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SMITH: Fall still a special time for retired Grant

EDEN PRARIE, Minn. -- The fall of the year remains exciting for Bud Grant, the one time head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, but for different reasons -- he can hunt every day if he chooses. When he was coaching, there was little time for such.

There were days, however, when he would arise before 5 a.m., duck hunt for an hour and a half and make it to the office before 8 a.m. Those were treasured outings for the man who took four Viking teams to the Super Bowl and who also won the Grey Cup title four times while coaching in the Canadian Football League at Winnipeg.

Grant, perhaps, is best remembered for coming up short in the Super Bowl, but his professional career as an athlete largely goes unnoticed. He won an NBA championship with the old Minneapolis Lakers and he holds the North American record for interceptions in a playoff game -- five for the Winnepeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League in 1953.

His versatility as a player -- one year he leads the Philadelphia Eagles in sacks from his defensive halfback position and the next he leads the team in receiving after being moved to offense -- may have something to do with his exceptional success as an NFL coach. For example, he knew what it took to play linebacker in the league, and he knew what it took to succeed as receiver on offense, all of which led him to the conclusion that winning is all about the players.

"If I have better players than you do," Grant said here recently at the Viking football complex, "then I should win, but to win a championship you have to be very lucky."

His luck ran out four times in Super Bowl competition, but he has the most cogent philosophical reaction to that circumstance.

How long did it take him to get over losing the Super Bowl?

"About a day," he said with a wry smile. "Football is entertainment and you can't let your defeats defeat you. That is what has made this country great -- competition to see who is the best. In sports, we want to see who is No. 1, but those who lose the big game are winners by being able to play in the championship game. You play your best and move on."

Grant spent 10 years coaching at Winnipeg and 18 with the Vikings.

"It was a job," he says.

He had a family -- six kids -- and he knew that to put meat on the table, it was necessary that he be gainfully employed. He didn't make the money coaches make today, but he did "OK." Then he smiles, "I made enough to look after my family and buy a shotgun or two."

The work ethic was imbued in his makeup, dating back to his college years at Minnesota. He used his athletic skills to earn a college education and then went to work as a coach.

He was a fundamentally sound coach who gave considerable time and effort to the annual NFL draft. "To win, you gotta have the players," was always his mantra.

In 1972, Grant knew the Vikings had to line up with better talent at quarterback. He began watching old tape of Fran Tarkenton, the original Viking quarterback.

"That's the guy," he told Viking brass, "we need to run our offense which was based on the short passing game with an emphasis on running the football."

Tarkenton came back, and the Vikings were annual playoff contenders and won the NFL Central Division title seven out of nine years.

A mutual admiration society developed between the coach and quarterback, bringing about team confidence and bonding which translated into perennial success. Grant considers Tarkenton the best quarterback he ever saw. "He was such a competitor, he was brilliant and accurate -- in, fact, I don't ever remember him missing an open receiver."

Tarkenton, in turn, never wanted to disappoint Grant, whom he calls the "smartest" coach he ever played for. Disappointment in the Super Bowl was the only time they did not enjoy the ultimate experience. Grant puts that in this perspective.

"You let it bother you for a day and then you move on," he said. "Football is entertainment and when you lose, you forget about it."

Grant has never watched the tape of any of the Super Bowl losses. When the games were over, there was no need of moping about. He immediately went hunting.

Loran Smith is co-host of "The Tailgate Show" and sideline announcer for Georgia football. He is also a freelance writer and columnist.