Some people might be surprised to learn that Leslie Frazier's head-coaching career didn’t begin after Brad Childress was fired and he was promoted to the head job with the Minnesota Vikings. While that might have been Frazier's first opportunity at the professional level, his head-coaching experience began on a flight from Seattle to Chicago, when he decided to become the first football coach in the history of Trinity College, now known as Trinity International University.
From 1981-85, Frazier was more accustomed to holding a helmet than a clipboard. Frazier played for the Chicago Bears, starting at cornerback on the legendary ’85 Bears Super Bowl squad. Frazier led the team in interceptions in ’83, ’84 and ’85 and was a starter in Chicago's Super Bowl XX victory over the Patriots. But a devastating knee injury in that Super Bowl triumph left Frazier with few teams interested in him.
At that point, Frazier received a letter from Trinity, a small Christian school located in Deerfield, Ill., a suburb north of Chicago, that belonged to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), gauging his interest in becoming the school’s first head football coach. For his part, Frazier refused to give up on his playing days, and so he didn’t give it much thought. But time wore on, and offers were few and far between. The Seahawks brought him in for a tryout, but no deal was reached. So Frazier headed back to his home in Chicago.
“On the flight back is when I made the determination that I was going to choose coaching,” Frazier said. “There had to be something unique for me, and the situation at Trinity seemed to be very unique in my mind. When I landed I called my agent. I told him what I was going to do. He wasn’t too keen on that. He thought I was crazy. I told my wife, and she was supportive of the decision, and (it was) probably the best decision I ever made.”
While Frazier had opportunities to coach in the professional ranks — with offers from the likes of Buddy Ryan, no less — he believed that Trinity was the perfect situation for him.
“I didn’t go into it thinking that one day it would lead me to the NFL, because I could have gone into NFL coaching right out of playing if I had chose to,” said Frazier, who turns 52 in April. “My thinking was purely to start that program and to do it right and win games, but more importantly to really shape some kids for the kingdom of God.”
However, that was a task easier said than done. Football wasn’t a varsity sport at Trinity, so Frazier was starting from scratch, not just with players but with everything that goes along with a college football program.
“There were no cleats, no locker room, no field, no helmets, no shoulder pads, no gloves, nothing,” said Dr. William Washington, who was on Frazier’s first coaching staff and now is the vice president for student affairs at Trinity, as well as the dean of students. “He started this program from scratch. We built practice fields, we had to order goal posts, we had to buy bleachers, a P.A. system, a press box — he had a hand in all of that.”
“It was a challenge because I’d never done any of those things before,” Frazier said. “I would go and visit other schools, some that had started programs and some that were already in football just to hear coaches talk about what I was getting myself into.”
Looking for advice, Frazier visited Northwestern and Purdue, as well as Greenville College, a Christian college located about 45 miles east of St. Louis, which had just started a program.
In addition, Frazier had to rally the Trinity community around the idea of a football team, a concept not everyone was in favor of.
“Whether you’re at Trinity or you’re at Auburn or you’re at Oregon, there’s sometimes opposition to football,” Frazier said. “People just believe football has advantages that, say, the science department doesn’t have or the math department doesn’t have. One of the most valuable parts of my time there was being able to integrate football with the rest of the community.”
And then there was the matter of convincing recruits to come to a small Christian school that had never fielded a football team before. To get his guys, Frazier had to sell recruits on things besides facilities and give something other than a traditional recruiting speech.
“The thing that I had going for me that was unique and different, I could walk into their homes with a Super Bowl ring on my finger and that separated me from a lot of people that were coming through their homes,” Frazier said.
“I can remember on many occasions being in the living rooms of parents, and he would always wear that big Super Bowl ring,” Washington said. “I can remember the dads who would look at the Super Bowl ring and ask if they could hold it and put it on their finger a little bit, and wear it, and that definitely was an attention-getter.”
