Wine making is a long. intricate process which thrives on hard work and dedication. Coming from a wine making family in Napa Valley, Dick Vermeil used those concepts to thrive as a coach in the NFL. The dedication and hard work paid off as he led three formerly floundering franchises to the playoffs and won the Super Bowl with one of the most legendary offenses in NFL history. This is his story.
Richard Albert "Dick" Vermeil was born on October 30, 1936 in Calistoga, California to a family of wine makers and auto mechanics. Throughout his childhood, he witnessed his parents and his grandparents work continuously to put food on the table to make a better life for him. He gained a true appreciation for hard work, an appreciation that would serve him well throughout his life. After starring at Calistoga High School, he accepted a football scholarship to San Jose State College where he played quarterback. His playing career never panned out in the way that he had envisioned as he rode the bench for much of his time at SJSC.
After graduating in 1959, he served as an assistant at nearby Del Mar High School for a year before moving on to Hillsdale High School in San Mateo. After serving as the head coach for three years, Vermeil moved on to a succession of other schools around the Bay Area, moving from assistant to head coach in any given year. From the College of San Mateo to Napa Junior College to Stanford University, Dick Vermeil learned from the best coaching minds that the Bay Area had to offer. He got his big break in 1969 when he was hired as the Los Angeles Rams special teams coordinator, becoming one of the first with such a title in NFL history. From 1969 until 1975, Vermeil split time between the Rams and UCLA. By 1974, he was named the Bruin's head coach.
Being hired to take over UCLA's football program in 1974 was a tall task as the team had finished the previous season with a 9-2 record. His first year at the helm wasn't as successful as his predecessor's, however, as the team finished with a 6-3-2 record. The Bruins improved in 1975, going 9-2-1 and winning the Pac-8 Conference, punching their ticket to the Rose Bowl.
UCLA's exuberance about reaching the Rose Bowl was quickly squashed by Vermeil as he implemented a series of two-a-day practices in the weeks leading up to the big game. The team rebelled and refused to practice. When their coach found out, he kicked down the locker room door and ordered his players to the field. Seeing the look of doubt across their faces, Dick Vermeil told them that they had an opportunity to truly shock the world, defeating the top ranked Ohio State Buckeyes.
Inspired, the Bruins spent the rest of the week preparing for the opportunity of a lifetime. When they stepped on the surface of the Rose Bowl, the Bruin's only purpose of the day was upsetting the heavily favored Buckeyes and leaving a legacy at the Rose Bowl. At the end of the day, they had completed their mission, defeating the Buckeyes 23-10. Ohio State's coach Woody Hayes was so impressed with the way that Vermeil had prepared his team that with a minute left in the game, he marched across the field and gave him a warm embrace, telling him how well he had coached his team.
Following their upset in the Rose Bowl, UCLA had their sights set on the national title. However, their coach would not be with them. Due to his sudden success, Dick Vermeil was offered the head coaching job with the woeful Philadelphia Eagles. Seeing an opportunity to leave his mark at the highest level, Dick Vermeil left for the NFL.
Throughout his time in the NFL, Dick Vermeil would have a reputation as a man who could build teams from the depths of despair. The Eagles were his first reclamation project. Since winning the NFL Championship in 1960, the team posted just two winning seasons until Vermeil's arrival in 1976. Their lowest point came in 1968 when the fans booed an individual dressed as Santa who was on the field trying to boost holiday moral. The City of Brotherly Love was desperate for a winner and had reached their whit's end with their team.
While the Eagles were floundering, the Dallas Cowboys were surging, ultimately appearing in five Super Bowls and winning twice by the time the decade ended. Armed with this knowledge, Dick Vermeil decided to use the Cowboys are the benchmark for success with this team, constantly telling his players and the media just how much he hated the Cowboys and how badly he wanted to beat Dallas. He knew that for his team to be successful, they needed to have a single-minded focus to where they were headed, a unifying rallying cry that would bring them together.
The team also needed talent and Vermeil decided to have a tryout for anyone in the city who wanted to play for their beloved team. He only found one who fit the mold, Vince Papale. A substitute teacher and part time bartender, Vince Papale demonstrated the kind of work ethic that Dick Vermeil knew would bring his team much success. Though he only played four years for the team on special teams, the Eagles and the community at large recognized that Dick Vermeil was totally invested in the process of building a successful team.
The first two years were not easy. Despite all of the work, the team still posted losing records in each of Vermeil's first two years at the helm. He was undeterred. Like a master vintner preparing his signature wine, Dick Vermeil displayed the patience necessary to carry out his plan. His patience paid off and by 1978, something was amiss. The team started to win games more frequently.
By late in the season, the team faced a critical moment that would define this coaching regime for decades to come. Late in a game against the New York Giants, the Giants needed only to run out the clock to stave off a desperate Eagles team. However, the winds of fate would prevail as quaterback Joe Pisarcik fumbled the handoff to Larry Csonka. Seeing the opportunity, Eagles cornerback Herman Edwards grabbed the ball and dashed into the endzone as time expired. As a result of this fortunate play the team made the postseason for the first time since winning it all in 1960.
