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AGE-OLD QUESTION CAN DICK VERMEIL AND A BUNCH OF SENIOR CITIZENS WHIP THE YOUNG, UNDERACHIEVING RAMS INTO A REAL TEAM?

July 16, 1997
July 16, 1997

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July 16, 1997

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AGE-OLD QUESTION CAN DICK VERMEIL AND A BUNCH OF SENIOR CITIZENS WHIP THE YOUNG, UNDERACHIEVING RAMS INTO A REAL TEAM?

This past May, on the final afternoon of St. Louis Rams
minicamp, freshly minted head coach Dick Vermeil strolled to
midfield of the Trans World Dome holding in his hands a
microphone and the future of the organization.

This is an article from the July 16, 1997 issue

"I don't know how many wins we're going to have this year,"
Vermeil told the 9,000 fans in attendance, his voice ringing in
every nook of the cavernous stadium. "We've got a lot of
outstanding football players, and if we do a good job coaching
them, we'll see significant improvement. I wish I could tell you
that we'll win 11 or 12 games, but I don't know. I do know this:
They're going to be the kind of team you can be proud of."

For the 60-year-old Vermeil, who had dispensed equal doses of
coaching ingenuity and syrupy schmaltz as coach of the
Philadelphia Eagles from 1976 to '82, the pep talk was decidedly
guarded. That was a prudent move, considering the sorry state of
St. Lose, which was 6-10 last season and is 36-76 in the
1990s--tied with the New York Jets for worst in the league. The
cautious remarks were also in keeping with Vermeil's new
commitment to restraint. Fourteen years after burning out and
retiring from coaching, stunningly, at age 46, Vermeil has
returned to the game, paying much lip service to the notion of
harnessing his formerly unbridled passion and obsessive work
habits.

But even a meticulous planner like Vermeil sometimes gets caught
up in the moment. At the end of his modest little speech, the
crowd let loose with a roar that, per capita, had to have been
the loudest of the Rams' two woebegone years in St. Louis.
Energized and misty-eyed from the ovation, the coach made a
beeline for the adoring masses in the bleachers, and there he
scribbled autographs, mugged for pictures and did everything but
kiss babies. "God darn, that was emotional," a flushed Vermeil
said afterward. "My eyes were watering, and I've never had that
happen before in a minicamp. I hope very much to earn the kind
of respect and appreciation those fans have accorded me."

And so now we know: Despite the crinkles in his skin and the
sprinkles of gray in his perfectly coiffed mane, the old Dick
Vermeil is back. Crying. In May. At a padless practice. "You
gotta love the guy's enthusiasm," says 24-year-old quarterback
Tony Banks.

Well, yes, you do, but wasn't it that same enthusiasm that drove
him from the sideline in the first place? The son of an auto
mechanic, Vermeil had such a fervent drive to succeed that
nothing--family, ill health or the number of hours in a
day--could impede it. The stories are legion. There was the time
in 1975, during his second season as head coach at UCLA, when he
stopped a film session cold as the camera panned along the
sideline to his 15-year-old son. "My god, has David ever grown a
lot in a year!" Vermeil blurted. When he got to Philadelphia,
Vermeil slept in his office every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday
night, and some weeks it was more often than that. One year the
Eagles wanted to take a picture of the Vermeil family for the
team Christmas card. The only problem was that Dick had no
intention of going home anytime soon. So his wife, Carol, and
their three kids were trundled into the team office, where they
all posed with a tree borrowed from the lobby. "I think it was
before our playoff game in 1978," Vermeil says by way of
explanation.

The insane hours and emotional grind finally caught up with him
in 1982. The Eagles were coming off their fourth straight trip
to the playoffs, including a 27-10 loss to the Oakland Raiders
in Super Bowl XV. A nasty bout of hepatitis laid Vermeil out
before the season, and he was disillusioned by the players'
strike that followed. After the season resumed, his psyche was
in shambles; during the Eagles' abbreviated 3-6 season he often
wept while addressing the team. Alluding to his beloved plaque
that hung in the Philly locker room--THE BEST WAY TO KILL TIME
IS TO WORK IT TO DEATH--Vermeil says today, "I worked time to
death ... and it killed me."

So why would this grandfather of 10 with a cushy career as a
college football announcer want to get back into coaching?

"Fourteen years ago I left coaching because I had to. I'm not
embarrassed to say it," Vermeil announced to the press on Jan.
22, the day the Rams hired him. "Today I'm back because I have
to be. I have a passion for this damn game. And I have a
compassion for the people who coach it and the people who play it.

