Old School, New Age

They said he was too much of an Old School coach. They said his long, intensely physical practices, his ceaseless meetings and sermonizing, would never make it in the modern NFL. Then they hit him from the other side. They said he was too New Age, too open and honest, too emotional (hell, downright weepy) to get through to today's cynical, moneyed NFL players. And they--this consensus of media, fans and even his own players--said that the game had passed Dick Vermeil by; in his 60s and away from coaching for 15 years, Vermeil simply couldn't cut it anymore. The proof was on the field: in Vermeil's first two seasons coaching the St. Louis Rams, the team's record was 9-23 with a pair of last-place finishes.

Of course, that was before this season. Now they're saying that Vermeil is coach of the year. Suddenly the Rams, awful throughout the 1990s, are the Super Bowl favorite and are leading the NFC with a 13-3 record. "I didn't give a damn what anyone said or wrote," said Vermeil, as the Rams prepared for their postseason opener this Sunday, the first-ever home playoff game in 33 years of football in St. Louis. "I knew my job was on the line. But I didn't want to be distracted. I know my approach works and I felt we were going in the right direction. And at 63, it wasn't like I was worried about my future. That freed me up to keep doing exactly as I wanted. Now I don't really feel like I have to say, 'I told you so'.''

As remarkable as the team's transformation may be, it is rivaled by the transformation of Vermeil himself. He retired from coaching in the middle of the 1982 season, a self-proclaimed "burnout" less than two years after taking the Philadelphia Eagles to the Super Bowl. Vermeil spent 15 years on the game's periphery as a broadcaster, then returned to coaching confident that he could still do it the same way. "Back then he said it and we did it--his way or the highway," says Wilbert Montgomery, one of three Ram assistant coaches who starred on Vermeil's Philly teams. "So it was a real cultural shock here discovering that the new athlete needs a lot more pampering. But that old dog showed he could learn some new tricks."

The first two seasons were brutal. But after two years of losing football and embarrassing public gripes--"He was killing us out there," says tight end Roland Williams--about his methods from his players, Vermeil took his system and... well, as he says, he "tweaked" it. It was, by any standard, one massive tweak. He recognized that the boot-camp approach, which he had expected to draw his team together like an elite military unit, had become divisive. At training camp, he drastically reduced the amount of practice time in full pads and cut back on meetings so endless they'd bump up against bedtime curfew.

When the season began, Vermeil instituted Victory Monday, a day off to celebrate all wins. He took the rare step of not requiring players to stay in a local hotel the night before a home game. And in the locker room before games, he limited his remarks, sometimes deferring to a player for the final thoughts before the Rams took the field. "This is a coach who believes you can never repeat anything too often," says Montgomery. "For him not to have the very last word, now that's really something different."

Vermeil laughs at the notion that he has truly changed, hinting that it was just part of a clever scheme. "Look, they had been lousy for so long when I got here I felt I had to change the mental and physical toughness and do some weeding out," says Vermeil. "The only way you can make it easier on someone is to make it tough on them in the first place so they can appreciate the difference." His players were more than appreciative. They were awed by what they call the coach's "throwing us a bone." Says defensive back Keith Lyle: "You could see this was really a stubborn guy. He didn't want to buy into the notion that players today were different. We could see how hard it was for him to change. But he did and I really respect him for it. It became our duty to respond by giving him everything we had. We had to show him that he didn't have to break us down to get what he wanted out of us."

Vermeil has always reached out to his players. He takes them out to dinner, invites them to his home. At first, though, the Rams greeted such overtures with some suspicion. "Everything today is dictated by money and power," says assistant head coach Mike White, who has known Vermeil since they were assistant coaches together at Stanford University in the '60s. "Dick is so unique that it takes a while for people to believe he's genuine." But players got used to seeing raw emotions spill from their coach; they saw how he choked back tears of appreciation for their best efforts. "We love the guy," says defensive end Jay Williams. "Some coaches don't care about you if you're not one of the multimillionaire superstars. But coach Vermeil cares about every one of us."

The only person he hasn't always taken care of is himself. When Vermeil coached the Eagles, his motto--posted in the locker room--was "The only way to kill time is to work it to death." And he tried, sleeping on a cot in his office, until the question became whether he would kill time or himself first. "My gas tank was empty," says Vermeil, who quit the Eagles in midseason after four consecutive playoff appearances. "I tried to perfect an imperfect game and you can't do it. I don't try anymore." Vermeil spent years in therapy before he could make that claim and return to the coaching ranks. When he took the Rams job, having turned down several other offers through the years, he first pledged to his wife that he would impose limits on himself. Home by midnight every night. Or at least 12:30 a.m. "My No. 1 priority is still winning football games," he says. "But I'm older and more mature. I delegate. I trust more. I try to keep people off my roster that I don't trust and like."

Still, he can't totally repress his perfectionist bent. After evincing great satisfaction over the season, he nevertheless declares: "We should have been 16-0." And after a motion penalty by a receiver in the final, meaningless game, he had to fight an urge to race onto the field and "kick him right in the a--." He has coped by adopting a world view that expects some catastrophe every day. "If something leaps up and hits me in the face, I no longer say 'Ah, s--t!' I say, 'Sure, I expected something'.''

The biggest catastrophe occurred this preseason when Trent Green, the Rams' new $16.5 million quarterback, injured his knee and was lost for the season. The job fell to Kurt Warner, whose only significant pro experience, at 28, was at the outer margins--with the Iowa Stampeders (Arena Football) and the Amsterdam Admirals (NFL Europe). "When Trent went down, I felt like I was stabbed in the heart," says Vermeil. "But Kurt came and told me he could do the job." Nobody, not even Warner, envisioned an MVP season in which he became only the second quarterback in NFL history to toss more than 40 touchdown passes.

There remain plenty of skeptics who view Vermeil's success with the Rams as something less than football's version of "Miracle on 34th Street." After all, the NFL's commitment to parity favors losing teams with high draft choices and weak schedules. But the Rams have drafted, signed and traded wisely and there remain only six starters from the team Vermeil took over. "The key is getting the ball into the hands of your skilled people," he says, "and nobody has more talent at the skill positions than we do." The coach admits that he had difficulty at first assessing the team's talent. "Everyone was so much bigger and faster than my Super Bowl team in Philadelphia that initially I thought they were all ready to go play in the Super Bowl," he says. "But I never thought we were going there in one or two seasons." Three, though, just may be the charm.