Monday, October 28, 2013

Dick Vermeil's Changed Perspective Helped Him Author a Second Act to his Coaching Career

In 1976, Dick Vermeil became the head coach of a 4-10 Philadelphia Eagles team that had not posted a winning record since 1966. Just two years later, Vermeil molded the Eagles into a playoff team and two seasons after that they made their first Super Bowl appearance, losing 27-10 to the Oakland Raiders. On the field Vermeil was a smashing success but off the field he became the living embodiment of burnout before resigning after the strike-shortened 1982 season. He spent the next 15 years as a TV commentator analyzing college football games--and analyzing himself, trying to figure out how to balance his tremendous competitive fire with a mindset that could prevent him from breaking down mentally, physically and emotionally.

In 1995, Vermeil declined an opportunity to coach the Eagles again but two years later he returned to the NFL as the coach of the St. Louis Rams. Vermeil hired Phil Towle to be the Rams' part-time team psychotherapist. Towle supplied Vermeil with some aphorisms, including "Burnout is not caused by stress. Burnout is caused by resisting opportunities that stress provides" and "I embrace my fears because they contain my greatness within."

Vermeil's perspective changed a lot during his time away from the sidelines. He spent years in therapy, struggling to manage his anger and perfectionism. "I learned to accept praise as a truth, not to just blow it off," Vermeil explained in the December 29, 1997-January 5, 1998 double issue of Sports Illustrated. "I continued the sessions even when I felt better about those things, because I just liked it. There's such a stigma in this country about seeking help like that, but I can tell you it's one of the best things I've ever done. It has really helped me in this job. Instead of trying to make this place into Vermeil's perfect world, I've learned to accept some things as they are."

In Vermeil's third year in St. Louis, he led the Rams to a 13-3 record, largely due to a tremendous offense nicknamed "The Greatest Show on Turf." Those 1999 Rams won the Super Bowl, filling in the last blank space on Vermeil's pro football coaching resume. He retired after that triumph but only spent one year away from the sidelines before jumping back into the fray as the coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. For the third time in three tries, Vermeil turned a losing program into a winning one as the Chiefs improved from 6-10 in 2001 to 13-3 in 2003. Vermeil transformed the Chiefs into a Super Bowl contender--just like he transformed the Eagles and Rams into elite teams--but he was not able to lead them to the Super Bowl and he retired in 2005 after the Chiefs did not qualify for the playoffs despite posting a 10-6 record.

Did becoming a more balanced person make Vermeil a more effective coach and leader? Maybe not--he was a tremendous coach in Philadelphia even when he worked himself to the brink of an emotional and physical breakdown--but by changing his mindset Vermeil became better able to both enjoy success and to withstand adversity.

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