By Jim Thomas

It's a safe bet that Scott Linehan would be coaching somewhere without that phone call from Mike Tice five years ago. But probably not in the NFL, and almost certainly not as an NFL head coach.

In January 2002, Linehan had just completed his third season as offensive coordinator at the University of Louisville and his 14th year as an assistant coach in the college ranks. The Cardinals were just a few days removed from completing a 12-2 season with a victory over Brigham Young in the Liberty Bowl.

"I got a phone call out of the blue from Mike Tice," Linehan said.

Linehan had met Tice previously, but really didn't know him. Tice, preparing for his second season as head coach at Minnesota, was looking for a college coordinator to run the Vikings' offense.

"To be honest with you, he didn't have the budget to afford the high-priced coordinators in the NFL," Linehan said. "He basically had the lowest-paid coaching staff in the league."

So in essence, Linehan was Tice's discount choice.

"It was a heck of a break for me," Linehan said. "I've always credited Mike for giving me a shot that no one else, I don't think, would've ever given me."

There was just one hitch. Tice wanted Linehan to run the offensive system using the Vikings' existing terminology. Which, Linehan said, was like going from French to German transferring the offense to a new language in a few months before the start of minicamps.

"For four months, I called my wife every night and said, 'I made the biggest mistake of my life,'" Linehan said. "It was so hard. I was up day and night, just redoing the playbook and making it work."

Things worked out just fine. In three seasons in Minnesota, the Vikings finished in order second, first and fourth in the league in total offense. Next came a year in Miami as offensive coordinator. And now, after just four years in the NFL as an assistant, Linehan is a head coach with the Rams.

On Sunday, he returns to the Metrodome for the first time since his 2002-2004 stint as Vikings offensive coordinator when the Rams (7-8) close the regular season against Minnesota (6-9).

"We have some very good friends there, some lifelong friends that we made," Linehan said. "Not just my wife and I, but our children still have great friends that they still visit to this day or have come visit them."

Last summer, Linehan's two oldest boys attended then-University of Minnesota basketball coach Dan Monson's camp. Monson remains a good friend of Linehan.

"He came down a couple weeks ago to our Monday night game," Linehan said. "He and I talk regularly."

Linehan figured to visit with Monson this weekend in Minneapolis but planned very little socializing.

"It's a business trip," Linehan said. "We'll see a couple (friends). But you really don't have the time, so you don't plan much. That's what the offseason's for."

Two years removed from his last game as a Vikings assistant, Linehan won't see many familiar faces on the Minnesota sideline Sunday. Tice was replaced as head coach by former Eagles assistant Brad Childress last offseason. The entire coaching staff is new, and only nine Vikings offensive players remain from Linehan's time in the Twin Cities.

There was a 10th, but wide receiver Marcus Robinson was unceremoniously released on Christmas Eve. On the way out the door, Robinson paid a compliment to Linehan in discussing the lack of communication with Childress.

"With Linehan, you'd come to the sideline and say certain things, and they would take advantage of that," Robinson told reporters who cover the Vikings. "I guarantee you, if you look at Peyton Manning, if you look at those guys Linehan has with the Rams, those players are giving a lot of input."

Throughout his career, Linehan always has been open to suggestions and hasn't hesitated to learn from the players and coaches around him. Working for Tice was no different.

"We were really aggressive thinkers offensively," Linehan said. "Not unlike things that were going on around here (with the Rams). Maybe a little bit different. Randy (Moss) was a little bit different type of player. You had to create things for him. His style was unbelievable, but it was different."

Moss is gone from the Vikings. So is quarterback Daunte Culpepper. Tice is assistant head coach in Jacksonville. Red McCombs has given way to Zygi Wilf as owner. Linehan could sense the instability in the organization as the 2004 Vikings season came to an end.

"There were a lot of rumors out there that Red was going to sell the team," Linehan said.

It didn't help matters that Tice would be entering the last year of his contract in 2005; and Linehan's contract was up at the end of '04.

"They said I could stay if I wanted to for another year," Linehan said. "But it didn't look like they were moving in the direction of a commitment to excellence."

That led him to Miami as offensive coordinator in 2005 and, ultimately, to St. Louis.