In addition, because Trinity was a Christian school, Frazier couldn’t just recruit any kid, or even just a local area, like Chicago.
“I had to recruit California, Minnesota, Florida, I was all over the place, and in a lot of ways I had to sell me, because most of those kids, they had never heard of Trinity, so I was selling Leslie Frazier and playing for me,” Frazier said.
Despite all of his efforts to jump-start the program at Trinity, Frazier still had to endure a couple of brutal seasons, as other colleges scheduled Trinity looking for a win.
“We played some teams we had no business playing, but we just didn’t know,” Washington said. “We took some lickings and some hits, but within three years of Leslie being here, we were ranked in the top three of the NAIA in football.”
Frazier’s success turned when he brought in Todd Johnson at quarterback. Johnson, a threat with both his legs and arm, piloted Trinity’s triple-option offense to tremendous success.
“When we got Todd, it took our team to a whole different level,” Frazier said. “We were a middle-of-the-road type of team before we got him, and once he came we were winning conference championships and being rated as high as No. 3 in the country as a team.”
Frazier had tremendous success, winning two conference championships in his time as head coach at Trinity. But those close to Frazier knew that he was destined for a bigger stage.
“We would be down in his office at the sports complex and we would both dream together,” Washington said. “I talked about how I would like to be a senior vice president of a university one day, and the Lord saw fit to put me in that role and give me that opportunity. We also talked about him and I said, ‘Hey Leslie, you know … the NFL.’ And he said, ‘No, no, no.’ But then he would think about it a little bit more and he said, ‘The Lord may put me in a position like that for me to give him an opportunity to glorify him.’ And I said, ‘Leslie, that’s what you’re supposed to do.’ ”
After nine seasons as head coach, Frazier left Trinity following the 1996 season and began a coaching voyage that included stops with the University of Illinois (DB coach), the Philadelphia Eagles (DB coach), the Cincinnati Bengals (defensive coordinator), the Indianapolis Colts (DB coach, special assistant to the head coach) and now the Minnesota Vikings, whom he has been with since 2007. Frazier, who served as assistant head coach/defensive coordinator before Childress was axed, was immediately tossed into the fire in his first few weeks as a head coach.
During Frazier’s six-game tenure as interim head coach, the Metrodome collapsed, Brett Favre's NFL-record streak of consecutive starts ended, the Vikes' prime-time game against the Eagles was delayed two days because of snow, and Favre's situation regarding some illicit text messages was finally resolved. Still, Frazier held the ship steady, leading the Vikings to a 3-3 record.
In the midst of all that adversity, Frazier harkened back to his Trinity days to remind himself of how far he has come.
“Those eight- or nine-hour bus trips overnight to go play a game, those were humbling experiences,” Frazier said. “So to be in the NFL and to fly on flights from here to there or wherever and I hear guys sometimes complain about the seats or the service, I just reflect back on what I experienced during my time at Trinity.
“People don’t really understand how important that time was and when I would do (job) interviews and talk to people about coaching, they would say, ‘Well, he doesn’t have head-coaching experience.’ But when I stood in front of our players for the very first time as the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, it wasn’t like it was my first time. I did that for nine years, and it’s hard to discount that.”
Even now as an NFL head coach, Frazier has stayed in touch with the program that he created.
“I met him this summer at a minicamp and spent some time with him there,” said Kirk Wherritt, Trinity's current head coach. “Great guy. Wouldn’t have thought he was an NFL coach by the way he carried himself, just really down to earth. When I came to visit him, he showed how much he cared about the football program. To me, I could tell it was something he did not forget about.”
Before Trinity started its most recent season, Washington got Frazier to talk to the team and give words of encouragement via Skype video call. Trinity has never forgotten Frazier’s contributions to the program, even naming its field after him in 1997. And to hear it from Trinity, that was the least they could do.
“He laid the whole foundation,” Wherritt said. “Without him, there is no Trinity football.”