Bud Grant smiles. And there go all the cliches. ''The abominable snowman of Minnesota.'' ''The iceman cometh.'' ''Zero Centigrade.'' ''Polar bears could fish off of him.'' ''Great Stone Face.'' ''Old Iron Eyes.''
The glacial visage and ice-blue eyes of Harry P. Grant - third-most-winning active coach in the National Football League - punctuate many an afternoon for football lovers and provide an easy target for television commentators looking for quick chatter in slow moments during Minnesota Vikings games. He comes by his nicknames via his Mt. Rushmore appearance, registering neither joy nor sorrow on the playing field.
In point of fact, the man is far more supple, friendly, forthcoming, and personable than the television persona would lead you to believe. ''He believes more in the dignity of man than anyone I know,'' comments Max Winter, founder and part owner of the Vikings. And a hard-bitten local reporter backs up this assertion.
Although he has never brought home the Super Bowl prize, he has led his team to 11 division championships and four Super Bowls. More important, he seems to have done it, in large part, by setting an example of stability and calm strength, of mutual respect and professionalism, that leaves a lasting impression on the people under him.
The trademark stone face takes on a softer tone in person, although it is not much in evidence as he ambles away from a knot of Paul Bunyanesque tackles during practice one afternoon. But then he smiles gently, points to a small, farmyard-rustic wooden trough full of hay, and asks a visiting reporter, ''Know what that's for?''
''A goat feeder?''
''We don't have any goats around here,'' says Grant. ''But we do get deer. When there's snow on the ground, you can see their tracks. Pheasants, too.''
Bud Grant, the man who perhaps more than any other in the NFL runs his team by regimen and discipline, who values order and control on and off the field, has a consuming affection for wildness. You can see it all over his office while waiting for him to wander down the hall for a hot chocolate. Pictures and paintings of ducks in flight, animals in the wild, and books on wildlife crowd the shelves.
Grant comes into the office, carrying his sinewy weight on a 6-foot, 3-inch frame, a quiet man who seems to signal invisibly that he is out to impress no one, that he desires no points for personal charisma. In an hour interview he turns down flat any chances to congratulate himself.
''I'm as competitive as anybody in this business,'' he says. ''I enjoy winning games. But it's still a job. I have six children. All of them need a place to live, clothing, an education. That's what football's done for me. I don't know how many coaches can say this, maybe (Dallas Cowboy coach Tom) Landry , but I'm where I want to be and where I've always lived. I grew up around here.''
Growing up ''around here'' means that he was born in the lake country of nearby Wisconsin, that he went to high school and college within easy traveling distance of where he now works. He played sports from the time he could walk. He left a brief professional basketball career with the powerhouse Minneapolis Lakers (which later became the Los Angeles Lakers) to play football with the Philadelphia Eagles, eventually moving to Canada, where he coached Winnipeg. But he never really left his attachment for the wilds of northern Wisconsin, where he still owns a backwoods place and where he spends his every recreational moment in the off-season.
His friends say Bud Grant's allegiance to the woods and to his family life is the key to his success as a coach. ''He's a strong person, a stable person,'' observes former placekicker Fred Cox. ''He has his life in order, and that lets him deal with problems in the team.''
''I get paid a good salary,'' says Grant, ''and the only thing my salary is based on is what we do on 16 Sunday afternoons for three hours every year.''
He makes it his business to spend those three hours as immersed in the game as humanly possible. To that end, he constantly wears a headset, acting as a clearinghouse through which all information flows. ''That's why I have no time for displays of emotion. I'm too involved in what's going on. Besides, emotion is not jumping up and down. It's more of an inside thing. There is stuff churning in there all the time. If it ever stops, I'm out of business.''
''I've been here 10 years,'' says Viking linebacker Matt Blair, ''and Bud has smiled, Bud has laughed, Bud has been a real person.'' A person who demands total discipline, Blair adds. ''He is set on what he wants to do. This is the way it's going to be. We will all wear ties, we will not sit on our helmets during practice. No gum chewing. . . . The veterans pass it on to the younger guys. That's just Bud Grant. That's his philosophy.''
''Because he is who is,'' comments Minneapolis Star & Tribune columnist Jim Kobuchar, ''he can walk up to a rebel like (tight end) Dave Casper and suggest that it would be better for everyone, especially Casper, if he got a haircut.''
In fact, you have to dig hard around Minnesota and elsewhere to find people who actively dislike Bud Grant. Even his outspoken critic, former star defensive lineman Alan Page, admits that ''I'm too cynical. I think my opinion of him is warped.''
If you ask most current and former Vikings what Grant's contribution to the team is, you get answers like ''Consistency . . . you always know where he's going to be . . . you can count on him.''
These seem to be qualities he comes by naturally. Asked what is the most important thing he brings to his own family, Grant unhesitantly answers: ''Stability. . . . They can count on their mother. They can count on me.'' It is an observation borne out by the fact that, when some coaches are at the office going bleary-eyed over films and game plans, Grant is at home washing the dog or talking to his sons about their football games.
But he is not, apparently, an easy man to become friendly with. Max Winter, who has known him since his high school baseball pitching days, can't ever remember visiting Bud Grant at home. He remembers him as the strong, silent type , noting that ''he comes by his stoicism honestly.'' Veteran Blair remembers walking with him through an endless stadium tunnel as a rookie: ''I felt like I was walking alone; he never said one word to me.''
Grant is known for his no-nonsense approach to life. Former star defensive end Carl Eller (once a ''purple people eater,'' a nickname given to purple-uniformed Viking defenders) remembers buying his first pair of lavish, custom-made boots. He was proud of those boots, and when he noticed Bud Grant staring at them on the team bus, he began to recite the whole story of how he'd bought them.
''I went into how I had picked the bootmaker, all the different grades of leather you look at, and why I had decided to get multicolored boots - because I only had one pair like this, and I wanted to be able to wear them with a lot of different outfits,'' Eller recalls.
After Eller had finished his elaborate explanation, Grant looked at him out of those ice-blue eyes and asked ingenuously:
''Are they any good in the snow?''
''That's Bud Grant,'' he recalls. Just down to earth, practical.''