Eight minutes. That's the time limit for Dick Vermeil's acceptance speech on Saturday when he will be the final inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Eight minutes. How do you encapsulate an entire lifetime of coaching and broadcasting and serving as an ambassador for the game and for the NFL in 480 seconds?
"I've given enough thought to speak for five hours," Vermeil is saying to me as we walk along the front porch of his spacious, entirely comfortable, and welcoming estate in Coatesville, Pa. "It's a little nerve-wracking."
Vermeil does have a game plan because, well, he's a coach. The coach who rescued the Eagles from obscurity in the 1970s after then-Owner Leonard Tose hired Vermeil fresh off a Rose Bowl win as UCLA's head coach. Vermeil's job was to instill some dignity in a franchise that hadn't made the playoffs since, gulp, winning the NFL Championship in 1960, to bring dignity to a program that had fallen to the depths of the NFL. Vermeil's time with the Eagles began in 1976 and, the truth is, there wasn't a better match made anywhere.
All of these years later – long beyond Vermeil's seven seasons as the head coach here that featured four straight playoff seasons and one trip to Super Bowl XV, and then his 15 years of retirement to become a force in the broadcast booth and then three seasons and a Super Bowl Championship with St. Louis before a second retirement and then another return to the NFL as a head coach, this time with Kansas City for five seasons before calling it quits, for good this time, following the 2005 campaign – he has been ours to have and to hold. Vermeil lived in Bryn Mawr, Pa. when he coached the Eagles and then bought up more than 114 acres in the countryside to live with his wife, Carol, and enjoy every day to the fullest.
"My message is 'Thank you.' I'm very grateful to all the people that made it happen," Vermeil said. "They're going to put my bust on a standard (in the Pro Football Hall of Fame) and there are so many people that built my standard – players, coaches, ownership. Leonard Tose here. Jimmy Murray (former Eagles general manager) here. All of my great players, many of whom still live in this area and who I see all the time. It will be the same with the Rams. Same with the Chiefs.
"I'm the end product. I'm fortunate."
Vermeil is going into the Hall of Fame, as it were, as an Eagle. Oh, his bust will list his time with St. Louis and with Kansas City and those years are Vermeil's to treasure. But he is an Eagle forever, having started his NFL head coaching career here, enjoying his longest stint in Philadelphia, raising his family here, and growing deep roots that continue to strengthen the daily foundation of his life. Vermeil came in as a young whippersnapper of a head coach who believed in discipline and commitment and doing things his way.
If you were a veteran and you bristled at his hours-long practices, you wouldn't be around very long. "I used to say, 'Who is this Harry High School coach?'" Eagles Hall of Fame linebacker Bill Bergey said. "Well, it didn't take us long to find out that he was all business."
"If you didn't buy in, and I mean buy in all the way, he wasn't going to have you around," former Eagles wide receiver and Pro Football Hall of Famer Harold Carmichael said. "That's just the way it was. He had a very clear vision of what he wanted the program to be."
Vermeil built it brick by brick without the benefit of draft picks – most of them had been traded in 1974 when the Eagles acquired Bergey from the Cincinnati Bengals – and any real enthusiasm from the city or the organization. That first year in Philadelphia was a loser, the Eagles went 4-10. Vermeil then traded for quarterback Ron Jaworski the following season and after a 5-9 campaign in 1977, the Eagles turned it around.
They reached the playoffs four straight seasons, starting with a 9-7 team in 1978 and in the middle of that run had one of the best teams in the entire league. Vermeil's way worked. It wasn't easy, and there were a lot of tears and some bruised feelings along the way, but Vermeil won over his locker room and a skeptical football city embraced him like no other coach before Vermeil.
"We were a family. We still are," Jaworski said. "That was a big part of why he had success. We cared about each other and we played for each other. There isn't another man out there like Dick Vermeil. He means everything to me and to a lot of people."
If Vermeil had a few more minutes in Canton, he would thank the coaches who are no longer with us – seven of his assistant coaches have passed away – and he would like to thank the families of those coaches who gave their time for the successes the football team enjoyed.
There is no man more gracious with his time and with his appreciation for the things football gave to him – a lifetime of love from so many.
"Philadelphia is a little unique and the people here have been talking about the Philadelphia Eagles their entire lives. Their parents did. Their grandparents did," he says. "There is a deep foundation of loyalty and respect and admiration for the team and if you're successful within that environment, with that team, you automatically receive some of their accolades. Staying in the area after I finished coaching helped build my relationship with the people here. I've gotten to be part of the community so well.
"I matured as a football coach here. I grew a lot here. I came here and I thought I knew everything. When I left, I knew I didn't know as much as I thought I did. The basis of my philosophy has never changed, but I did learn a lot here. We lost the first couple of years and it tested me. It tested those around me. It tested the depth of loyalty. But we stuck together and we gradually solved the problems. I learned how to attack the problem and not the people and that was a great lesson for all of us.
"Collectively, we learned to work hard and work smarter and grow as a family. To this day, we are still a family."
The patriarch of the family gets his due on Saturday on the hallowed grounds in Canton. It is a much-deserved honor and Vermeil has worked hard these last several months to accommodate the more than 400 members of his family – players, coaches, staff, relatives, everybody – who will celebrate with him.
"There will be tears," said the man known for his stream of teams while he coached. "These are happy tears, tears of joy. It's the highest honor for me. I don't know what heaven is like, but I think I'm living in it right now."