Photos by Jim Graham
On the eve of his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Dick Vermeil reflects on an NFL career and almost 40 years in Chester County.
Is Dick Vermeil going to cry in August when he’s inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame? “Probably,” says the long-retired NFL coach, relaxing in his custom log home on a former swath of King Ranch acreage in Chester County. “I used to embarrass myself, then I gradually learned to accept what I am—an emotional guy. It liberated me. Emotion and sincerity add to your ability to connect.”
Vermeil is one of only seven coaches to lead different franchises to the Super Bowl—the 1980 Philadelphia Eagles and the 1999 St. Louis Rams. For a while there, he’d walk through tunnels in opposing stadiums and hear, “Hey, Vermeil. Why don’t you cry for me?”
“I used to be so conscious of it,” he says. “I felt like giving them the middle finger. But then, I figured the cameras were on me.”
Hall of Famer Tom Landry was the polar opposite.
As stoic as a stone, he once gave Vermeil a finger—pre-game from the 50-yard line during the 1978 season. This was before Vermeil’s Eagles started beating the legendary Dallas Cowboys coach. It was the come-hither index finger. “He told me I was doing a really good job in Philadelphia, but that I had to learn to relax and pace myself,” recalls Vermeil. “I thanked him for the advice. Obviously, I didn’t listen.”
Vermeil, who turns 86 in October, will become only the 11th coach inducted into the Hall of Fame in the past 26 years, and just the 28th coach ever enshrined. A recent process designed to further recognize coaches and contributors helped where his overall coaching record, 126-114, didn’t. But those so-so numbers don’t tell the whole story. In three NFL head coaching jobs, Vermeil won 35% of his games the first two years, 74% of them by the third year and 63% thereafter.
Vermeil’s first NFL head coaching job came in 1976 with the Eagles. In seven years, he led them to four consecutive playoff appearances and Super Bowl XV—the team’s first, though a loss to the Oakland Raiders. Vermeil first retired from coaching following the 1982 season, then spent the next 15 years in sports broadcasting. By 1997, he’d returned as head coach in St. Louis, ultimately leading the Rams to an unlikely Super Bowl XXXIV win. After that, there was a five-year stint with the Kansas City Chiefs from 2001 to 2005. These days, the daily UPS bulk deliveries and trash bags full of flat mailers are testaments to his popularity. They’re filled with items for him to sign, which he does for up to two hours a day. “It’s a responsibility,” he says.
Richard Albert Vermeil is a survivor. So many of those he worked alongside—and plotted against—are gone. Vermeil refers to a ’79 Eagles staff photo in a highly organized memorabilia-filled basement shrine to his family, life and career. Only two others in the image are living. One is former NFL scout and general manager Carl Peterson, who worked with Vermeil throughout his career. He’ll present the new inductee in Canton, Ohio.
Vermeil’s wife, Carol, will present his yellow jacket at the ceremony, though he plans to ask permission for his three starting NFL quarterbacks—Ron Jaworski, Kurt Warner and Trent Green—to assist her. Two weeks before the results were announced this past Super Bowl weekend, Warner led an early-morning delegation of 12, video cameras in tow, through the Brandywine Valley countryside to notify an emotional Vermeil. “I don’t know if I had my shoes on,” says Vermeil. “The driveway sensors went off, so I thought it was the UPS guy. As soon as I saw Kurt with his [yellow] jacket on, I knew.”
“I NEVER WANT TO STOP DOING WHAT I DO OR OFFICIALLY SHUT DOWN.”
Soon enough, the world knew. “He called me,” says Vince Papale, the former Eagle whose life story—and to an extent, Vermeil’s—was made famous in the 2006 film Invincible. “I have a tremendous relationship with Coach. I’d do anything for him—and it goes beyond football.”
And that makes sense, as Vermeil’s life has transcended football. A native of Calistoga, California, and the Napa Valley, he’s honored his great-grandfathers Garibaldi Iaccheri and Jean Louis Vermeil with Vermeil Wines. To celebrate his induction, the winery will produce 60 cases of Vermeil Hall of Fame Cabernet, made from two tons of grapes purchased from top Napa Valley grower Beckstoffer Vineyards.