"There were moments over the last 14 years when I would leave
the TV booth and have an empty feeling. When the game was over,
sometimes I would feel so insignificant. I didn't want to be 65
and regret not taking advantage of an opportunity."

Fitting that Vermeil should mention age. He has assembled a
remarkable cast of silver foxes to help him whip the raw Rams
into shape. St. Louis's 16-man coaching staff is one of the
league's biggest and highest paid, and certainly the oldest.
There are 11 Super Bowl rings among the five former pro head
coaches: 65-year-old defensive coordinator Bud Carson (head man
of the Cleveland Browns, 1989-90), 67-year-old wide receivers
coach Dick Coury (Boston, New Orleans and Portland Breakers of
the USFL, 1983-85), 58-year-old special teams coach Frank Gansz
(Kansas City Chiefs, 1987-88), 63-year-old offensive line coach
Jim Hanifan (St. Louis Cardinals, 1980-85) and 61-year-old
offensive coordinator Mike White (Oakland Raiders, 1995-96).

"This is without question the best coaching staff I have ever
been on," says Carson, a 40-year veteran of the sidelines who
was the architect of Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain defense, which
won four Super Bowls. Presumably Carson has more to say on the
subject, but he groans, "I gotta go sit down--my back is killing
me. It's tough standing on the turf all day."

It's Medicare moments like this that have led to some snickering
about the Rams' staff. It has been referred to as the Over the
Hill Gang or the Magnificent Seven--when 55-year-old offensive
coordinator Jerry Rhome is included. The Magnificent Seven,
you'll recall, is a movie about a bunch of grizzled gunslingers
saddling up to rescue a town under siege. But mention to any of
these graybeards that the game may have passed them by and you'd
better be ready to duck. "That's a load of bull----," growls
Hanifan in a voice that could come only from a four-decade
two-pack-a-day habit. As coach of the Cardinals, Hanifan was the
last man to lead a St. Louis football team to a winning record.
"I haven't forgotten a thing," he says, "and neither have the
rest of 'em."

"The fundamentals of the game have not changed," says Vermeil.
"The thing I'm struggling with the most is the difference in the
players today. The guys are so physically superior to even our
Super Bowl team. They're so much bigger and faster and stronger,
I'm having a hard time relating to just how good they really are
and how good we are as a team."

The baby of the coaching staff, 37-year-old defensive assistant
Steve Brown, respects his elders. "Age brings wisdom," he says.
"These coaches have answers to questions that I'm not smart
enough yet to know to ask. The only question you have is, Do
they have the fire to deal with today's players?"

The answer would appear to be yes. Take Rhome, who frequently
plays basketball with Banks, three decades his junior, on the
indoor courts at Rams Park. "I don't play against him," says
Banks, who is almost as quick on the hardwood as he is on the
gridiron. "I like to be on his team because I'm the slasher and
he's the shooter."

In an age when coaches seem to have diminishing authority, the
Rams' staff has gotten the players' attention--by virtue of its
encyclopedic knowledge of the game and also its stratospheric
Q-rating. When cornerback Todd Lyght was growing up, he was a
Steelers fan and admired Carson. "He's the reason I wanted to
play football," says Lyght. "This is a great opportunity for us
to learn under a man who knows a lot about defense." Says
32-year-old guard Gerald Perry, "Why wouldn't we treat what they
say as gospel? All of us grew up watching these coaches on TV."
Well, not all of the Rams. "I had to call my grandfather to try
and study up on who Coach Vermeil was," says third-year tight
end Aaron Laing. "I was 11 years old the last time he coached."

The players have responded to the brisk, efficient pace of
practices under Vermeil. They know, too, that these coaches are
not in St. Louis to build their resumes; they are not
particularly interested in climbing up the coaching ladder and
moving on to other teams. "Of course, you get a bunch of
60-year-olds together and you'd expect them to feel some
urgency," says Wayne Gandy, who will be moving from left to
right tackle to make room for 21-year-old Orlando Pace, the
first pick in the draft. "They don't have a lot of time left."

The coaches enjoy an esprit de corps that seems to keep their
massive football brains from knocking heads. "There are no egos
involved, and that's a tribute to Dick," says White, who first
coached with Vermeil at Stanford in 1965. "He's secure enough
to encourage all of us to make suggestions and pitch ideas."

