Dick Vermeil’s ‘burnout’ turned into an unconventional Hall of Fame career

Sports

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — At any of several points during a 30-year NFL head-coaching career, it would have been impossible to predict Dick Vermeil getting into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Vermeil got his first NFL head coaching job with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1976, just after leading UCLA to a Rose Bowl victory over Ohio State.

The Eagles had gone nine straight seasons without a winning record when Vermeil arrived. But Vermeil had them in the playoffs in his third year and in the Super Bowl in his fifth.

It came at a cost.

The Eagles had become winners with a coach who conducted long, physically demanding practices, almost always in pads. Vermeil kept a hand in the Eagles’ offensive, defensive and special teams game plans and worked long hours to stay on top of it all.

“He used to upset all of us assistant coaches because he could survive on four hours of sleep a night,” said Carl Peterson, who coached for Vermeil with UCLA and the Eagles and later hired Vermeil as general manager of the Chiefs. “The rest of us needed more. We all had pullout beds in our offices with the Eagles. We had to. Meetings started early and they lasted late.

“It was nonstop, intense coaching and teaching. He burned the candle at both ends. He hates the word burnout. But he did. After a while, I could see him eroding.”

Vermeil walked away from coaching after seven seasons, at the age of 46. He stayed away 14 seasons, his main exposure to the game during that stretch coming as a TV broadcaster.

He reached the Hall of Fame by shedding some of his old-school ways when he returned to coaching. He came back in 1997, taking over a St. Louis Rams team that had won six games while averaging 19 points per game the year before. He won a Super Bowl in his third season there with a high-scoring offense nicknamed “The Greatest Show On Turf.”

Vermeil’s final coaching act with the Chiefs didn’t produce a Super Bowl in five seasons, but he had a better season winning percentage in Kansas City (.550) than in Philadelphia (.535) or St. Louis (.458).

“His coaching career was really unique,” said Brent Musburger, Vermeil’s long-time broadcast partner and friend. “He was successful with the Eagles, winning despite being there in an era when there was limited player movement. It took much longer then to build a winning team.

“Then he comes back 14 years later and it’s a whole new world in the NFL with a salary cap and free agency. But he was able to win a Super Bowl in his third year with the Rams and then he went on to have some really good teams with the Chiefs.”

Taken as a whole, Vermeil’s career was most unusual, particularly for a Hall of Fame coach. His retirement at an early coaching age and his 14-year break stand out. His long gap as a broadcaster spanned eras in the NFL, which was largely a running league when he left and mostly a passing league upon his return.

His regular-season winning percentage of .524 is the second lowest for any Hall of Fame member who was enshrined completely because of coaching (Weeb Ewbank ranks last at .502, though he has three titles). But Vermeil inherited three teams who were struggling when he arrived and left each on his terms.


VERMEIL TOOK THE EAGLES to four consecutive playoff appearances, including a Super Bowl. But everything fell apart in 1982 when, in a season shortened to nine games because of a player strike, the Eagles were 3-6.

He hit bottom. Vermeil announced his resignation, a surprise to the football world, after the season in a tearful news conference before moving on to a lucrative broadcasting career.

“At the time, it was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he said. “But I knew I had to. I knew I was a mess. Whatever term you want to put to it: burnout, depression, emotionally drained. I was so passionate about what I was doing and so intense that it became a bigger thing than I was prepared to handle.

“I don’t regret doing what I did. I was my own worst enemy. I know I needed to leave coaching. It allowed me to be in my kids’ lives. I went from making $75,000 a year to making $150,000 working 16 weekends. That was nice. I participated in things at home. That was nice.”

While his resignation was a shock to fans, it wasn’t to those close to him.

“As the season wore on, you kind of saw it coming,” said Ron Jaworski, his quarterback with the Eagles. “In speeches to the team, you could tell it wasn’t the same guy. He was very emotional. He was always emotional but this was a different kind of emotion. Usually, when he would get emotional, there was a reason for it: pregame speeches, postgame speeches. But this would be a Saturday night before a game and he would get that way. It was just different.”

Vermeil had no idea at the time whether he would ever return to coaching. He just knew he needed to get out.


NFL TEAMS TRIED to lure him back. He said he was approached about taking a job almost every year he was out. One year, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers offered Vermeil their head coaching position with a blank contract, saying he was free to fill in whatever terms he wished.

“Dick did not want to go back to coaching,” Musburger said. “He did not want to do it. Every loss burned him up as a coach. He told me repeatedly that he wasn’t going back to coaching.”

Vermeil stayed close to the game by working as a game analyst on TV, mostly with college football.

