A Timeless Blueprint for Success
By RICH CIRMINIELLO
Dick Vermeil was always just a little different than his peers in the coaching ranks. And his willingness to blaze new trails and follow his own pathway to success served him extraordinarily well for more than four decades on the sideline.
Vermeil was born in 1936 and raised during a time when football coaches at all levels were often rigid, unflinching taskmasters, more befitting of an Army general than a caring father figure. Now, Vermeil was demanding during his distinguished career in football, requiring his troops to operate with maximum effort at all times. But he also displayed uncommon compassion for his players, one of the sport’s original player’s coaches.
“I always coached my players as if they were my own sons,” said Vermeil. “I made sure that they knew I truly cared. As a staff, we wanted to build an atmosphere that they enjoyed being around, day-in and day-out. Then it was time to go to work. When you live by the philosophy you preach, the players will give you permission to lead them.”
Vermeil’s model for sustained excellence didn’t just work once in some fleeting one or two-year confluence of the right talent mix meeting ideal circumstances. No, being the genuine article, a coach with the heart and the head to lead men, served him well on every stop of his coaching journey. For his many years of winning and positively impacting the lives of those around him, Vermeil is the recipient of the 25th annual Reds Bagnell Award, given to the individual who has helped to foster and promote the integrity of the game of football.
No matter the location, the size of the stadium or the caliber of his players, Vermeil always won … and he always prepared his young men for prosperity beyond football. In a testament to versatility, he owns the rare distinction of being named Coach of the Year at four different rungs of the ladder, high school, junior college, college and the NFL.
The master of communication cut his coaching teeth in his home state of California, holding eight different jobs at the likes of Hillsdale High School, Napa Junior College and the Los Angeles Rams, before landing his first major head coaching gig at UCLA. By his second season in Westwood, Vermeil had the Bruins winning the Pac-8—and the Rose Bowl—which didn’t go unnoticed by NFL decision-makers.
In 1976, the young man from the Golden State was headed east to Philadelphia to take over a sagging Eagle franchise that had one winning season in the previous 14 years. It was a most unlikely marriage between coach and community, one that got off to a predictably rocky start. But, as was often the case with Vermeil, it was only a matter of time before his dedication and warm personality reaped results. He first won over his players, who earned the playoff spot in 1978 that helped to keep the locals happy. By 1980, the Eagles were NFC champs, appearing in the franchise’s first Super Bowl.
Unfortunately for Vermeil, who only knew one speed at that time of his life, his emotion and intensity for the game caught up with him following the 1982 season. Unable to heed the advice of those closest to him to tap the brakes a little, he burnt out and chose to leave the coaching ranks. Passion had turned into an obsession, and the coach had little choice but to begin a far less stressful career as a broadcaster.
When Vermeil left the sidelines, it was seemingly for good. Sure, there was a steady diet of offers to coach again, but it just never seemed to click. So, an experiment in the media side of football turned into a rewarding 14-year stint covering the NFL and college football. It also wound up being the impetus for a return to the career he’d given so much to—and gotten back from in return.
“When I was a broadcaster, I had an opportunity to watch so many terrific coaches in action,” offered Vermeil. “I was in a position to ask them specific questions about how they ran their offense or their defense or their overall team. I picked up a lot about coaching during those years that I’d wind up using myself. When the Rams reached out in 1996, I was 60, and I knew if I didn’t go back to coaching then, I’d never do it.”
Vermeil returned to the NFL 14 years after he’d left it. The man was the same, even more energized and aware of himself actually. The game had changed. The players had changed. The results? Better than ever. In St. Louis, Vermeil authored a remarkable turnaround that mirrored his time in Philadelphia. After two losing seasons in 1997 and 1998, and a roster that was almost completely turned over, the coach led the Rams to the pinnacle of the sport, winning Super Bowl XXXIV over the Tennessee Titans. Almost two decades after taking the Eagles to the title game, Vermeil became the oldest coach to ever win the Super Bowl.
“Yeah, I was concerned at first,” admitted Vermeil. “But I surrounded myself with great people in St. Louis, and we reinstated an old-fashioned work ethic in order to get our guys to play to their potential. We redefined what we did in Philadelphia, and it worked out rather well. My only regret is that I left the Rams too soon.”
Vermeil, wanting to leave on top, reentered retirement a few days after the Super Bowl victory, only to return a year later to coach the Kansas City Chiefs. He spent six years in Kansas City, winning 44 games, including 13 at the organization’s peak in 2003. This time, Vermeil left for good following the 2005 campaign, finishing with a final tally of 120 NFL wins, a division title with three different franchises and that coveted Super Bowl championship in St. Louis. In all three of his stops, he inherited teams with losing records before he arrived, and he led them to the playoffs by his third season at the controls.
When Vermeil began his NFL coaching career, he was 40. When he ended it, a nearly 70-year-old man was looking back at him in the mirror. Time had passed, but the man and his principles were evergreen. Perpetually free of ego. And always full of compassion, integrity and the boundless energy needed to transform skeptics into believers. Nice guys—even in football—don’t always finish last. In fact, sometimes they reach the summit of their profession, while leaving an enduring legacy for those who’ve been graced by their presence, wisdom and unwavering commitment to excellence.
Rich Cirminiello is the Director of College Awards for the Maxwell Football Club, and someone who revels in the opportunity to tell each award winner’s unique story.