I’ll be honest: when Dick Vermeil first became head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs on January 12, 2001, I didn’t want to like him.
It wasn’t because I had developed a distaste for him during the years he had been head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles and St. Louis Rams. Like I always tell people: I’m a Chiefs fan first and foremost. To me, what happens with other NFL teams — unless it somehow impacts the Chiefs — is just background noise. So I just didn’t know enough about Vermeil to have a legitimate reason to dislike him.
If I was being honest with myself, my issue was more with Kansas City general manager Carl Peterson, who hadn’t even extended previous head coach Gunther Cunningham the courtesy of informing him that Vermeil was going to take over. I thought it was a poor way to treat a man who had served the franchise faithfully and well over the previous six seasons.
Full disclosure: I had become friendly with Cunningham when he was defensive coordinator under head coach Marty Schottenheimer — and also knew that he had worked himself to near-exhaustion as the team’s head coach. We like to talk about how head coach Andy Reid is at Arrowhead Stadium from sunup to sundown. Cunningham often slept on a cot in his office.
But for some reason, Peterson only rarely consulted with me when he was hiring head coaches. Go figure.
So whether I liked it or not, Vermeil would take over. I decided to make the best of it. Having never been in a press conference in which a head coach from outside the Chiefs organization was being introduced, I spent some time thinking about my first question. Apparently, no other reporters had thought of one — so when the Q&A period opened with an awkward silence, the humble radio reporter from the third row of the press box was able to jump right in.
“How do you like to be addressed?” I asked.
Vermeil looked startled for a moment — and then he smiled.
“Coach,” he said simply.
I was already beginning to warm up to him.
On Saturday, Vermeil will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, becoming the third former Chiefs head coach to be enshrined there. Eventually, Andy Reid will almost certainly don a gold jacket, taking his place alongside Vermeil, Hank Stram and Marv Levy.
Like Levy, the 85-year-old Vermeil has largely earned this accolade with what he did for other teams during his 15-year NFL head-coaching career. But while his Kansas City tenure did not include a trip to the Super Bowl (or even a playoff victory), his years as the team’s head coach are still fondly remembered by Chiefs fans.
It didn’t start off very well. Vermeil’s 2001 Chiefs turned in a 6-10 record — one game worse than Cunningham’s 2000 team. Oddly, many of the players who would play key roles in the team’s coming offensive explosion were on the roster that season —including quarterback Trent Green, running back Priest Holmes, tight end Tony Gonzalez, fullback Tony Richardson, kick returner Dante Hall and offensive linemen Will Shields, Brian Waters, Casey Wiegmann and John Tait.
The following season, former New Orleans Saints left tackle Willie Roaf joined the team — shifting Tait to the right side of the line — and former Rams wideout Eddie Kennison came on board. In his third NFL season, Hall became The Human Joystick, making the Pro Bowl after returning two punts and a kickoff for touchdowns. The team became the league’s top offense, scoring 29.2 points per game — but under defensive coordinator Greg Robinson, Kansas City ranked 28th in points allowed. Still, the Chiefs improved, finishing the season at 8-8.
Then, in 2003, Chiefs fans believed that Vermeil might be leading his third NFL team to a Super Bowl. Green made his first Pro Bowl, passing for over 4,000 yards and 24 touchdowns. Holmes had over 2,100 yards from scrimmage (and 27 touchdowns), notching his third consecutive All-Pro season. Gonzalez, Roaf, Shields (and Hall, who scored four return touchdowns) were also named All-Pros as the team averaged 30.3 points a game to once again lead the league. Even the defense showed improvement, ranking 19th in points allowed.
The team locked up a first-round bye with a 13-3 record. And then came the infamous No-Punt Game in the Divisional round against the Indianapolis Colts. By halftime, both teams had scored on every drive — except for the final Kansas City drive of the first half, which placekicker Morton Andersen ended with a missed 31-yard field goal. On the second play of the second half, Holmes pulled off a spectacular 48-yard run to the Colts’ 22-yard line — where David Macklin forced a fumble, ending the only other drive of the game that didn’t result in a score. After a Holmes touchdown narrowed the Colts’ lead to 37-31 with 4:25 remaining, the Kansas City defense could not get Peyton Manning’s offense off the field, ending the season with one of the franchise’s most disappointing playoff losses.
After that, it was all downhill. Over the next two seasons, the team continued to field one of the league’s best offenses. But the defense went backward — even though the team had brought Cunningham back to lead the unit after the devastating 2003 playoff loss. There were again bright spots on defense — Jared Allen was drafted in 2004, and Derrick Johnson was selected in 2005 — but it wasn’t enough to repair the damage Robinson had left behind. The team finished 7-9 in 2004 and 10-6 in 2005.
Vermeil announced his third (and final) retirement from coaching on December 31. The next day, the Chiefs walloped the Cincinnati Bengals 37-3 at Arrowhead.
The only coach in NFL history to be portrayed by both Greg Kinnear and Dennis Quaid in movies about his teams, Vermeil is often described as a very emotional man. That much is true. To our credit, it never resulted in a betting pool — but I do admit there were often jokes in the press box about questions that might get him to cry during that day’s post-game press conference.
But our amusement about that part of Vermeil’s character shouldn’t be misconstrued. While his grandfatherly style (he was 65 when he was named the Chiefs’ head coach) was in sharp contrast to the firey head coaches who had preceded him in Kansas City, he was an effective leader. Like Reid, he was a players’ coach — but also like his good friend, he was one who wanted his players to work hard.
Furthermore, he was (and remains) a friendly and engaging man. He gave straightforward, honest answers to press questions. If you caught him away from the podium, he was always happy to speak off the record to help inform your reporting — or just jaw about football.
In his final press conference as head coach, he tearfully said that he was still a Chief — and would always be a Chief. I remember thinking, “Yeah... right.” But he wasn’t kidding. Only weeks later, he sat among reporters during Herm Edwards’ introductory press conference. (As it happened, he took the seat right next to me. To this day, it remains one of the otherworldly experiences of my career covering the Chiefs. How often does someone get to sit next to the old head coach while the new one is speaking for the first time?)
In the years that followed, Vermeil was often in Arrowhead on game days. He’s continued to be an informal advisor to the team — and in fact, was among those who advised team owner Clark Hunt to hire Reid as the team’s next head coach in 2013.
“He wanted to know my opinions on the coaches available,” Vermeil said, via the Kansas City Star. “My opinion was that there are only three you should think about and they were Andy Reid, Jon Gruden and Bill Cowher. I told him there was no way he could take another chance. But Andy is the one I know the best personally.
“So he contacted Andy Reid and Andy called me. I knew he was going to call. He said, ‘What do you know about Kansas City?’ I said, ‘Go.’ It’s a great place with great people. The Hunt family was outstanding to me. I just felt he would fit in the community and he’s an outstanding football coach. He needed a change, I felt. There were just so many problems he had with the Eagles the last few years, things that backfired, things that went wrong. There was just no way he could breathe without it being evaluated, positively or negatively.”
So while Vermeil was (unfortunately) unable to bring another Lombardi Trophy to Kansas City, he played a role in selecting the man who finally did.
For that — and so much more — we salute Hall of Fame coach Dick Vermeil.