“He was a workaholic as a coach and he was a workaholic as an analyst,” Musburger said. “I’ve never been around anybody in any sport who did as much preparation as Dick did leading up to a game. He would show up with these big boards full of notes. They were so full of notes about all the players and the teams that there wasn’t much white space left.”

What Vermeil did as a broadcaster, whether intentional or not, prepared him for a return to coaching. He didn’t show up for a Saturday game in time to work the broadcast. He arrived Wednesday to watch practice and talk football with coaches.

He took furious notes at practice and drew up plays he saw that worked, filing everything away in case he might want to use the information someday.

“I never stopped studying the game,” Vermeil said. “I never stopped talking to coaches. I never allowed my relationship with good coaches to disintegrate. That kept me up to date as much as I could possibly be without being there every day working.

“The three best football coaches I’ve ever seen were Bill Snyder at Kansas State, Tom Coughlin at Boston College and Don Shula at the Miami Dolphins. … There were a lot of times I walked off the practice field or out of a meeting and I said to myself, ‘This is a better way of doing it.’ I would watch Don Shula and Joe Gibbs and Bill Parcells coach their teams and I would say, ‘I’ve got a lot to learn.'”

Musburger agreed Vermeil’s years of broadcasting and observing other coaches made Vermeil better when he returned to the sideline.

“The one thing Dick recognized was someone who could coach,” Musburger said.


THE RAMS CAME calling in 1997 and Vermeil accepted, feeling the time was right. He inherited a team with seven straight losing seasons when he arrived.

He initially returned as the same coach he was before leaving the Eagles. The Rams conducted long practices and Vermeil had his hand in the offense, defense and special teams.

“We had it pretty easy in St. Louis,” said wide receiver Eddie Kennison, who joined the Rams a year before Vermeil’s arrival. “But that’s why we were losing. Then coach Vermeil comes in and we went from practices that were an hour and a half to practices that were two hours and 45 minutes. More than any other coach I played for, he believed you had to practice for a long time if you were going to get better.”

Vermeil said: “I was doing it the old-fashioned way. At the time there were no rules about how much time you practiced, how many two-a-days you could have, how many days you could wear pads. … Those kids worked.”

The Rams won five games his first season and four the next. Vermeil knew he was going to be fired if the Rams kept losing, so he put the lessons he learned during his time as a broadcaster to work.

He backed off on the practices, making them less physically demanding. He also went looking for a coordinator to energize the Rams’ lackluster offense.

He interviewed a candidate whom he had watched and admired as a play designer and caller at Arizona State. His meeting with Mike Martz lasted eight hours, the two stopping for nothing but a couple of restroom breaks.

They found common ground, and Vermeil, for the first time as a head coach, handed total control of his offense to someone else.

“He had been trying to call plays, be the head coach, all that stuff. His workload had been substantial,” Martz said. “He was tired of it.”

Vermeil needed somebody he could trust to take that part of it and let him be the head coach. When that happened, the weight of the world was taken off his shoulders.”

Before the 1999 Rams would become The Greatest Show on Turf and lead the NFL in scoring, they went through some quarterback drama. Starter Trent Green tore the ACL in his left knee during a preseason game.

Vermeil and Martz had selected the untested Kurt Warner as their backup and didn’t flinch when he became their starter, not even after Warner threw two interceptions in the first half of the first regular-season game. Warner eventually found his footing, taking Vermeil and the Rams to a Super Bowl XXXIV victory and igniting his own Hall of Fame career.

Vermeil retired a second time after the Super Bowl win over the Tennessee Titans but returned to coaching one final time in 2001 with the Chiefs. Vermeil couldn’t get the Chiefs to a Super Bowl, but during his five seasons he had exciting, high-scoring teams led by stars such as Tony Gonzalez and Priest Holmes.

Peterson, then Kansas City’s general manager, saw a different Vermeil from the one he had worked with at UCLA and the Eagles.

“He delegated responsibility a lot more than what he did when I was with him both with the Eagles and with UCLA,” Peterson said. “He let his coordinators coordinate it, call it, run it.”

As for Vermeil spending most nights in the office, Peterson said, “No. He might have spent a night or two there but it wasn’t like Philadelphia.”

The story that best illustrates how Vermeil’s evolution came from Jaworski. Working in TV at the time, Jaworski attended the Rams’ Super Bowl game against the Titans. He bumped into his old coach on the field a couple of hours before the game and they visited.

Then Vermeil excused himself, saying he wanted to say hello to his wife, whom he had spotted in the stands.

“That’s how much he had changed,” Jaworski said. “In Super Bowl XV [with the Eagles], he was so focused and there was nothing else going on outside of that game on the field. He didn’t know where his wife was sitting or whether she was even at the game.

“But this time he really had it together to a greater extent. His team was in a good place and he knew it. He could relax. Maybe that’s why this time his team won.”

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