February 8, 2010

1976: Dick Vermeil Hired as Head Coach by Philadelphia Eagles

Since winning the NFL Championship in 1960 under Head Coach Buck Shaw, who promptly retired, the Philadelphia Eagles had gone through a long period of successive coaching failures. Through the 1975 season the Eagles had five coaches, who combined for a won-lost record of 74-127-9 with just two winning years along the way. The last of those, Mike McCormack, went 16-25-1 from 1973 to ’75 and was let go.

Owner Leonard Tose had hired three of those coaches since taking over the team in 1969, and interviewed several candidates for the latest vacancy, including those with pro head coaching experience such as Hank Stram and Allie Sherman, as well as Norm Van Brocklin, the quarterback of the 1960 championship team who had gone on to coach the Vikings and Falcons. On February 8, 1976 he signed 39-year-old Dick Vermeil, who had drawn national attention after coaching UCLA to an upset of top-ranked Ohio State in the Rose Bowl.

Vermeil had been an assistant coach at the pro level, having served as the first designated special teams coach in NFL history under George Allen with the Los Angeles Rams. He had led UCLA to an overall record of 15-5-3 over two seasons. Initially reluctant to accept the job, he was taking on the task of trying to turn around an organization that had been mired in losing and had mortgaged its future, primarily in deals for QB Roman Gabriel before the 1973 season and LB Bill Bergey in ’74. They did not have a draft choice until the fourth round in ’76 and the fifth round in ’77, and would not choose again in either the first or second round until 1979.

Vermeil was signed to a five-year contract and took the first season to evaluate the talent on hand. Gabriel was still with the team, but clearly on the downside of his career at age 36 and primarily utilized as a backup to the mediocre Mike Boryla. There was quality at tight end, where Charle Young was considered one of the league’s best (and was prone to being outspoken about that fact) and wide receiver, with 6’8” Harold Carmichael providing a big, if sometimes inconsistent, target.

Rookie FB Mike Hogan played well prior to an injury that ended his season after eight games, while veteran HB Tom Sullivan suffered through an injury-plagued campaign. The offensive line needed work, but had some promising players in tackles Jerry Sisemore and Stan Walters.

With a lack of quality defensive linemen and a better group of linebackers led by the All-Pro Bergey, Vermeil chose to use a 3-4 alignment. Strong safety Randy Logan was a rising star in the defensive backfield.

The biggest change Vermeil brought to the club from the beginning was intensity and a solid work ethic. He personified it by working long hours and often spending the night on a cot in his office at Veterans Stadium. It took time for the results to show, but when they did, the change was dramatic.

“I always had a sense that we were moving in the right direction,” Bergey said later. “Even in the early years when the wins were few and far between, we could see the intensity of the play picking up. Dick’s personality rubbed off on us.”

The wins were most definitely few and far between initially. The club duplicated the 1975 record of 4-10 in ’76, and was 5-9 in 1977. Young, who had become involved in a contract dispute, was traded to the Rams after the first year for QB Ron Jaworski (pictured with Vermeil below); “The Polish Rifle” took over the starting job and improved along with the team. Carmichael showed a greater maturity and became an even better receiver and team leader. At the end of the 1977 season, rookie Wilbert Montgomery emerged as a quality running back. Moreover, six of the nine losses were by six points or less, pointing to the increasing competitiveness of the team.

The hard work was rewarded in 1978, as the Eagles went 9-7 and earned a wild card playoff spot while Montgomery set a new team single-season rushing record with 1220 yards. The record improved to 11-5 and another wild card berth in ’79, and in 1980 Philadelphia won the NFC Championship with a 12-4 tally, although they faltered badly in the Super Bowl. Some fans and commentators blamed Vermeil for allowing the team to become too tight going into the Super Bowl, and the loss seemed to be a negative turning point for both the coach and team.

While the club got off to a 6-0 start in 1981, it faltered in the second half and just made it into the postseason as a wild card entry with a 10-6 tally; they lost to the Giants in the first round. It was the first time that the team had failed to improve on the previous year’s showing since Vermeil had arrived.

The Eagles went 3-6 in the strike-shortened 1982 season, and Vermeil resigned, citing burnout. The emotional Vermeil’s intensity had ultimately proved to be his undoing in Philadelphia. He left with an overall record of 57-51.

Vermeil moved to the broadcast booth and did not return to coaching until he signed on with the Rams fifteen years later in 1997 (after flirting with the idea of coming back to the Eagles in 1995). But from 1976 through ’80, he turned a perennially losing team into a contender and was twice selected as NFC Coach of the Year by the Pro Football Writers of America for his efforts.