The team never looked back and made the playoffs in each of Dick Vermeil's final four seasons with the team. Two years after that play, the team hosted the hated Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game. After years of preaching nothing but hate towards the Cowboys, Dick Vermeil's troops were ready for war. The Cowboys stood no chance as the Eagles trampled all over them in a 20-7 triumph before a jubilant throng of humanity. At last, the Eagles had met their benchmark.
To surpass their benchmark, the Eagles would have to defeat the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XV. Arriving in New Orleans for the biggest game of their lives, the Eagles were not permitted to party on Bourbon Street. Instead, they went back to two-a-days and working hard during the week of the Super Bowl. It was how they had gotten to the Super Bowl. Why would they try anything different?
All the hard work that they had put into reaching the biggest game of their lives was for naught as they lost to the Raiders 27-10. From then on, there has been wide speculation that all the hard work the week of the Super Bowl cost them a title. Maybe. Maybe not. By the end of the next season, with another early playoff loss in the rearview mirror, Dick Vermeil stepped down as the Eagle's head coach, citing fatigue. He would stay away from the sidelines for the next 15 years.
Reflection, the Rams and Redemption
After stepping away from the sidelines following the 1981 season, Dick Vermeil spent the next 15 years as a television commentator, quickly becoming a fan favorite with his extensive knowledge of the NFL. During this time, he also spent a great deal of time learning from many of that era's greatest coaches, learning their processes and how they remained successful year after year. The NFL never forgot him and just about every offseason brought a new crop of job offers from teams searching for a new coach.
Vermeil rejected each offer until 1996 when the Saint Louis Rams offered him the job. At that point, the Rams had failed to make the playoffs since 1989 and had never won the Super Bowl. While they were in the valley of despair, they had lost their identity. Seeing how similar the situation was to Philadelphia, Dick Vermeil accepted the job and immediately began losing games.
The Rams were dreadful in Vermeil's first two years in Saint Louis. While they lost, they still worked just as hard as Vermeil's Eagles had just a decade earlier. After a near mutiny in 1998, Vermeil decided to change his ways. He also signed a couple of players who he thought could make a difference, quaterback Trent Green and running back Marshall Faulk.
The fortunes of the team changed dramatically when Trent Green blew out his knee in a meaningless preseason game and the Rams were forced to go with Kurt Warner, an unknown quarterback who just a couple of years earlier was working in a grocery store while playing in the Arena Football League. What followed was one of the most surprising single season turnarounds in NFL history. Warner stunned the NFL week after exhilarating week in 1999 and earned the NFL MVP award after passing for 4,353 yards and 41 touchdowns, beginning a three-year stretch where either him or Marshall Faulk would win the prestigious award. Dubbed "the Greatest Show on Turf", the Ram's offense could do no wrong as they led an organization that had finished 4-12 the year before to 13-3 and a Super Bowl berth.
Having learned from his previous Super Bowl experience and the near mutiny from the year before, Dick Vermeil's decision to not work his players into the ground would pay off in the Super Bowl as the Rams took an early 16-point lead, ultimately triumphing 23-16 on a last second goal line tackle by Mike Jones. At long last, Dick Vermeil had found redemption.
Caught up in the moment, Dick Vermeil decided to retire just days after his triumph. As what often happens in sports these days, Vermeil had a change of heart when he watched his players receiver their well-earned Super Bowl rings. At that moment, he realized just how much he missed the daily grind and the journey it took to win the Super Bowl. He wanted to feel that energy and excitement again. After taking a year off, he headed to Kansas City as the Chief's new head coach.
After a successful stretch in the 1990's, the Chiefs faltered and failed to reach the playoffs beginning in 1998. When they finished 2000 with a 7-9 record, Chief's brass knew that changes were necessary. At the time of his hiring, Vermeil inherited a core group of players that would help him become successful in Kansas City. Both tight end Tony Gonzalez and guard Will Shields were perennial All-Pros destined for the Hall of Fame and, for a brief spell, Priest Holmes was one of the best running backs of his era.
Despite the talent, the Chiefs struggled to adjust to Vermeil's new system and finished 2001 with another losing record and at the bottom of their division. The team again failed to make the playoffs the following year, despite the team boasting five All-Pros. The pieces all fell into place in 2003, with Trent Green passing for more than 4,000 yards and resembling everything that Vermeil thought that he could have been in Saint Louis. Priest Holmes continued to provide stability on the ground by scoring 27 touchdowns, breaking Marshall Faulk's record set in 2000.
The team finished 13-3 and were the second seed in the AFC playoffs. However, their magical season ended in a 38-31 loss to the Indianapolis Colts. The team fell back to earth the following year and failed to make the playoffs. Despite a 10-6 finish in 2005, they barely missed the playoffs and Dick Vermeil retired. He returned to his roots in Napa Valley and now spends his days tending to his vineyard and winery, a family business. He was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2022.