Dick Vermeil, who on Saturday will be pinned in Pro Football Hall of Fameconsiders himself a connoisseur of coaches.
He has worked with many greats in his 46 years in football, including 29 who have either been, currently, or will become NFL head coaches. Three of them ended up in Canton – Sid Gillman, George Allen as well as Bill Walsh.
But one of the most influential coaches in Vermeil’s formation was simply an observer of football – a fan, not someone who devoted his life to the game.
It was John Woodenwho was just ending his storied UCLA basketball coaching career when Vermeil was the head football coach for the Bruins in 1974 and 1975.
“I tried to spend as much time with him as possible without disturbing him,” said Vermeil, 85, who was also an assistant coach at UCLA in 1970.
Wooden taught Vermeil several important life lessons.
“The egregious thing that happened, and it solidified my thoughts for the rest of my career, is that one day I went to see him, sat in a chair in his office, and he said, ‘You’re looking down.’” Vermel recalled. “I said, ‘Well, I just lost a couple of good USC players.’
“He said to me: “Listen, coach. USC will always have the best players. Do not worry about it. Just make sure you make every player on your roster the best they can be and the rest will take care of itself.” ”
To anyone else, it might have seemed banal the minute Vermeil left. But the fact that it came from Wooden, whose teams have won 10 national championships in 12 years, made those words golden for the young and impressionable football coach.
“Since then, for every job that I have done, this has been the foundational statement that resounds in my head,” Vermeil said. “I trained him.”
The two developed a friendship that lasted throughout Vermeil’s career, including stops with the Los Angeles and St. Louis Rams, including the Lombardi Trophy, Philadelphia Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs, and until his release. on retire.
“After I finished training, I remember going to have breakfast with him and then going back to his apartment,” Vermeil said. “We spoke as friends, philosophy. I still have records of my meetings with him, and I may even have records of those meetings that we had with our coaches.
This is a hallmark of Vermeil’s coaching career; he was a sponge, always eager to learn, grow and improve. He had a 15-year hiatus from coaching, from stepping down as head coach of the Eagles at the end of the 1982 season to taking over as head coach of the St. Louis Rams in 1997 – something something of a reunion, as he was an LA Rams Assistant Coach in the early 1970s.
During these 15 years he was not far from football. He worked as a sportscaster for CBS and ABC and was always up to date.
“One of the things that helped me a lot is that every weekend I was on the field with a very good football coach,” he said. “When I came to the team, the door opened in front of me. I attended meetings of coordinators, meetings of head coaches.”
As a former head coach, Vermeil was a member of the club. He got access where others from the television world simply did not have it.
“I would have worked with Bill Parcells in his freshman year,” he said. “Then I walk around the field and spend the whole day with Don Shula, go to training, to team meetings. Lousy establishment. Are you talking about the general? I would call him Eisenhower, MacArthur or Patton. Probably a combination of the three.”
He said he played so many games in Washington in his television career that he felt like he was on the staff of Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs. Then there were college coaches.
“Tommy Prothro was a brilliant man,” Vermeil said of the UCLA coach who named him offensive coordinator in 1970. stuck with me for the rest of my career.
“I came off the field one day and started complaining about something my runners couldn’t do. And Chuck said, “Listen, Vermeil. If they could already do all the things you complain they can’t, I wouldn’t need to you train them. ”
Asked if there was a coach he would like to work with, Vermeil said he would love to be an assistant on Tom Coughlin’s team.
“I saw him coach at Boston College,” Vermeil said. “He is leaving American football and taking over the franchise in the NFL. [Jacksonville] and immediately invites them to the conference championship match.”
Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner, who helped St. Louis win the Super Bowl in 1999, said he admired how Vermeil left coaching for 15 years and then smoothly returned to work with an entirely new generation of players.
“Knowing what he did in Philadelphia and then knowing what adjustments he had to make when he returned a decade and a half later, he changed his coaching style,” Warner said. “His ability to work with a new generation player and achieve the success he has had speaks volumes about Dick Vermeil.”
As for Vermeil, he would like to be able to talk about many things from the pulpit on Saturday. But, like other inductees, it is limited to eight minutes. It’s a daunting task for a man whose list of thanks is as long as the credits in Star Wars. On top of that, he is known for his emotions and the tears that fill his eyes so easily.
“In my presentation, I thanked my family at the end because I might not be able to get over this,” he said. “I think I can get through the first part.”
He may need to be quiet for a bit. But of all people, Vermeil – after a 15-year hiatus – understands how to come back and finish strong.
As Wooden might have advised him, he would be quick, but not in a hurry.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.