Fisher, Vermeil aren't two of kind

Eras, style differ

both passed win-or-else test

January 26, 2000|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- Dick Vermeil started out his coaching career as an assistant in high school making $5,300 a year in 1956. Jeff Fisher started his coaching career as an assistant coach in the NFL under Buddy Ryan in Philadelphia in 1986 and has never coached on any other level.

That's just one of the many differences between the two coaches who'll match wits Sunday in Super Bowl XXXIV when the St. Louis Rams play the Tennessee Titans.

They're men of different generations -- Vermeil is 63 and Fisher is 41 -- and different philosophies, but they had one thing in common when they started this season.

They were fighting for their jobs and they knew it.

Vermeil had undergone two straight losing seasons and couldn't afford a third one. Fisher had gone 8-8 three years in a row -- in three different cities.

But the team moved into its permanent home in Nashville this year and owner Bud Adams made it obvious that 8-8 was no longer acceptable.

They also got here in different ways. Vermeil made big changes in his coaching style, his staff and his players. Fisher figured he had his program on the right track and just needed to keep it there.

For Fisher, the worst was behind him once the team moved into its new home.

"If I had to write a book about it [the move from Houston to Memphis to Nashville], it definitely would fall into the fiction section. You wouldn't believe the type of things we had to do," he said.

But Fisher thinks the experience made the team better.

"It has helped put us where we are today. This is a strong football team mentally and emotionally," he said.

He said the key to coaching is communication. "Players don't make mistakes on purpose. Players need to know we're not going to ask them to do something they can't do," he said.

But then Fisher understands players making mistakes. When he was a defensive back at USC, he tipped a Jay Schroeder pass into the arms of Freeman McNeil that went for a 58-yard game-winning touchdown pass against UCLA.

Drafted by the Bears in 1981, he lasted five years and was on the injured reserve list on their celebrated 1985 Super Bowl team.

The next year, Ryan asked him to retire and join him in Philadelphia. Fisher first said no, had second thoughts and accepted the job to start his coaching career.

Fisher seems to have a good rapport with his players.

"He's done a fantastic job of at least making sure egos aren't a problem on this team," said tackle Brad Hopkins. "His personality allows you to breathe."

Of course, he works the long hours and makes the family sacrifices that are common in his profession. He tells the story that during the bye week, he read with his son for his homework assignment.

"I came back and told my wife he can read and she said, `Yeah, he's been reading about two years. Where have you been?' " Fisher said.

Vermeil, of course, virtually invented the term coaching burnout when he quit the Eagles after the 1982 season.

Vermeil's work habits were legendary in his career that took him from high school to a Rose Bowl at UCLA and then to the Eagles.

He's still sensitive about the perception of his loss in Super Bowl XV to the Raiders.

The conventional wisdom is that the Eagles were so uptight because of Vermeil's intense ways that they didn't play well while the carefree Raiders partied on Bourbon Street during the week and crushed the Eagles, 27-10.

"To think the Raiders beat us in the Super Bowl because we were extremely disciplined in our approach to the game and wanted to send a great message to America about what we were all about and guys could go on Bourbon Street and get drunk and get arrested and still win, I don't want that image today, nor do I think does Jeff Fisher," he said.

Vermeil, though, does seem to be enjoying himself more this time. The league scheduled him to do a 30-minute interview session yesterday and he stayed an hour.

He also cut down on his long practices this year.

If Vermeil wins, there's some thought he may retire on top after proving he could win after a 14-year hiatus.

Fisher, meanwhile, could be the next great head coach. With just one year left on his contract, he can probably parlay a Super Bowl victory into a $3 million-a-year deal.

Vermeil, though, even more than Fisher, may understand what's at stake Sunday.

What's it like to lose a game like this? "You live with it for the rest of your life," Vermeil said.

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