"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!" tweeted linebacker Rey Maualuga.
Zimmer replaces Leslie Frazier, another former Bengals defensive coordinator who was fired Dec. 30 after the team finished 5-10-1 this season.
General manager Rick Spielman interviewed at least seven candidates. He and Vikings owners Zygi Wilf and Mark Wilf settled on the one who was widely considered around the league to be the most overdue for a head coaching job. Zimmer has interviewed for several vacancies in recent years, including this month with Tennessee.
The 57-year-old Zimmer 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.
The Wilfs, 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, unexpectedly 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.