Two veteran coaches keep breathing new life into sagging NFL franchises.
As the National Football League season winds down, a pair of coaches known for reinvigorating hapless franchises are likely to drive into the thick of the playoff schedule.
At age 67, Dick Vermeil, in his third season leading the Kansas City Chiefs, ranks as the league's oldest coach. Not far behind him is the 62-year-old Bill Parcells, the Dallas Cowboys' first-year coach. But it is their vintage ability, rather than their advanced age, which once again has turned losers into winners and seized the attention of rival franchises and executives.
The Chiefs haven't reached the playoffs since 1997. Under Mr. Vermeil, though, the team has reversed its flagging fortunes and already clinched a playoff berth.
In Dallas, Mr. Parcells assumed a squad that had posted three consecutive losing seasons. This year, the Cowboys are assured of a nonlosing season for the first time since 1999.
In an era when many pundits question the ability of middle-aged coaches to relate to millionaire athletes reared on Xboxes and MP3 players, these two old-school coaches have resurrected wrecked franchises.
"Winning gives coaches so much credibility," says Joe Theismann, an ESPN analyst who played in two Super Bowls as quarterback of the Washington Redskins. "You can tell players to run backwards around the track and, if they're winning, they'll do it."
As evidence, Mr. Theismann points to Vermeil's last stop, in St. Louis. Players there threatened a mutiny early on in Vermeil's three-year tenure, which was capped by a Super Bowl win in 1999. The problem? Vermeil's practices, which still last nearly three hours, were much more vigorous and lengthy, than most in the NFL.
The brouhaha elicited opinions that Vermeil had lost his touch - that he no longer understood the nurturing necessary to motivate modern players. But at least one person knew that Vermeil's methods remained viable in the contemporary game.
"I had to smile because I knew exactly what he was doing," says Carl Peterson, who, as president of the Kansas City Chiefs, is now Vermeil's boss. "He had done the same thing in Philadelphia and at UCLA. He was weeding out players."
While both Vermeil and Parcells exhibit ample toughness and are both more attuned to the Beatles than Beyoncé, their demeanors are dissimilar.
Parcells, whose teams have appeared in three Super Bowls and won two of them, thrives on merciless needling and caustic motivation, once referring to an oft-injured player as "she" rather than "he," for example.
At previous stops, Parcells adapted his philosophies to different styles and players, from a slug-it-out ground game and brutal defense (New York Giants) to pass-happy attack (New England Patriots) to combination run and short-pass approach (New York Jets).
While Mr. Peterson attests to Vermeil's toughness and demanding practice sessions, the coach is as celebrated for his unabashed sensitivity. It is hard to imagine Parcells, for example, shedding a tear on the sidelines, as Vermeil does. The Chiefs' coach, who built his résumé at UCLA in the mid-1970s and during a seven-year stint with the Philadelphia Eagles, thrives on hugs and off-season dinner parties where he entertains his players while donning an apron and cooking barbecue at home.
"It's not just one speech or one inspirational moment," says Bill Walsh, who won three Super Bowls coaching the San Francisco 49ers after reviving the franchise during the 1980s. "It's a process in which you methodically condition men's minds to believe in what they're doing, and in each other."
Mr. Walsh and others around the game say turnaround experts typically need two to three years to realize the full benefits of an overhaul.
Even for those coaches skilled enough to pull off renaissance projects, they must have several pieces in place before they can succeed.
Perhaps the most important factor is control. Players won't believe in a new program if they're not convinced the coach's decisions are ironclad - and not subject to second-guessing from ownership or management. Parcells won assurance from Jerry Jones, the often meddlesome Cowboys owner, that his would be the final word and, thus far, the marriage seems solid.
In Kansas City, Peterson, who teamed with Vermeil at UCLA and in Philadelphia, says the relationship is close and smooth. Peterson enjoys carte blanche from Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt and, in turn, has told Vermeil he can coach "as long as I'm here." In San Francisco, owner Eddie DeBartolo had bestowed similar privileges on Walsh.
Credibility, consistent approach, talent evaluation, and adaptability are also prerequisites for a turnaround. The last factor may be underappreciated, Theismann says. Having a football philosophy is essential, but not if it can't be shaped in the image of the roster.
"Don't try to fit a square peg into a round hole," he says. "Too many coaches have a plan, but then the players don't fit it. Classic example: Steve Spurrier. In Washington, he has basically said, 'This is my plan; I want to see if it works.' It doesn't."
Mr. Spurrier, a peerless winner at the University of Florida during the 1990s, has flunked his early tests as the Redskins' coach the past two seasons. His lack of pro football experience may have hurt his credibility with players, as well, a perception unlikely to be reversed without significant NFL triumphs.
By contrast, Theismann and others weren't surprised when longtime NFL assistant coaches John Fox and Marvin Lewis proved quick studies in the top job. Mr. Fox, now in his second year with the Carolina Panthers, and Mr. Lewis, in his debut campaign leading the Cincinnati Bengals (long derided as the "Bungles"), have turned league punching bags into playoff contenders.
"The guys who win and turn it around do several things," says Randy Cross, who played for Walsh in San Francisco before becoming a CBS analyst. "They have specific ideas and they make you accountable and responsible. It sounds simple, but, believe me, it's the exception, not the rule."