In fact Vermeil has such confidence in his coaches that for the
first time in his career he is comfortable delegating
responsibility. That has meant, so far, a manageable workload
for him. Vermeil says that at the Rams' first minicamp, in
April, "I actually felt a little embarrassed. I had a feeling
like, My god, what the hell am I out here for? Everyone else was
doing all the work.

"I'll make the critical game-day decisions," he adds. "But this
team is going to be run by a board of directors. I'm the
chairman of the board."

As part of his five-year, $9 million contract (only Jets coach
Bill Parcells and Miami Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson are thought
to make more), Vermeil was given the title of president of
football operations. Unlike his predecessor, Rich Brooks,
Vermeil has authority over all personnel decisions, and he has
not been shy about using it. Last season the Rams squandered
considerable talent because of a lack of leadership, discipline
and desire. In March, Bernie Miklasz, a columnist for the St.
Louis Post-Dispatch, wrote, "The 1996 Rams were the weakest,
softest, most jaded lot of pro athletes I've covered since
starting in this business in 1979."

"I've asked guys what they're going to do for a living when
they're not playing in the NFL, because they're close already,"
says Vermeil. It is no coincidence that there has been a
dramatic increase in participation in the Rams' off-season
workout program, and while two of the three minicamps were
technically optional, not one healthy St. Louis player missed a
practice. "Vermeil made it pretty clear that they were mandatory
optional," says Gandy. "He's not some guy staring out a window
somewhere--he has the power to make or break a career."

Aware of his power, Vermeil has been careful to foster
friendship along with fear. He is a cheery presence on the
practice field, bopping along with a big cheesy smile and a
bottomless collection of corny aphorisms. He has taken several
players out to dinner, and he often goes to Rams veterans for
counsel on small team matters. In early April he traveled to
Lincoln, Neb., to pick up 22-year-old running back Lawrence
Phillips at the conclusion of Phillips's 23-day incarceration in
the Lancaster County Correctional Facility. (Phillips had
violated his probation for an assault offense by pleading no
contest to a charge of driving while intoxicated.) On the plane
ride back to St. Louis, Vermeil and Phillips talked extensively,
though very little about football. "He's genuine," says
Phillips. "With Coach Vermeil you can tell he cares about you as
a person and not just as a football player."

Says defensive end Kevin Carter, "Coach has brought a level of
closeness that is worlds apart from last year." And with that
unity has come a sharper focus. "We've got an edge," Carter
says. "The goal is to turn the Rams into a polished, disciplined
fighting organization, and you can see that happening."

Vermeil's ability to inspire has always been his greatest
strength. And it was never more evident than in 1980. That
Eagles team didn't have a 1,000-yard rusher or a receiver who
caught more than 48 balls. And yet over the year Philly
outscored its opponents 130-44 in the fourth quarter. "As
athletes we all want to achieve something for ourselves,"
linebacker Bill Bergey of the '80 Eagles once said. "But with
Dick, you go way beyond that. You play for The Cause. That's why
our teams played so well in the fourth quarter. We could reach
down for something extra, something that other teams did not
have. We had it because Dick helped put it there."

Vermeil is trying to instill that same devotion in the Rams. And
the fans of St. Louis seem to appreciate it--witness the
messiah's welcome at the minicamp. After the ovation, in the
bowels of the Trans World Dome, as Vermeil boarded a golf cart
that would chauffeur him to the idling team bus, he said, "It
felt real out there."

For the Rams' old new coach, the passion is obviously back. But
can he hold on to it?

"You're damn right I can," he says. Then, flashing the craftiest
of grins, he disappears into the bus. Where Vermeil and his Rams
are headed remains to be seen.

COLOR PHOTO INSET [REGIONAL] Comeback Kid: Will Dick Vermeil Find Success in St. Louis?TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PATRICK MURPHY-RACEY Vermeil and his grizzled vets (opposite, clockwise from bottom left: Carson, Hanifan, Gansz, Rhome, White and Coury) sport an average age of 61. [Dick Vermeil; Bud Carson, Jim Hanifan, Frank Gansz, Jerry Rhome, Mike White, Dick Coury and Dick Vermeil]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PATRICK MURPHY-RACEY Like Hanifan with Perry (right), coaches have taken a hands-on approach with Phillips (21) and Pace. [Gerald Perry and Jim Hanifan]COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON [See caption above--Lawrence Phillips]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PATRICK MURPHY-RACEY [See caption above--Orlando Pace training with two teammates]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PATRICK MURPHY-RACEY The 65-year-old Carson (left) says Vermeil's staff is the best he's seen. [Bud Carson and Dick Vermeil]