Just Tuesday, Dick Vermeil was in Nebraska, speaking before 2,000 people at a clinic for high school football coaches. By late Wednesday morning, he was back in his log-cabin-style home in Chester County, digging through a stack of papers in his basement office to find the one that would confirm the point he had just made.
Thirty-five years ago, he began his final season as the Eagles’ head coach. At the end of that 3-6 strike-shortened campaign, he resigned, popularizing the term “burnout” by citing it as the reason he could not coach football anymore. Now he flies to speaking engagements—he’s looking forward to one next March in South Dakota, where he’ll have the chance to do some pheasant hunting—and keeps in close contact with his former players and compiles research about pro and college football so that, when a reporter or radio host calls to get his insight, he can speak with evidence and authority. He will turn 81 in October. He has nothing but energy and time.
He bounded upstairs from the basement, white sheet of paper in hand, the knees of his light-wash jeans dirty brown from whatever outdoor work he had done on his farm. He had been asked about his decision in January 1983, after seven seasons as the Eagles’ coach, to step down. People might forget how young he was throughout his tenure. He was 46 when he resigned—three years younger than Doug Pederson is now. Until the moment he decided to walk away, he had believed he possessed a bottomless cup of energy and time. That ’82 season had taught him otherwise, and he had needed distance from that period of his life and career to recognize how different he was from so many NFL coaches before or since.
That’s what the paper told him. He had crunched the numbers, loaded them into a spreadsheet on his computer, and here was the chart. Here were the results: There have been 485 head coaches in NFL history. Thirty five percent of them, 157 of the 485, were fired after their first seasons. Just 48 percent lasted longer than two seasons. Despite the burnout, Vermeil had been an outlier, an exception to the norm—and that was before he returned to coach the St. Louis Rams for three seasons and the Kansas City Chiefs for five more. The job was damn difficult. He had done it better than most. It was only years later that he could see it.
“If you allow a passion to become an obsession,” he said, “you’re in trouble.”
Funny, how Vermeil’s greatest flaw as a head coach made him perfect for Philadelphia. He cared too much. It only enhances his legend here. He remains beloved, not merely because he guided the Eagles to their first Super Bowl and showed such everlasting affection for and loyalty to his players and wore his emotions on his tears-soaked sleeve, but because he let everyone in. You could see how the game gave him joy and, ultimately, how it ground him up. It has become the standard by which we hold everyone who competes or coaches here. All we ask is that you bleed as much as we do. All we ask from you is everything. What, you think that’s too demanding? Fine. Go play in Atlanta.
But that external pressure, Vermeil said, wasn’t the reason that he began sleeping six nights a week at his office, that he woke up one Friday morning—Thursdays were the only nights he slept in his own bed—drove to Veterans Stadium, and was so exhausted that he couldn’t lift himself out of the car. Just then, he knew he had to walk away. “It was just one of those things: ‘What in the hell’s wrong with me?’” he said. “It was me, my own insecurities. I just felt if I could work harder longer, I could do it better.”
By the time he returned to coaching, with the Rams in 1997, he had learned to work smarter, to throttle back. He wore an NFL Films microphone during Super Bowl XXXIV—the Rams’ thrilling 23-16 victory over the Tennessee Titans—and to listen to him before, throughout, and after that game is to hear an ebullient man, a coach grateful for another opportunity at greatness. You hear a coach with perspective, and the man who has Vermeil’s old job tried to maintain it, too, while the pressure mounts.
“If you start thinking about that, you start to get tight, and your sphincter gets tight, and you can’t play loose,” Pederson said. “I guard more against that, being all uptight, instead just going out and believing what we’re doing offensively and defensively, what I’m doing as a head coach. If that’s enough, that’s great. If it’s not, OK.
“I’m a lot like him from the standpoint that we really connect well with our players. When they don’t succeed, as a coach you feel like you’ve let them down. That’s probably some of the things he felt back then. You keep grinding to find the answers, and sometimes you have to take that step back, with a broader stroke, and say, ‘Let’s just get back to the basics.’”
Vermeil and Pederson do chat from time and time. In a corner of his basement, Vermeil had six copies of a book on leadership—The Way of the SEAL, authored by retired SEAL commander Mark Devine—stacked in a tower. He planned to send one to Pederson, maybe to Andy Reid. He has the time do these things now. The energy, too. It’s a fine change from what he thought he knew about himself 35 years ago.