John Wooden’s advice fed Dick Vermeil’s Hall-of-Fame career

Dick Vermeil, who will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday, sees himself as a coach’s connoisseur.

He has worked with so many greats in his 46 years in football, including 29 who have either been, are, or would become an NFL head coach. Three of them ended up in Canton – Sid Gillman, George Allen and Bill Walsh.

But one of the most influential coaches in shaping Vermeil was just an observer of football – a fan, not someone who dedicated his life to the game.

It was John Wooden who was just ending his legendary career as UCLA basketball coach when Vermeil was the Bruins’ head soccer coach in 1974 and 1975.

“I tried to spend as much time with him as possible without disturbing him,” said Vermeil, 85, who was also an assistant coach at UCLA in 1970.

UCLA coach Dick Vermeil is carried off the field after the Bruins defeated Ohio State 23-10 in the Rose Bowl on January 1, 1976.

UCLA coach Dick Vermeil is carried off the field after the Bruins defeated Ohio State 23-10 in the Rose Bowl on January 1, 1976. His success at Westwood led to another success story in the NFL.

(Associated Press)

Wooden taught Vermeil some lasting life lessons.

“The glaring thing that happened, and that reinforced my thinking for the rest of my career, is that one day I came over to see him and I was sitting in a chair in his office and he said, ‘You’re looking down.’ ‘ recalls Vermeil. “I said, ‘Well, I just lost some good players to USC.’

“He said to me, ‘Listen, Coach. USC will always have better players. Do not worry about it. You just make sure you make every player in your roster the best they can, and everything else will take care of itself. ”

From anyone else, that could have been a platitude when Vermeil left. But coming from Wooden, whose teams won 10 national championships over a 12-year period, made those words gold for a young and impressive football coach.

“From that point on, every job I’ve had, that’s been a staple that came to mind,” Vermeil said. “I trained from it.”

The two forged a friendship that lasted throughout Vermeil’s career, which included stints with the Los Angeles and St. Louis Rams — including a Lombardi Trophy — the Philadelphia Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs and until his retirement.

“After I finished coaching, I remember going to breakfast with him and then walking back to his apartment,” Vermeil said. “We talked as friends, philosophy. I still have my notes from my meetings with him and I may even have notes from the meetings we had with our coaches.”

It’s a hallmark of Vermeil’s coaching career; he was a sponge, always striving to learn, grow and improve. He had a 15-year coaching hiatus, from his retirement as coach of the Eagles at the end of the 1982 season to his appointment as head coach of the St. Louis Rams in 1997 — somewhat of a reunion, since he was an LA Rams assistant coach in the early 1970s.

In those 15 years he hasn’t really been away from football. He has worked as a sports commentator for CBS and ABC and has always kept up to date with sports.

“One of the things that really helped me was that I was on the field with a really good football coach every weekend,” he said. “When I got into a team, I got an open door. I would attend meetings of coordinators and head coaches.”

A former head coach, Vermeil was a member of the club. He got access where others in the TV world just couldn’t get access.

The NFL Football Hall of Fame Class of 2022 is seen during the NFL Honors Show.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame class of 2022 at the NFL Honors Show.

(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

“I would be with Bill Parcells in his freshman year,” he said. “Then I go to the field and spend a whole day with Don Shula, going to practice, to team meetings. Lousy facility. You speak of a general? I would describe him as Eisenhower or MacArthur or Patton. Probably a combination of the three.”

He said he played so many games in Washington during his television career that he felt like he was on the staff of Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs. Then there were the college coaches.

“Tommy Prothro was a brilliant man,” Vermeil said of the UCLA coach who named him offensive coordinator in 1970. “He has created a great environment for coaches to train in. I worked with Chuck Knox and that’s what he told me and it stayed with me for the rest of my career.

“One day I came off the field and complained about what my running backs couldn’t do. And Chuck said, “Listen, Vermeil. If they could already do all the things you’re complaining about, I wouldn’t need them she to coach them.’ ”

When asked if there was a coach he would have liked to work with, Vermeil said he would have liked to have been an assistant on Tom Coughlin’s staff.

“I saw him coach Boston College,” Vermeil said. “He’s leaving college football and taking on an expanding franchise in the NFL [Jacksonville] and takes them to the conference championship game immediately.”

Hall-of-Famer quarterback Kurt Warner, who helped St. Louis to that Super Bowl victory in the 1999 season, said he was amazed at how Vermeil gave up coaching for 15 years and then with a whole new generation of players seamlessly returned to the job.

“He knew what he was doing in Philly, and then he knew what adjustments he needed to make when he came back a decade and a half later, and he changed the style in which he trained,” Warner said. “His ability to handle the New Age player and have the success that he has had speaks volumes for Dick Vermeil.”

As for Vermeil, he would love to be able to speak volumes from the lectern on Saturday. But like the other recruits, it’s limited to eight minutes. That’s a tall order for someone whose thank you list is as long as the credits of Star Wars. In addition, he is famous for his emotions and the tears that come to his eyes so easily.

“In my presentation, I thank my family at the end because I might not make it,” he said. “I think I’ll be able to get through the first part.”

Maybe he needs to pause for a moment. But Vermeil of all people – he with the 15 year break – knows how to come back and finish strong.

As Wooden might advise him, he’ll be quick, but not in a hurry. John Wooden’s advice fed Dick Vermeil’s Hall-of-Fame career

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