Dick Vermeil has lived a life most people can only dream of.
Regarded as one of the greatest coaches in football history, his teams embodied his work ethic and philosophies in a way that translated to the success in the win-loss column and opened doors for him all over the country.
After obtaining a master’s degree from San Jose State, the Calistoga native navigated the high school ranks for a few years before taking his first collegiate job as a backfield coach at College of San Mateo in 1963 and as head coach at Napa Valley College in 1964. From there Vermeil worked as an assistant coach at Stanford, UCLA, and for the Los Angeles Rams before going back to the Bruins for two years as a head coach in the mid-’70s.
His UCLA teams lost five games and won the conference title for the first time in a decade, beating an undefeated Ohio State in the 1975 Rose Bowl.
From there, he began his 15 seasons as a head coach in the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles (1976-82), St. Louis Rams (1997-99) and Kansas City Chiefs (2001-05). He also spent 15 years as a sports announcer for CBS and ABC after leaving his post in Philadelphia.
As much distance as Vermeil, 79, put between himself and his two wineries in Napa and Calistoga, his thoughts of home were never too far off.
“Every time I walk outside I miss it,” said Vermeil, who currently lives in Avondale, Pennsylvania. “I spent a lot of time in those mountains.”
Vermeil remembers his formative years quite well. When he wasn’t playing football, baseball or basketball, he was in his father’s garage, working on cars. He spent over three years restoring his “first great car,” a 1936 Ford.
He used to pick prune trees and spend weekends at the Russian River. It was a much smaller town with a different culture in those days.
“There were only 1,800 people in Calistoga when I grew up here. I think there was equal to or more prune trees than vineyards,” Vermeil said. “It was an agricultural community and there weren’t many strong, independent families. There were like eight to 10 dominant families in Calistoga that were all raised here at the same time — a lot of them still around.
“Everybody knew everybody. (There were) 130 kids in the school and all the teachers knew your parents and all your parents were friends with the other parents. The discipline of all the youth, at that time, was handled by everybody, not just anyone specific. You got out of line at school, the principal called your dad.”
He became a product of that culture, and the saying he picked up from his father, Louie Vermeil, that “hard work is not a form of punishment” became one of his cornerstone philosophies.
“Most of our parents made a living working very hard and it wasn’t a 40-hour week — my dad worked seven days a week at the old garage right behind the house,” he said. “We grew up understanding what hard work was about because we saw examples of it all around us.”
Another man who left a mark was Bill Wood, a teacher and football coach during his senior year at Calistoga High. Vermeil credits him with instilling his passion for the game and helping him develop numerous traits beyond the gridiron.
“He was the guy that inspired me to go on to try to play college football and then maybe if I wanted to, become a football coach. He was the guy that I sort of emulated,” Vermeil said. “He was the guy that got me fired up. I had originally planned to stay at home and work in my dad’s garage.”
The tinge of nostalgia is still there, but Vermeil can see the beauty in the 2016 model of Calistoga. Rather than complain about the differences or recall “the good old days” like many do, he sees the foundation of the past that’s visible in the present.
“I think Calistoga has definitely changed, but if you grew up here when I did and you come home here today 60 years later, it’s still Calistoga,” said Vermeil. “I was driving down the main street the other day looking up at the facade of the buildings and, some of them are different colors, but it’s probably the same stonework, just modernized. The basic foundation of all those buildings was standing there when I was there. It’s still Calistoga.”
Vermeil returns to Calistoga
Monday was a special day for Calistoga High.
In celebration of Super Bowl 50, taking place at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara on Sunday, the NFL launched the Super Bowl High School Honor Roll initiative, which recognizes schools and towns that played a part in Super Bowl history. The NFL will be honoring more than 2,000 high schools around the world with commemorative Wilson Golden Footballs for each player or coach who was on an active Super Bowl roster.
Calistoga was given two — one for Vermeil and his two appearances with the Eagles in 1980 and with the Rams in 1999, the other for his nephew Louie Giammona who was a running back on that same Eagles team. Philadelphia lost Super Bowl XV to the Oakland Raiders, 27-10, but Vermeil won Super Bowl XXXIV with St. Louis, defeating the Tennessee Titans 23-16.
At noon, all of the students assembled in the main gym to hear Vermeil, Class of 1954, deliver a rousing and inspirational speech.
He described the golden football and his Super Bowl ring as a symbol of what hard work and dedication can achieve.
Vermeil spoke for about seven minutes, evoking laughs and applause throughout. Afterward, he spent time with a large chunk of the student body, taking photos and signing autographs.
His central point was powerful, highlighting the importance of academics and how vital it is to success later in life. It was a resounding message that lingered, and one, hopefully, that the students took to heart.
“I would not want to change anything in my life, except one thing: my attitude when I came to school my freshman year,” said Vermeil, standing behind podium at midcourt. “Really, I came to school to get through school. I came to Calistoga High School every day so I could compete in football, basketball and baseball — not to get an education. I did just enough to get by.”
“You can catch up and do well, but you’re always minus those four years you didn’t invest properly. I recognized that many times. I say this, as you come through Calistoga High School, come here every day with a purpose. Come here every day to get a little better. Come here today to make a positive contribution to tomorrow. You know why? Because your future belongs to you; treat it with great respect and hold yourself responsible.”