The Vikings announced the news on Twitter on Wednesday night. Zimmer becomes the team's ninth head coach in the franchise's 54-year history. He replaces Leslie Frazier, who was fired after the team went 5-10-1 and missed the playoffs.
General manager Rick Spielman interviewed at least seven candidates for the job including Zimmer, who spent Tuesday at Vikings headquarters. Zimmer has been an NFL defensive coordinator for the last 14 seasons, six with the Bengals. He has 20 years as an NFL assistant on his resume.
Zimmer also interviewed for the vacancy in Tennessee, which went to Ken Whisenhunt. He has been a candidate for the top job several times in the past, too, including with Cleveland, Miami and Tampa Bay.
The Bengals were third in the league in yards allowed and fifth in points against this season. After the team lost in the first round of the playoffs for the third straight year and Zimmer surfaced as a leading candidate around the league, Bengals cornerback Terence Newman said tweeted: "Mike Zimmer is and always will be the best option to be head coach who is not one."
Several Bengals tweeted similar praise after the news emerged Wednesday, including linebacker Rey Maualuga: "Gonna miss you coach Zimmer! Wish you nothing but the best in Minnesota. You brought out the best in each of your players! So honored to have been coached by you!"
The 57-year-old played at Illinois State and spent 14 seasons coaching in the college ranks before being hired in 1994 as an assistant with Dallas. He got a Super Bowl ring the following season as defensive backs coach. Then he became defensive coordinator of the Cowboys in 2000 and spent seven seasons at that post, the last four under coach Bill Parcells. Zimmer led defenses in Dallas that operated in both the 4-3 and 3-4 alignments, including the 2003 group that surrendered the fewest yards in the league.
Vikings owners Zygi Wilf and Mark Wilf, natives of New Jersey, grew up as New York Giants fans and are admirers of Parcells from his days coaching that team.
After one tumultuous year as the defensive coordinator for Atlanta, when Falcons coach Bobby Petrino quit midseason in 2007, Zimmer went to Cincinnati to work for coach Marvin Lewis. In 2009, when his wife, Vikki, died, Zimmer was named the winner of several NFL Assistant Coach of the Year awards.
Zimmer has a fiery personality, as evidenced by his profanity-laced appearances on HBO's "Hard Knocks," which featured the Bengals in 2009 and 2013.
That overt intensity is a contrast to Frazier, who went 21-33-1 in three-plus seasons with one appearance in the playoffs. Frazier was a popular figure in the locker room and throughout the organization, but as a former defensive coordinator his area of expertise became the team's biggest downfall. Despite a carousel at quarterback, the aged, injury-depleted defense was mostly responsible for the sorry showing this season. The Vikings allowed an average of 30 points per game, the most in the league, and 397.8 yards per game, the second-most.
Five of the seven reported candidates who interviewed for the vacancy had defensive backgrounds: Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, Cleveland defensive coordinator Ray Horton, Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, San Francisco defensive line coach Jim Tomsula and Zimmer. The other two were offensive coordinators: Seattle's Darrell Bevell and San Francisco's Greg Roman.
The NFL is as quarterback-driven as ever, but winning without a sturdy defense is nearly impossible. This weekend's NFC championship game matchup features Bevell's Seahawks and Roman's 49ers with two of the best young quarterbacks in the game in Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick. But each team has a stingy, intimidating defense.