Vermeil: the epitome of coaching, class

by Jack Gallagher

ATLANTA — The old coach has done it again.

Stepping into a difficult situation, righting the ship, setting it on its proper course and then going full steam ahead. That’s the only way Dick Vermeil knows how to do it, and if you look at his coaching record, you’ll see that it’s worked everywhere he’s been.

The magical run of the St. Louis Rams to Super Bowl XXXIV may be hard to imagine for many fans of the NFL, but those of us who know firsthand of the Vermeil legend will tell you that it’s just business as usual.

He did it as the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, at UCLA, at Napa Junior College and even in high school. I’m proud to say that more than 35 years ago my father, John, worked as an assistant coach for Vermeil at Hillsdale High School in San Mateo, Calif.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always known that coach Vermeil was an outstanding coach and an extraordinary person. Since Vermeil returned to the NFL in 1997, after a 14-year hiatus in the broadcasting booth, so many memories have come back to me of things I saw or heard over the years.

One of the most vivid is that of my father telling me as a young boy: “Jack, some day Dick is going to be the head coach of the Los Angeles Rams.”

Vermeil was an assistant coach for the Rams twice earlier in his career.

In the end, my father was right. I guess he just hadn’t factored in the move to St. Louis.

Vermeil is a testament to what hard work and perseverance can do in any endeavor in life. Success breeds success. It’s not luck, folks. Over the years Vermeil has outworked his opponents and inspired his teams with his superior leadership and tactics. That’s why he’s been named Coach of the Year on four different levels of the game.

My mother once said to me when I was young: “Dick is the golden boy.” When I asked her what she meant, she replied, “Because everything he touches turns to gold.”

I remember vividly as a high school student watching on television as Vermeil’s UCLA Bruins upset top-ranked Ohio State in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day in 1976. A short time later he became the head coach of the Eagles.

Three seasons after that he had the Eagles in the playoffs for the first time in 18 seasons. And two years after that in the Super Bowl. To this day, he remains the only coach to take teams to both the Rose Bowl and the Super Bowl.

Vermeil worked so hard he eventually drove himself too far and had to step down following the 1982 season suffering from the first documented case of coaching burnout. Needless to say, the legion of friends and fans that coach Vermeil maintains was universally crushed.

How could this happen to such a successful person known for his dedication, hard work and honesty, we asked?

Coach Vermeil rebounded quickly, becoming one of the top analysts on television doing both NFL and college football games. But even as a broadcaster, I think the people who had the good fortune of knowing him knew that the coaching fire still burned inside him and that someday it might be rekindled.

I had the great pleasure to work with coach Vermeil for two years when he did color commentary for ABC-TV on World League of American Football games in 1991-92. As the director of public relations for the London Monarchs, I worked closely with him on several occasions.

What impressed me the most was how on top of everything he was. Many broadcasters (including ex-coaches and players) just go through the motions in preparation for a game. Not coach Vermeil. He had detailed notes and his own personal statistics that were amazing.

In 1991, Vermeil had been out of coaching for nearly nine years, but when he visited the Monarchs’ training site outside London for the first time, he immediately asked me where the film room was, then proceeded to pore over game tapes to familiarize himself with our roster.

I still remember an ABC production assistant asking me more than an hour later, “Have you seen Vermeil?” To which I replied, “I think he’s still in the film room.”

Indeed he was.

Vermeil’s perception was incredible. After broadcasting one of our games and watching film of others, he told me: “Jack, I just know you guys are going to win the championship this season. I can see it.”

Indeed he was right. The Monarchs won the first World Bowl and Vermeil was there broadcasting it on ABC.

That summer I spoke to my father and he asked me, “Do you think Dick will ever coach again?”

I relayed the story to my father about the film room incident and what I observed of Vermeil’s continuing passion for the game in my dealings with him and said, “Yes, I think he will.”

Fast forward to 1997 when, over breakfast while on vacation in London, I break open the paper and see that I was right — Vermeil had taken the job with the Rams.

I remember thinking how he really had his work cut out for him this time. Taking over a team that hadn’t been in the playoffs since 1989, with a roster filled with holes. Did I ever doubt that he would turn it around? I did not, because I had seen him do it before.

Vermeil is the consummate professional. Knowing when to stroke his charges and when to push them. He may have been away from the game for a while, but don’t ever think he wasn’t keeping up on it.

I didn’t think he would have the Rams in the Super Bowl so quickly, but still can’t say I’m surprised. Perhaps coach Vermeil said it best himself after St. Louis clinched the NFC West with a win over Carolina, last month:

“Winning isn’t complicated; people complicate it. If you surround yourself with the right people, winning is easy.”

My father will be at the game here on Sunday, watching with keen interest as his old colleague goes for the greatest prize in football.

If the Rams are victorious, neither one of us will be surprised, nor will Vermeil’s supporters in Northern California, Southern California and Pennsylvania.

We’ll all just say: “The legend has done it again.”