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A Grill to Win

Chiefs' Vermeil promotes a family atmosphere, including having players over for dinner, and it's a key to his success

September 21, 2003|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

Two decades after practically inventing coaching burnout, Dick Vermeil has moved on to a new stage in his NFL career.

Coaching cookout.

Almost every week throughout the year, Vermeil and his wife, Carol, have a group of Kansas City players come to dinner at their home. Coaches and administrators are invited too. On the menu: steaks, a couple bottles of wine and absolutely no talk about football. Vermeil uses it as a way to really get to know his players. So, once a week, Mr. Type-A becomes Mr. A-1.

"He truly shows people that he really cares," said Chief offensive coordinator Al Saunders, who won a Super Bowl with Vermeil in St. Louis. "Initially, people don't believe that a man can be this genuine. At first blush, you think it's a falsetto thing. But it's not. That's Dick. Once you're in his family, you're in his family forever."

And, at the moment, father knows best. The Chiefs, who are 2-0 for the first time since 1996 and today make their road debut at Houston, appear to be rounding into the team Vermeil envisioned when he took the job two years ago. So far, last season's 32nd-ranked defense has been as tough as an overcooked Porterhouse, earning a No. 1 ranking against the run.

In a world where coaches count three-and-outs, Vermeil has a history of three-and-ins. He took Philadelphia to the Super Bowl in his third season with the Eagles, and won it all in his third season with the Rams. Can he continue the pattern in Kansas City?

"You'd better watch out," said Tennessee defensive end Kevin Carter, who played for Vermeil in St. Louis. "They look very impressive on film."

Few teams in NFL history were as impressive as the 1999 Rams, who won a franchise-record 13 games by an average margin of 22.9 points.

There was out-of-nowhere Kurt Warner, out-of-this-world Marshall Faulk and out-of-the-box thinker Mike Martz, the offensive mastermind who was branded a genius and instantly tapped as the heir apparent to the sitting head coach.

Widespread perceptions about Vermeil? Nice guy. Smart guy. Good motivator. But definitely riding shotgun.

"Some people didn't think he was the driving force," Carter said. "That's ridiculous. How many world championships have the Rams won? One. And he was the coach who won it."

Insiders from that team say the Rams probably wouldn't have gotten their rings without Warner, Faulk or Martz, but that they definitely wouldn't have gotten them without Vermeil, who shocked everyone by announcing his retirement after the game.

"As coaches, you can't have that kind of success without great leadership," Saunders said. "Dick Vermeil provided great leadership."

Why Vermeil chose to walk away so abruptly might forever be a mystery. Was he forced out because the Rams were afraid of losing Martz? Did he burn out as he did back in those Philadelphia years, when he kept a Jon Gruden-type schedule and a couch in his office so he didn't have to go home to sleep? Or, maybe the man who cries as easily as some people clear their throat simply surrendered to his emotions in the post-Super Bowl delirium when his son said, "Dad, it's time to come home."

Vermeil says he stepped down to spend more time with his family. But, in the first year of his latest retirement, he spent more time on the road giving speeches than he spent traveling as a coach. His 11 grandchildren had school to attend. And he missed the special relationships he built with his players.

So when his old friend, Chief President Carl Peterson, called, Vermeil was all ears. Peterson, who worked with Vermeil with the Eagles and at UCLA, had tried to hire Vermeil as Kansas City's coach in the late 1980s. Vermeil, who had a successful television career as a college football analyst, wasn't ready to come back to coaching. When Vermeil was hired as coach of the then-hapless Rams in 1997, a stunned Peterson told him: "Right state, wrong team." Four years later, Peterson got his man.

"He has the ability to make not only players but coaches, everyone, perform better than they even think they're capable of doing," Peterson said.

Like any master griller, Vermeil is patient and knows when to adjust the heat. The best example of that might be the way he stood by defensive coordinator Greg Robinson, whose 2002 unit was an 11-man sieve. The Chiefs blew four fourth-quarter leads and surrendered at least 30 points in seven games. Kansas City set a franchise record for points scored (467) and points allowed (399), and finished a painfully middle-of-the-road 8-8.

Frankly, it didn't calculate. For years, even when all else failed, Kansas City always had a strong defense. And Robinson won two Super Bowl rings as defensive coordinator in Denver, where he inherited a last-place defense that improved to 15th, fourth and third in his first three seasons with the Broncos.

So when angry Kansas City fans took to the airwaves last season calling for Robinson to be fired, Vermeil suddenly became hard of hearing.

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