Vermeil comes of age with NFC champion Rams

January 30, 2000|By JOHN STEADMAN

ATLANTA -- With respect to age, Dick Vermeil is proving most emphatically that the game hasn't passed him by. Such a demeaning allegation insinuated his ability had gone out of style and the sidelines were no place for a man old enough to be the grandfather of his players. As it is, he has 10 of his own grandchildren, maybe a record for a competing Super Bowl coach.

The success of the St. Louis Rams (nee Los Angeles Rams, nee Cleveland Rams) belies what the critics were saying when he was hired three years ago. Just another recycled football coach past his prime, a figurehead taking up space.

Now, at age 63, approaching full senior citizenship status, Vermeil has been around long enough to qualify for Social Security benefits, even if he doesn't need them. Has the number of birthdays lessened his competence? Does he go to pieces under pressure and try to send offensive tackles into the game to run with the ball, which over-excited coaches have been known to do?

So Vermeil's coaching longevity has now become only a point of reference. Yes, he can coach, which is why the Rams are in the Super Bowl, 19 years since he was in the same spectacle in what was known as Super Bowl XV with the Philadelphia Eagles, who lost to the Oakland Raiders.

He took the Eagles' franchise to four playoff opportunities in seven seasons, including their first winning record in 12 years.

How old you are shouldn't be a defining measure of whether you can coach, any more than mere age determines if a man can be president of the United States. In that aspect, history books tell us that Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, James Buchanan, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, George Bush and others were all older than Vermeil when they were leading the country. So drawing X's and O's, compared with being the head of state, is mere child's play.

There's a contention that if the Rams win the Super Bowl, Vermeil may decide to turn his job over to his successor-in-waiting, Mike Martz, now the offensive coordinator, rather than going on for two more years of his contract. Reflecting on his changed outlook on coaching life, Vermeil says, "I was always intense and emotional, and at age 63, I'm in better control of that. I don't let little things bother me anymore."

Among his assistants are Jim Hanifan, 66, the offensive line coach, and Mike White, 63, who carries the title of assistant head coach. Both have made strong contributions to the Rams, so the team is far from a retirement home for old friends Vermeil wants to reward for merely having known them.

Age obviously has no meaning for the Rams. But then, maybe it does. Not the owner, Georgia Frontiere (which is understandable), or any of the coaches have their ages listed for public knowledge in the team's media guide. But, yes, the Rams' coaches are old folks compared with their contemporaries in similar roles on other clubs.

The most vociferous of Vermeil boosters is the man who persuaded him to depart college ranks at UCLA and come to Philadelphia in 1976. That would be the effervescent Jim Murray, then the Eagles' general manager.

"Dick was reluctant to come to Philadelphia because he heard the fans were tough on coaches," Murray recalls. "But I told him they were so desperate that if the team even won the pre-game flip of the coin, they would stand up and applaud. I told him he could become a household name in Philadelphia, and he is. Why? Because he engenders trust and credibility. They put his picture on billboards and don't even have to use his name because he's so well-recognized."

In Philadelphia, he is one of 26 included in the team's honor roll, an organization that has been in business since 1933. He's there with such celebrated Eagles names as Chuck Bednarik, Bert Bell, Earl "Greasy" Neale, Steve Van Buren, Harold Carmichael, Pete Pihos, Alex Wojciehowicz and Pete Retzlaff.

With the Eagles, the demands Vermeil put upon himself led to burning the midnight oil and individual burnout. He resigned after the 1982 season and went to the television sanctuary, where for 14 years he was a network analyst for college and pro games.

"He was wound up so tight that in 1976, he heard all the fireworks going off on the Fourth of July and wanted to know what that was all about," Murray remembered. "I reminded him that he was in Philadelphia, it was Independence Day and the bicentennial year of the country. He was so immersed in football, I don't believe he realized any of that."

Being around football, even though he was in the televising aspect, gave him a different perspective than when he was coaching. When the Rams brought him back to head the show in St. Louis, he had a lighter touch, but it wasn't until his first two years there, after going 5-11 and 4-12, that he made an abrupt change from past practices. Workouts were shortened and rules altered to make things more enjoyable for the players.

Cornerback Todd Lyght said, "The coach took time to listen, and it made a big difference. It helped change the outlook around here." The result is the players are more content, for now anyhow, and a team that was listed 200-1 to win the Super Bowl in August is now playing in it.

Dick Vermeil doesn't have to apologize for being the oldest head coach in professional football. He ought to be made poster boy of the American Association of Retired Persons (NFL branch).

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