August 03, 2022
Dick Vermeil laughs at the recollection. It’s where his exhaustive work ethic stems. He can remember as a little kid watching “Big Lou,” his father, Louis Vermeil, coming up the wooden steps of the back porch with his white t-shirt splattered with grease, wash his mountainous hands in a rubber tub, and take this old comb he had on a ledge, drag it across his scalp to take the dirt and grime out of his hair to eat lunch with his son.
Then Lou would go back to work as an auto mechanic.
He would go from nine in the morning, come home to eat dinner with his family, and then go back to work a few more hours. He had a towing service that sometimes called for him to wake up in the middle of the night—and he still went to work in the morning, eyes at half-mast with a wrench in his hand, sweat dripping from his forehead toiling over a hot engine or rolling on a creeper underneath a car.
Wonder why Dick Vermeil used to live in his office and work 18-hour days when he was coaching the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1970s?
On Saturday, Dick Vermeil will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a member of the 2022 Class with tackle Tony Boselli, wide receiver Cliff Branch, safety LeRoy Butler, official Art McNally, linebacker and former Philadelphia Star, the late Sam Mills, defensive end/defensive tackle Richard Seymour, and defensive tackle/defensive end Bryant Young.
Vermeil, 85, will try to condense a life’s worth of work into eight minutes during his acceptance speech. He’s going to no doubt remember Leonard Tose, the late former Eagles’ owner who gave a 40-year-old Vermeil his first NFL head coaching job after just two years at UCLA, Ron Jaworski, Wilbert Montgomery, Harold Carmichael, Kurt Warner, Trent Green—the nucleus of his players who gave him success, former Eagles’ general manager Jim Murray, his assistant coaches Marion Campbell, Dick Coury, Peter Giunta, and his very good friend, Carl Peterson.
But mostly, Vermeil will share his induction above with everyone else, with his wife, Carol, his three children, 11 grandchildren and “Big Lou.”
It was Lou who instilled the boundless work ethic into his son.
“Watching my father and being with him told me what hard work was all about,” said Vermeil, who was born and raised in Calistoga, California, though considers the Delaware Valley area his home, living in Chester County for 46 years. “When your hands are always greasy and dirty, or you’re underneath a car, or leaning over a fender, doing that six, sometimes seven days a week, that defined to me what hard work was. Therefore, I never really felt I was ever really working hard doing what I was doing. I never really had my hands greasy, and I controlled my own hours.
“As I grew in the coaching profession, the profession controls your hours.”
Like his father used to rebuild sprint racing cars with rusted, used parts, his son Dick very much did the same, rebuilding the rusted, tinged husks that the Eagles, St. Louis Rams, and Kansas City Chiefs were when Vermeil took over.
When he took over the Eagles in 1976, they were coming off a 4-10 season and had not had a winning record since 1966. The Eagles had not won a playoff game since they beat the legendary Vince Lombardi in the 1960 NFL championship. Vermeil had just led UCLA to a Rose Bowl victory over Woody Hayes’ No. 1-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes, led by the only two-time Heisman Trophy winner, Archie Griffin.
Vermeil inherited a mess from Mike McCormick.
“I first covered Dick at the Rose Bowl against Ohio State, which was the No. 1 team in the country. They were undefeated and people were talking about them as one of the great college football teams of all-time,” recalled Pro Football Hall of Fame sportswriter Ray Didinger, who was working for the defunct Philadelphia Bulletin then. “It was a marque game on New Year’s Day, and I went out there with the intention of really writing about Ohio State. I remember being struck how young Dick was. He looked like he was 25, and he looked even younger standing next an old curmudgeon like Woody Hayes.
“Everyone thought Ohio State was going to crush UCLA. They did it earlier in the season (winning 41-20). Everyone thought this was going to be more of the same. Watching the game, I couldn’t help but feel what a masterful coaching job this was. This was a coaching clinic. I mean Dick Vermeil coached the pants off Woody Hayes. I never thought in a million years that three weeks later he would be coaching the Eagles.”
That 1976 New Year’s Day it just so happened that across the country Tose and Murray were watching the Rose Bowl, too. They were enthralled by the dynamic, energetic young coach. Two days later, they were on a plane to interview Vermeil.
The Eagles were worse than a train wreck. It was a dispirited team that had traded away its future. Under McCormick, he felt veterans would turn the program around. It worked for George Allen in Washington. It failed miserably in Philadelphia. Consequently, the Eagles did not have a first-round pick until 1979.
It left Vermeil with an old, broken roster with no draft picks to rebuild.
