Comeback coach: It's never too late

If Cinderella were a football fan, she'd trade a glass slipper for a season like this.

Over in Indianapolis, the Colts have set a league record by winning 10 more games than they did last year, but the best comeback of the season is right here in St. Louis.

With an unknown-turned-superstar quarterback and a record-breaking running back, the Rams have made their own impressive turnaround, with nine more wins than they had a year ago - and one regular-season game left to go. But the real story is taking place on the sidelines.

By turning around a perennial loser for the second time in his career - and battling burnout in-between - Rams head coach Dick Vermeil is finding vindication and showing the sports world that one is never too old to overcome, adapt, and become a winner.

In three years, he has built a Super Bowl favorite, putting the team on a path to win its first title since 1951, when it was still in L.A. If ever someone knew the keys to a comeback, it would have to be the intense, heart-on-your-sleeve guy from Calistoga, Calif.

What's his secret? "I don't think it takes genius," he says in an interview. "Winning isn't complicated. People complicate it."

He's known as a stickler for detail. He works his players hard. And he preaches success - the locker room is plastered with motivational posters. At the players' entrance of the Rams' training facility, he put up a poster of the Vince Lombardi Trophy, given to the Super Bowl champion.

Before Vermeil's arrival in 1997, "we really didn't talk about the playoffs," says Keith Lyle, a standout free safety who joined the team in 1994. Players who mentioned the Super Bowl got razzed. "He's got us believing in it."

Vermeil has basically rebuilt the Rams from scratch. Only eight players remain from the team he inherited. He has beefed up the offensive line, revamped the defense, and drafted shrewdly.

But its the sparkling play of new free agents that has really catapulted the team into the elite ranks.

After the Rams' starting quarterback was injured in the preseason, backup Kurt Warner stepped in. A veteran only of NFL Europe (the National Football League's farm system) and the second-rate indoor Arena Football League, Warner has improbably gone on to lead the league in virtually every passing category. His quarterback rating this season is the third highest in league history.

But Warner might not even be the top player on his team this year. Running back Marshall Faulk has become only the second player to run for 1,000 yards and catch for another 1,000 in the same year. He'll break the record with only 36 rushing or receiving yards in his final game this weekend.

Players with character

How does Vermeil find these guys?

"I look for a guy who has a passion to excel and it's not motivated by his contract," Vermeil says. "It's something in his background, his mom or his dad, that helped him develop."

In many ways, Vermeil is describing himself. A passionate achiever and a believer in hard work, he credits his father for instilling those values in him. Louis Vermeil never finished high school. He ran an auto-repair garage next to the family home in northern California. "It was called the Owl Garage because he worked all night," Vermeil recalls.

During supper "he'd fall asleep at the table sometimes then go back to work," says Laura Giammona, Dick's older sister.

Louis Vermeil expected the same dedication from his three sons. Even if they didn't get back from an away game till the wee hours of the morning, Louis had them on the job by 9 a.m.

Dick took that work ethic and his own intensity to the playing field, where he starred as quarterback of Calistoga High (and in three other sports). He played quarterback in junior college and at San Jose State, earning a master's degree in physical education before taking his first high school coaching job. From there, it was a steady rise through the ranks, including coaching the University of California at Los Angeles to a Rose Bowl win over heavily favored Ohio State in 1975.

By the time he took over as head coach of the hapless Philadelphia Eagles the following year, Vermeil had forged his trademark of hard work and passion.

The rookie NFL coach was unusual. He got choked up at times. He demanded dedication from his team and required even little things, like chin straps snapped during practice. He put in long hours himself, working sometimes until 3 a.m. and sleeping on a cot in his office.

In his third season, the Eagles went to the playoffs; in his fifth season, they went to the Super Bowl.

But the Eagles lost that game, badly, and Vermeil blamed himself. He began to work more intensely. When the team was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs the following season and then fell flat on its face in the strike-shortened season of 1982, the comeback coach was exhausted. In a press conference where he broke down, crying at times, saying he was "emotionally burned out" and called it quits.

He became a TV football announcer and, though several coaching offers came, he stayed with broadcasting for 14 years. It wasn't until 1997, with the coaching slot open in St. Louis, that he was ready to take the plunge again.

"I missed being a leader," he says. "I missed making decisions. I missed being in control of a final product."

Players and fans were skeptical. Would he break under pressure? Vermeil told them he'd changed.

"I still have a passion for the game," he says. But "I've mellowed a lot.... I think I have better emotional stamina."

He has imposed a personal quitting time of around midnight, and his coaching staff (which includes four former NFL coaches) has taken up the modern ways of football, preparing three times the number of offensive plays that Vermeil used in Philadelphia.

It wasn't easy. In the beginning, he imposed grueling practices and long team meetings, players griped. The team went 5-11 the first season and 4-12 the second. So Vermeil changed some more. Despite his affinity for rebuilding from within, the Rams went hunting for big playmakers from other teams. It snagged free agents Faulk from Indianapolis and guard Adam Timmerman from Green Bay. He shortened practices and made sure team meetings didn't drag on.

It worked. "He works us a lot smarter this year," says London Fletcher, a second-year linebacker in a vastly improved defense. "He's a very caring guy. We tease him about his tendency to get emotional."

Fortunate occurrences

The team has also gotten some breaks. The Rams acquired Faulk from Indianapolis for a song (second- and fifth-round draft picks). Key players have stayed injury-free. And the Rams have enjoyed an easy schedule, meeting only three teams that have winning records.

Of those three games, St. Louis lost two. But many commentators are convinced that the Rams can beat the league's elite, and Vermeil has no doubts.

"I know there's enough talent on this football team to be successful," he says.

And getting back to the big game is why he returned to coaching. Says his sister: "In the back of his mind he wants to go back and win the Super Bowl."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.