Vermeil’s love of all things automotive—particularly sprint car and vintage racing—pays tribute to his father, Jean Louis Vermeil II, who’d work in his “Owl Garage” all night. Its sign now hangs on the Chester County barn that houses his dad’s 1926 sprint car, a restored black Miller-Schofield that’s been gifted to the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame & Museum in Knoxville, Iowa. “It shapes your thinking,” he says. “My dad taught me that hard work wasn’t a form of punishment, and he was a nut on integrity.”
Vermeil’s blue-collar work ethic fit Philadelphia. It also explained his grueling twice-a-day training camp sessions and hours spent in meeting rooms. “We always said, ‘The man is crazy,’” says fellow Hall of Famer and former Eagles receiver Harold Carmichael.
“I know I was tough—it was deliberate,” says Vermeil.
Integral to Vermeil’s success was the fact that he coached at every level, beginning with a high school. When Bill Bergey arrived in Philadelphia, the linebacker was already a superstar. But that didn’t stop Vermeil from compelling him to play 15 pounds lighter by his second year. Now living in Chadds Ford, Bergey speaks of the bond formed among members of that 1980 Super Bowl team—one that hasn’t dissipated in 40-plus years. “It has a lot to do with Dick Vermeil,” says Bergey, now 77 with 10 grandchildren. “He wanted everything his way. He was strict. He’d tell us when to drink. We were like, ‘Where the heck did this high school coach come from?’ But it was the only way the guy knew how to do it.”
Vermeil worked the team “to death,” says Bergey. “But we knew he’d work harder than any one of us. He’d stay in the office all night until 3 a.m., get an hour sleep and start again with film.”
The table in the Vermeils’ great room seats 18. Many players, assistant coaches, colleagues, neighbors and friends have gathered there, including prominent Brandywine Valley figures like Ralph Roberts and H. Gerry Lenfest. “I got in [foxhunting matriarch Nancy Penn Smith Hannum’s] Jeep a few times,” Vermeil says. “She drove it better than Mario Andretti.”
In 1984, the Vermeils bought 100 acres at $3,500 an acre. “Never in my lifetime did I think I’d own 100 acres of land,” says Vermeil.
Prominent local banker Roger Hillas paved the way with a loan. “Back then, I needed help,” Vermeil says. “In those days, they didn’t pay football coaches.”
The land’s value has appreciated considerably and now includes two additional parcels totaling 13 acres. Not an “idle-time guy,” Vermeil owns four Stihl chainsaws and a Can-Am off-road vehicle—his “race car of today.” He still runs the old John Deere tractor that was housewarming gift from former Eagles owner Leonard Tose.
He and Carol often eat dinner out and go antiquing locally. “We fell in love with the country,” he says.
The Vermeils first toured available King Ranch land in 1983 with the late Georgianna Hannum Stapleton. A year later, they called the well-connected realtor. At the time, Vermeil was working in NFL broadcast booths, where he was compensated at twice his coaching salary. They sold their home in Bryn Mawr and moved to Chester County, bringing along three teenagers.
The Vermeils now have 11 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. High school sweethearts, they’ve been married 66 years. “You lead a good life if you make good decisions—and this one bound us to the East Coast,” Vermeil says.
Though he’s had a pair of hip replacements, Vermeil attributes his longevity to a life in athletics and a consistent fitness routine since 2006. “I never want to stop doing what I do or officially shut down,” he says.
Vermeil surrounds himself with reminders of longevity—like the photo of childhood babysitter Jeanne Frediani, who ran her family’s Napa Valley vineyard until age 92. There’s also “Don’t Let the Old Man In,” the 2018 hit by country singer Toby Keith. “I must listen to that song three or four times a week,” says Vermeil, who’s fond of the line, “Ask yourself how old you’d be if you didn’t know the day you were born.”
“Right now, I think I’m about 60,” he says. “I don’t like to use the word blessed, but I’ve been fortunate.”