate Burleson, running back Mewelde Moore and safety Darren Sharper, among others.
"It happened," Smoot acknowledged. "There's nothing anybody can do to change that."
According to authorities, the investigation could be completed some time next week. Wilf said he will deal with the offending parties at that time. Benching players, he added, is a possibility.
It was just another ugly incident on a growing list of setbacks for this beleaguered franchise.
Back in February, backup wide receiver Kelly Campbell was charged with possession of marijuana and a stolen gun after he was stopped in Atlanta. He was subsequently released after arranging for a plea agreement in September.
Williams pled not guilty to a misdemeanor domestic assault after a bloody fight with his wife in August.
Offensive linemen Bryant McKinnie and Marcus Johnson were arrested after the season's third game and charged with obstruction of justice and misdemeanor disorderly conduct following a late-night episode at a convenience store.
Bare bones organization
McCombs, the 78-year-old San Antonio billionaire, made his early fortune selling cars. And while his empire has since expanded to sports and radio, he is, in his very essence, a salesman.
In 1998, McCombs purchased the Vikings for $246 million. Less than seven years later, he sold the team to Wilf for $625 million, a windfall of approximately $380 million. McCombs didn't make that money by overspending for players, coaches or management.
"I realize the car we bought didn't have as much gas as I thought," Wilf said Tuesday. "When I started to drive the car, I realized some of the parts were missing."
During McCombs' tenure, the Vikings were not a big player in free agency. His front office operated at the lowest expense rate in the NFL, and was, by some estimates, the smallest in the league. His combined coaching salaries made for the lowest total in the league. When Linehan left for the Miami Dolphins in the offseason, there was nothing in the budget for a replacement, so Steve Loney was promoted from within.
To his credit, Wilf has attempted to throw money at some of the Vikings' problems. Early on, he spent $100,000 to fix the air conditioning in the locker room and added people to the front office. When the Vikings' training camp partners wanted to charge fans to watch practice sessions in Mankato, Wilf objected and contributed the $100,000 difference.
After the scandal broke, Wilf met with NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue Sunday and announced the hiring of Dag Sohlberg, a former FBI agent and team consultant since 2000.
"The commissioner emphasized that I inherited an organization that was inadequately structured and staffed," Wilf told reporters, "and that we must correct that to ensure the highest standards of team operations, including discipline, accountability, strong oversight and internal communications."
Sohlberg was named the team's director of security, a position that McCombs had eliminated.
The Vikings "didn't see a need for that," former team president Gary Woods told the Pioneer Press this week. "The discipline and tone of the team has to come from the top. We did a good job with that."
"Is he spying on us?" Birk asked jokingly of Sohlberg. "With this incident and other stuff that's gone on, we need to do something.
"Hopefully, this incident wakes some guys up and scares them straight."
While McCombs spent the bulk of his time in San Antonio, Wilf has been more visible at the Vikings' Winter Park facility.
"Until I get the organization back on sound footing, I will spend pretty much all my time in communications and up in Winter Park, handling the next phase of our team's development, so we can move forward, with the proper foundation in place," he said.
Eroding public support
The biggest challenge facing the Vikings is their Metrodome stadium lease, which doesn't run out until 2011. It is the chief reason the franchise's annual revenue of $144 million, as calculated by Forbes Magazine, is tied for the league's second lowest.
One of Wilf's most important initiatives in his first months as owner was doing the spadework for a new, more profitable venue. The latest scandal, however, may have cost the team a critical mass of public support.
The Vikings have proposed a $675 million stadium with a retractable roof in Anoka County. According to the details, the team would contribute $280 million, with the remaining money, nearly $400 million, coming from county taxpayers. Discussions between politicians and team officials are ongoing. There was hope that the issue might be resolved by a special session in November, but now it seems likely the legislature won't tackle it until at least March.
Judging by the flow of e-mails to local newspapers and the buzz on sports talk radio, it may take longer than that to repair the damage.
"The timing," Bagley said, "wasn't good. This could potentially set us back. It takes time to get people to understand and now we have more time to get the message out."
Only six weeks into the season, it is almost difficult to remember the excitement of the preseason when the Vikings were favorites to win the traditionally tough NFC North. The Vikings' players insist that they're still in the race to make the playoffs, and technically, they're right. Chicago and Detroit lead the division with matching 2-3 records and the Vikings and Packers are only one game back at 1-4.
The Vikings have played abominably, scoring only 67 points and allowing more than twice as many (135). They were flagged for 14 penalties against the Bears, six times for false starts and offside.
Was Sharper, who signed as a free agent via Green Bay, surprised by the result?
"No," he said, "we've been playing poorly all week the last couple weeks. We can point to not getting it done on offense, turnovers, no output on offense, penalties, and not stopping teams when we need to on defense.
"I'm shocked. When I came here, I thought we would have a chance to win a championship, and right now, it doesn't look like we have a chance at all."
Perhaps the reason Wilf is standing behind Tice when many are calling for his dismissal is that he doesn't feel a change would make much difference. The only viable candidate for a head coaching job is defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell, whose defense has hardly been exemplary. At this point, tabbing 78-year-old Bud Grant, the Vikings' Hall of Fame coach, would make just as much sense.
Critics of Culpepper's play have agitated on the behalf of backup Brad Johnson, but Tice has said he will replace his starter only in the event of an injury.
After the devastating loss in Chicago, Tice tried to put on a brave face.
"The only silver lining I see at this moment is that we play the Packers this week," he told reporters. "Obviously, this incident won't go away tomorrow. So my job is to make everything tight and crisp during the week, so when I do have them in the building, it's strictly football.
"[I'm] trying to find something positive. That's my job, to not let guys walk around [saying], 'Poor me, woe is me.'"
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
2dEric D. Williams
1dMel Kiper Jr.