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Savoring the moment

Dick Vermeil has been in this position. This time, he's enjoying it.

By GARY SHELTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 18, 2000


ST. LOUIS -- From here, he can see the end.

There are a lot of yesterdays behind Dick Vermeil, not too many tomorrows. He is 63, and the wrinkles of his face look like pass patterns carved into the skin. The hair has been grayed by the defeats. Soon, he will leave his profession again.

In the meantime, he has right now.

For the old coach with the leaky eyes, this is the important time. Not the past, when this job darned near killed him. Not the future, when he will hand his St. Louis Rams team off to assistant Mike Martz, like a baton in a relay race. Now.

Vermeil leans back against a wall, a photograph of former Rams coach Ray Malavasi over his shoulder, and talks about football, and no matter whom you want to win Sunday's NFC Championship Game between the Bucs and the Rams, it is hard not to feel good for a man who caught up to the game everyone said had passed him by.

It is mid-January, a time most of us thought his career would be dead, and his team still is alive. By now, Vermeil figured to be in his office, packing up his mementos before they took his name off the door. Instead, he is thanking people for another coach of the year award, and naming his successor when he steps down after two more seasons. Oh, yeah, and he's talking about the possibility of another Super Bowl.

How do you figure this? How do you figure the old taskmaster turning into a favorite uncle of a coach? How do you figure a man whose teams won nine games -- total -- the previous two seasons fashioning a darned fine team from a stack of unlikely players such as Kurt Warner and London Fletcher? How do you figure a coach in the sequel of his career, following a timeout that lasted for 14 years, enjoying the winter of his content?

This was his last chance, you know. Even Vermeil knows that. He coached the Rams to five wins two seasons ago, four last year. One more season like that and Vermeil would have been on his way back to the broadcast booth, and the only thing he would have had to say about his successor was to make sure it was anyone else but him.

"I felt like that," he said. "This is a business. The business is to win games, to sell skyboxes, to sell tickets. It's a major corporation. When things aren't going well, you know something is going to happen. A franchise loses momentum, you stop selling tickets, and pretty soon you can't compete for free agents because you don't have money. That's the nature of this game, and every coach in the NFL knows it. If it bothered me, I wouldn't have come back. Really."

Oh, there were times he wished he hadn't. Vermeil will admit that. The talent level in St. Louis wasn't what he thought it would be, and pretty soon people were suggesting the game had zoomed past Vermeil in the passing lane. He worked his players too hard. He was too rigid. He struggled to get plays into the game in time. And, of course, he drafted Lawrence Phillips.

Which is when Vermeil did the most amazing thing of his coaching career.

He changed.

Mind you, Vermeil will insist he didn't alter things that much. But he did loosen the reins. He delegated authority. He adjusted. He mellowed. And he made a lot more victory speeches.

This doesn't happen a lot to older coaches who have had success, who have clenched their jaw the way Vermeil used to. In Philadelphia, where he slept three nights a week in his office for seven years, they called him the Little Dictator, and he seemed intent on driving his team -- and himself -- to the brink and beyond. Eventually, it became too much for him, and Vermeil left the game, talking about burnout.

Vermeil got out because he had to. He got back in for the same reason. But, yes, he had the same doubts about himself that you had.

"I had to prove something to myself," he said. "I had to prove I could handle it, that I would keep things in the proper perspective. That I could deal with the highs and lows of a team. That I could still provide leadership and motivation.

"In the old days, I didn't keep things in the right perspective. I couldn't handle losing, and it was tough to handle winning."

These days, he handles it better. He still works from 7:30 a.m. to midnight some days, but there isn't a cot in his office. He seems to enjoy things better now, his confidants say. And he's an easier guy to play for. Marshall Faulk was talking to Ron Jaworski, Vermeil's old quarterback, Monday about "victory Mondays," where the players run a little but have most of the day off following wins.

"He'd have had us in pads," Jaworski said, laughing. "Maybe two-a-days."

In the final days of Vermeil, he laughs a little, too. He says he understands the criticism he has received because, heck, he was in the media himself. "I'm not mad at anyone," he said. "I just told them all along not to write anything they couldn't take back, because we were going to get there. You'd have to be blind not to see the talent we had."

These days, everyone sees. Oh, there are times it looks odd, seeing this old-school coach and his new-wave team. In a way, it's like watching Pat Boone during his heavy metal phase, when he was welcoming you to his jungle.

Vermeil shrugs. "What kind of car did you drive in 1980?" he asks. "I'll bet it didn't do the things your car does now."

He remembers. Without being prompted Monday, Vermeil brought up the loss his Eagles had to the Bucs in the '79 playoffs. "I owe them one," he said. "There are still scars. You know what I remember about that week? We practiced all week in the freezing weather, then we came down here, and we were exhausted by the pregame warmups. We hadn't perspired in three months. It took us to the second half to recover, and we had a chance to win the game, but we didn't get it done."

Vermeil shook his head. "I don't think a coach ever forgets losing a playoff game. There are still scars."

Two more years, and Vermeil leaves again. He made that official Monday when the Rams agreed with Martz that he would take over as Vermeil's replacement. Vermeil says he wants to coach no longer than the two years left on his contract.

In the meantime, he has the sweetness of the moment and the satisfaction of the accomplishment. And the good old days come every Sunday.

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