Vikings' owner breaks tightfisted mold

"He wants to win," says Minnesota head coach Brad Childress (left), who greeted Wilf before a game against the Broncos.

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. - Owners of pro sports teams might expect to be loved for their largesse, embraced for their beneficence. They are, at least by their telling, committing vast sums of their personal fortunes to ensure the fans' viewing and rooting pleasure.

Then there is New Jersey real estate developer Zygi Wilf, the principal owner of the Vikings and a man who would settle for about $635 million in Minnesota taxpayers' funds for the construction of a new football stadium in downtown Minneapolis. Money can't buy love, they say, but two-thirds of a billion dollars apparently can lease it for a while.

Besides, in these tough economic times, such a bailout can be framed as economic stimulus, generating jobs and revenue for Twin Cities contractors.

"Why not? The Vikings are a public asset," a team spokesman told the Minneapolis Star Tribune this week.

At 10-6, making their first NFC playoff appearance since 2004 (the year before Wilf and his partners bought the team from Red McCombs), they are. Wilf's steely focus on the bottom line - his lust for the proposed $954 million stadium is based in part on commercial and residential ventures that would be included in the plan - doesn't merely allow for success on the field. It requires it.

That explains the Vikings' reported $133.3 million payroll, the NFL's third highest, behind only those of Oakland ($152.4 million) and Dallas ($146.4 million). For a sports market defined and historically short-leashed by Calvin Griffith and Carl Pohlad of baseball's Twins, Glen Taylor of the NBA's Timberwolves, Bob Naegele of the NHL's Wild, and McCombs, Wilf's willingness to spend draws Minnesota fans to him as much as his firm loyalty to coach Brad Childress occasionally has repelled them.

The Wilfs - Zygi runs the Vikings with brother Mark, cousin Leonard and nephew Jeffrey - have paid out more than $100 million in signing bonuses to key acquisitions on the current squad, including pass rusher Jared Allen ($33 million), receiver Bernard Berrian ($16 million), and safety Madieu Williams ($13 million).

"Obviously, he signs the checks. That's a good start," Childress said of the 58-year-old Zygi Wilf. The Vikings' coach worked for the Eagles from 1999 to 2005 as quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator.

"He's refreshing from the standpoint that - and Jeffrey Lurie was a tremendous owner; there's not one bad thing I could say about him as an owner - I suppose he breaks that [Twin Cities] mold, without me knowing everybody who has owned teams," Childress said. "He wants to win. Obviously, he doesn't want to spend money foolishly, but if you can explain the whys and what-fors, and they're with merit, then he's all in."

Said 11-year center Matt Birk: "Ever since he got here, he's tried to upgrade a lot of things. This [practice] locker room, for example. He does everything in his power to give us the best chance to win, and he's trying to create a first-class atmosphere here. He enjoys it when we win and he takes it hard when we lose. I think, first and foremost, this is a passion for him. It's not necessarily a business endeavor."

Just in case, though: The Vikings' lease is up in 2011. Los Angeles still doesn't have an NFL team. And Zygi Wilf wants a stadium.