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Commentary: Why Vermeil was staggered by Hall of Fame call
Commentary

Commentary: Why Vermeil was staggered by Hall of Fame call

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Dick Vermeil

Then-St. Louis Rams head coach Dick Vermeil talks to his players before a preseason game against the San Diego Chargers in St. Louis on Aug. 28, 1999.

En route to his wineries in Napa and Calistoga, Dick Vermeil on Aug. 24 flew from Philadelphia to San Francisco. Shortly after arriving at San Francisco International Airport, he was on his way to pick up his luggage when the phone rang.

On the other end of a call Vermeil had never allowed himself to anticipate was David Baker, president and CEO of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"'Coach, this is Dave Baker calling from Canton, and I'm not calling to buy a case of wine,'" Vermeil recalled him saying. "'I'm calling to let you know that (the nine-member Coach Committee) selected you to go into the Hall of Fame, and they'll pass it on to the rest of the committee later on this year.'"

The ever-emotional Vermeil quickly teared up, he said by phone that night, and was literally staggered.

As he thought "I can't believe it" and told his wife, Carol, he was so overwhelmed he had to lean up against a wall.

"My attitude has always been, ‘If I don't deserve to get in, I don’t get in; if I do, I’ll get in,’” said Vermeil, who finished his career coaching the Chiefs after reviving faltering franchises in Philadelphia and St. Louis and guiding them both to Super Bowls. "But I really didn't expect it. I really didn’t. And I'm glad I didn't. It made it more exciting that I didn't expect it, you know?"

While Vermeil and Cliff Branch, nominated Aug. 24 as the senior finalist, are on the very verge of being named to the Hall of Fame Class of 2022, each faces another step before it’s formalized. Per the Hall of Fame process outlined in a news release Aug. 24:

“Branch and Vermeil must receive 80% voting support by the entire 49-member Selection Committee when it meets early next year (on a date to be determined) in advance of Super Bowl LVI. The Selection Committee will consider 18 finalists: the Senior (Branch), the Coach (Vermeil), a Contributor (to be named Tuesday, Aug. 31) and 15 Modern-Era Finalists (to be determined from a preliminary list announced in September, trimmed to 25 Semifinalists in November and to 15 Finalists in January).

"Current bylaws call for a class no smaller than four nor larger than eight. Branch and Vermeil will be voted on for election independent of the other Finalists."

For all that, though, forgive Vermeil if he said, "Hey, it looks like I'm going in!"

Vermeil emerged as the coaching candidate after a list of eligible coaches whose careers ended at least five years ago was reduced to seven names for discussion.

The worthiness of others was part of what made this so humbling for Vermeil, who will turn 85 in October.

While Carol told him he deserved this all along, Vermeil said he never felt that way "because I can think of so many guys that I consider great coaches that should be in there that aren't in there."

Instantly, he rattled off the names of Don Coryell, Mike Holmgren, Dan Reeves and Marty Schottenheimer among others he admires.

But this is Vermeil's time.

And how richly deserving he is for so many reasons, none more so than the context of his work with the Eagles and Rams and, to a lesser but still notable extent with the Chiefs.

We've written about this more extensively in a recent column advocating for Vermeil's place in the Hall, so we'll go with the condensed version here: Suffice to say that the Eagles had been sputtering for years and the Rams had the worst overall record in the NFL over the previous seven seasons before his arrival.

By his fifth season in Philadelphia, the Eagles were playing in their first Super Bowl. In his third season with the Rams, his "Greatest Show on Turf" had won Super Bowl XXXIV 23-16 over the Tennessee Titans.

(In his third season with the Chiefs, he coaxed them to their second playoff appearance in eight seasons and an AFC-best 13-3 record only for them to fall 38-31 in the no-punt playoff game against Indianapolis.)

Each scenario had its own distinct challenges, from innate organizational dilemmas to fan apathy or cynicism to deep cultural changes he had to instill. Also revelatory was the fact that each Super Bowl journey was fashioned in different eras of the game, which is what you face after you leave coaching for 14 years citing burnout.

So a man known as much for his fierce will as his tendency to cry also distinguished himself with his willingness to adapt and adjust.

That all makes for a lot to love about this, but there is something more, too: His sheer humanity, to which about anyone who's ever been around him can, and usually will, testify.

Because of his relentless warmth and loyalty to former players, Vermeil is a remarkable ambassador for the game ... and a man beloved from coast to coast and everywhere in between.

Heck, Eagles fans even still love him, a phenomenon in itself.

Another case in point among hundreds, if not thousands:

When he was in Kansas City, Vermeil became a father figure to Dante Hall, who had lost his own father when he was 16. Only a few months ago, Hall said in a recent interview with The Star, Vermeil and his wife drove from Philadelphia up to Summit, New Jersey, to have lunch with Hall and his family.

"How awesome is that?" Hall said. "That man still treats me like I'm his son."

Those aspects aren't part of the criteria for the Hall of Fame, of course.

But they are part of what will make Vermeil a great Hall of Famer, too, once the call he never expected but deserved many times over is ratified in the months to come.

Is this prop bet a trap for George Kittle and George Kurtz?

Vahe Gregorian can be reached at vgregorian@kcstar.com

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