In 1976, the Flyers ruled the city. They were looking for their third-straight Stanley Cup. The 1976 Phillies were just beginning their reign as National League East titans, playing in the postseason for the first time since the 1950 World Series and the 76ers had just acquired the incomparable Julius “Dr. J” Erving, who would lead them to the NBA championship series (where they lost to Bill Walton and the Portland Trail Blazers).
Believe it or not, the Eagles were an afterthought to the fanbase, an irrelevant organization going nowhere that filled autumn Sundays, while the Phillies were winning division titles, and the Flyers and Sixers were vying for championships.
Vermeil changed that.
“There’s no bandwagon with the Eagles and the fans are invested here like none of the other sports teams in the city, but those Eagles teams were really bad,” Didinger said. “I remember one of Dick’s first press conferences and the talk was that he would be back in California in a few years. That was the sentiment when he took the job. People talk about Buddy Ryan bringing back the Eagles, no, no, no, it was Dick Vermeil who brought back the Eagles in terms of how the team was regarded here.
“The Eagles really own this town and there was very little sense that Vermeil could turn them around. He not only turned them around; he had them in the playoffs in three years and took them to their first Super Bowl. To me, it was one of the greatest coaching jobs of all-time, because he had nothing to work with.”
Vermeil was like a second father to Eagles’ Hall of Famer Ron Jaworski, who guided the Eagles to their first Super Bowl.
“I can tell you Coach Vermeil made us winners without a whole lot of talent,” Jaworski said. “The first year I got here our first pick came in the fourth round. I remember coming here to Philadelphia when I was with the Rams on a Monday night, and we smashed them (42-3 on Nov. 3, 1975). Our bench was being hit with dog bones and golf balls from the 700 level (laughs). I remember thinking how bad I thought the Eagles were. Coach Vermeil turned the whole thing around.
“The standard of the Hall of Fame has to be high. I couldn’t be more excited for ‘coach’ to get in. I was 19, a sophomore in college, when my dad passed away. My mother is awesome, but there is a difference with a dad who’s a tough, hard-nosed guy and I didn’t have that. In Dick Vermeil, I had a tough, hard-nosed guy that I didn’t have. He would chew your ass out and give you a hug 10 minutes later. He’s compassionate. I needed that in my life. He was more than just a coach to me. To this day, we’re very, very close.
“Coach will do a fantastic job controlling himself up there on stage. His players, we’re all probably going to be balling (laughing). I can’t wait to be there.”
Vermeil introduced the sports world to “burn out,” before anyone knew what the term meant. He had to reinvent himself after he left the Eagles in 1982 to restore yet another moribund franchise, the St. Louis Rams, in 1997. The Rams were 6-10 the season before Vermeil stepped in, and as in Philadelphia, within three years he had them in the postseason and winning Super Bowl XXXIV, doing what he still regrets today that he did not do in Philadelphia.
After two years, his old pal Peterson talked him into taking over the Chiefs in 2001. The year before, Kansas City was 7-9. With incredible consistency, Vermeil had the Chiefs back in the playoffs after a five-year postseason absence in his third year, as he did the Eagles and Rams.
“The second time around with the Rams and Chiefs, I learned to delegate better, partly because I couldn’t be what I was because I had been out of it for too long,” Vermeil said. “I did what I had to do. It’s not as much fun. You don’t get the same satisfaction as just being the leader when you are the leader and general in charge of everything. The Xs and Os were what really passed me. Earlier in my career, the Xs and Os were the priority and leadership was secondary. When I came back, the leadership had to be first and the Xs and Os had to be second.”
Peterson will be Vermeil’s presenter and he’s planning on his old UCLA quarterback, 1976 Rose Bowl MVP and former Eagles’ defensive back John Sciarra come on stage and help Peterson pull the cloth off Vermeil’s Hall of Fame bust.
“I wake up every night thinking about being on that stage on Saturday, and I’ve told the Hall of Fame that I don’t think it’s fair for someone who’s coached three NFL teams to have eight minutes to thank everyone, because with the ownerships and management teams alone will take eight minutes,” Vermeil said, laughing. “I’m going to do it. It’s going to be very difficult to show the admiration and respect for everyone who’s elevated me to get to this position. I’m 85. It’s scary, isn’t it? I have so many people to be grateful to for this, starting with my wife, Carol, and my children, my mother.
“And my dad. He’s the one who taught me what hard work was all about. I wouldn’t be up on that stage without him.”
Follow Joe on Twitter: @JSantoliquito
Like us on Facebook: PhillyVoice Sports