- The Washington Times - Friday, January 28, 2000

ATLANTA When St. Louis Rams coach Dick Vermeil was last in the Super Bowl, cable television was in its infancy and the Internet was a computer nerd's dream. And Vermeil's coaching counterpart in Sunday's Super Bowl XXXIV, Tennessee's Jeff Fisher, was a senior at Southern Cal.

A lot has changed in 19 years, including Vermeil at 63. Legendary even among workaholic football coaches for his brutal schedule in the 1970s and 1980s, Vermeil is more easygoing the second time around.

"Dick's still intense, but he's a lot more normal than he was in Philadelphia," said Rams co-defensive coordinator John Bunting, a linebacker during Vermeil's seven seasons with the Eagles. "He's not in the office until 3 a.m. But that family's blood is different. I'm best friends with Dick's nephew [former Eagles running back Louie Giammona], and their blood just boils."

That passion for football never left Vermeil, although it caused him to leave the sideline for the broadcast booth in 1982.

"I allowed the game to consume me because I loved it so much," said Vermeil, who had turned the long-moribund Eagles into a consistent contender. "I had such a passion for it that it blinded me to my health and to my wife, my kids and everything that was going on around me. I was a mess. The thrill of the win lasted about five minutes and when we lost, I couldn't get over it. I needed a break. I wasn't proud of the kind of coach I was when I left."

Vermeil said he was contacted almost every offseason by an NFL team about coaching again, but other than a flirtation with Atlanta in 1986 and a discussion with the Eagles in 1995, he never got serious, although "I wanted to come back and try to do it right."

The Rams, who had 20 winning seasons from 1966 to 1989 but had been losers since, called in 1997. Vermeil had known owner Georgia Frontiere when he was an assistant coach with the team in 1972 and she was the wife of then-owner Carroll Rosenbloom. And Vermeil hit it off with team president John Shaw. Suddenly, a 60-year-old who hadn't coached since many of his players were in Pop Warner leagues was running the Rams.

"[His hiring] pretty much came out of nowhere as far as I was concerned," Rams cornerback Todd Lyght said. "But I knew he had been successful at Philadelphia, and at that point anything was going to be an upgrade."

The upgrade took a while as Vermeil adjusted to a changed sport in which loyalty is passe and players don't automatically accept the coach's commands and demands.

At first, Vermeil practiced his players until their legs were worn out. He publicly criticized star receiver Isaac Bruce. Several fed-up Rams didn't even attend the final team meeting of 1998. With a 9-23 record over two seasons, Vermeil's job was in jeopardy.

But Vermeil loosened up this season. St. Louis sometimes practiced without pads. Unlike most teams, the Rams slept in their own beds the nights before home games. And while the Eagles had a nightly curfew before Super Bowl XV and some two-a-day practices, the Rams haven't had a curfew this week and Vermeil prodded the NFL into letting both teams practice indoors today because of the cold front gripping Atlanta.

"They say an old dog can't change his habits, but Coach Vermeil did," said free safety Keith Lyle, one of just nine Rams left from the roster that Vermeil inherited. "I have the utmost respect for him for doing that. He changed because he wanted to win."

Said Vermeil: "I remember being wound up in a lot of knots when we landed in New Orleans to play [Oakland, which defeated the Eagles 27-10 in January 1981]. I was a lot more intense and much more narrow [back then].

"I'm a different person. I'm older. Hopefully, I'm more aware of things. I know I'm a lot more understanding. I've invested a lot more time thinking about the leadership role rather than the quarterback's first step on his pivot and the first read when [the defense] goes double zone."

The emotional Vermeil, who cries as often as anyone in sports, has denied rumors that he's going to step aside a year earlier than planned for offensive coordinator Mike Martz if the Rams beat the Titans, but Lyle thinks he should.

"I would retire," Lyle said. "He almost got fired last year, and now he's coach of the year. [Quarterback] Kurt Warner, who sat on the bench all year, comes in and throws 40 touchdowns and is the MVP of the league. Are you kidding me? We sweep the 49ers [who had won 17 straight from their NFC West rivals]. We have six- and seven-game winning streaks. We're undefeated at home. The crowds are going nuts. We're in the Super Bowl. The story would be a bestseller. If we win, even a repeat next year wouldn't top this season."

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