After you've been around St. Louis Rams coach Dick Vermeil for a short time, you learn this: He can flick a switch and become his own shrink. "I say I'm not going to live and die with this team," Vermeil said upon his arrival at the Rams training camp in Illinois in July. "But you know what? I know I will. For years that's what was missing from my life. I wasn't on a team. I needed that."
Vermeil knows his needs now. Sessions with psychotherapists in the 14 years since he walked away from his job as coach of the Philadelphia Eagles taught him much about himself, including the fact that he badly wanted to coach again. Since leaving Philadelphia, Vermeil had turned down offers from four NFL teams—the Bucs, Rams, Falcons and Eagles—but last January, at age 60, he said yes to the Rams, the losingest NFL team of the 1990s.
Vermeil knew that he would win with this mediocre bunch only if he could make young players, with their signing-bonus millions, buy into an old-fashioned coach's work ethic. The last time Vermeil was at the top of his game was during the Eagles' Super Bowl season of 1980. Lawrence Phillips, who would be Vermeil's biggest challenge on the Rams, turned five that year.
Chris Rock, meet Ward Cleaver.
To many NFL people Vermeil's selection as Rams coach—and his subsequent hiring of six assistants aged 55 or older—was a recipe for failure. "I disagree," Vermeil said in July, smiling the smile of a man who had not yet been through a single skirmish. "From what I've seen so far, the player of today wants to be great. He wants to work hard to achieve."
In the NFL everyone's optimistic in July. Over the ensuing six months Vermeil's optimism would be shaken. This is a look inside the coach's second rookie year.
Friday, July 4 Earth City, Mo.
Carol Vermeil left two days ago for the family ranch in southeastern Pennsylvania, her home base while the Rams are in training camp, so it's playtime for her husband. Playtime for him is 14 hours of work on Independence Day at his office in the Rams' complex 12 miles west of St. Louis. No phone calls. No office schmoozing. Just Vermeil and his reading glasses and the playbook he is writing from scratch.
He writes out the schedule for each day of training camp and the regular season in a three-inch-thick loose-leaf binder. Practices are planned down to the minute. For instance, the afternoon workout for July 18 has a slot marked "4:02/4:07—Team cadence-pursuit-tackling." In other words, beginning at precisely 4:02 p.m. the offense will spend five minutes familiarizing itself with the rise and fall of the quarterback's voice on the snap count, while the defense runs through tackling drills.
Once Vermeil finishes writing, his secretary, Suzette Cox, will type the schedules and the coach's 37-page treatise on team goals and philosophy. "I gain confidence by being prepared," Vermeil says. "And I've never felt more prepared for a camp in my life."