By Mary Buckheit
Page 2

Dick Vermeil led UCLA to a Rose Bowl and its first Pac-8 Championship ever. He led the Eagles to an NFC title and the Rams to a Super Bowl victory. He has been named coach of the year on the high school, juco, NCAA and NFL levels. His comprehensive coaching achievements include some of the most significant awards on the mantel, but he's best known for wearing his heart on his sleeve.

Vermeil is a courageous risk taker -- 30 years ago in his NFL head coaching debut he held a citywide open tryout for a spot on Philadelphia's roster. He discovered and signed Vince Papale, the inspiration for this summer's blockbuster "Invincible."

Bold move.

Still, he's perceived as a tearful sap.

Vermeil is a native of Napa Valley with a penchant for fine wine, but he's as humble as the working-class city he represented for six years. He has a porterhouse steak named after him in South Philly, but he's about as tough as an expensive filet.

Handkerchief in hand, Page 2's Mary Buckheit sat down with Vermeil to discuss the Eagles, "Invincible," "Rocky" and raw emotion. She caught him before he'd seen the movie, so there was no weeping in tubs of popcorn to speak of. Here's what he had to say.

How would you rate Greg Kinnear's performance? Was it strange to be portrayed by a well-known actor?

Actually, I haven't seen the movie yet, but I have seen Greg in movies before and I'm anxious to see what it's like. My son worked on "Invincible" for four or five days so he was around the set to see Greg in action. He told me Greg did an outstanding job.

Passed the father-son test?

Yes, he did, in fact my son called me and his exact words were, "Dad, he nailed you." He said it will be scary for me to see someone else being me and doing it so well! That's a funny thought, huh? And I think my son was especially interested in what it would be like to see someone else playing his dad; he was very impressed. My son's known me for 49 years, so you can't fool him, he's been looking at me for a long time. (laughs)

So about the Vince Papale fairy tale, do you think an athletic guy who never played college football could ever make the NFL today?

I think maybe the hardest part of the whole thing would be getting an opportunity to play professional football at 30 years old. That's almost the most remarkable thing about the story -- Vince was 30.

And remarkably, you were willing to take on a 30-year-old. What did you see in him?

Well, it wasn't some great decision, he showed us talent. What you're looking for is a real sleeper, or a guy who can come in and make a contribution -- even if it's only at training camp -- with talent and an attitude that can get the players around him hungry and ready to play. Vince displayed great passion and the desire for an opportunity that he then made the very best of. As for his skill set, once he was given a chance to show it, he was athletic enough to be a wide receiver, but where he really excelled was as a fine punt-return and kickoff defender.

And that's right up your alley, you were the NFL's first special teams coach, right?

That's right, I was. So yes, I really appreciated Vince's talents, and I've always had a compassion for the free-agent-type kid. I've always tried to make sure that if we recognize somebody as having any kind of real talent at all, that we then must provide him with a real solid opportunity.

I'm all for equal opportunity, but as a rookie NFL coach, wasn't an open tryout a pretty bold move?

The idea did surprise some people, but I think overall the search was appreciated. People appreciated the attempt to find the best players. Sometimes the person with the loudest voice or the biggest pin can create an air of negativity, but overall, I think the reaction to an open tryout was positive ... overall.

How common were open tryouts then?

There were actually a number of teams that used to hold free-agent tryout camps. [Hall of Fame head coach] George Allen was actually the one that stimulated the idea in me when I worked for him [in the Los Angeles Rams organization]. In those days, it didn't take a lot of money, it was just time-consuming. Sometimes it was a lot of fun, and once in a while, you found a guy. There are a bunch of coaches who believe those guys are out there.

And in a year when Eagles draft picks weren't exactly blue-chippers, you have to get a little resourceful, right?

Yeah, we didn't have a first-, second- or third-round pick that year.

You had your work cut out for you when you came to Philly, huh, Coach?

Yea-ahh, for three years in a row, no first-, second- or third-round picks. Those weren't easy years. It was tough for everybody. You need numbers to run a good training camp. Gotta have numbers.

So you hold an open tryout and who do you find but a hard working, blue-collar Italian bartender who can run a 4.5 40? Could you have picked a more lovable guy for the people of Philadelphia to embrace?

Nope, he was the one. It was pretty incredible having him on the team. I loved it. "Rocky" had just been filmed in the city, and the people really identified Vince Papale with Rocky -- he was Sylvester Stallone -- Rocky was on our football team, a big Italian kid who could catch the ball and change direction real well. And he was 30 but he played like an excitable 16-year-old. We put him through all kinds of drills. Dick Corey, my wide receiver coach, and Ken Iman, my special teams coach, both liked him. We talked about it and thought, heck, we oughta sign the guy, so we sent him up to Jimmy Murray, our general manager, and Jimmy signed him right there. Before he left that day, he was signed to an Eagles contract. He was quite an athlete.

Who was the best athlete you ever coached?

I'd have to say Marshall Faulk.

Was there a solid football player that wasn't necessarily a naturally athletic guy?

Oh yeah, there were a bunch of those types. (pause) Gosh, I can't think of a guy off the top of my head, but there are certainly positions on the field that don't necessarily demand athleticism. I've had guys who weren't that coordinated, but, boy, could they play football. They were either big enough or tough enough to do the job. That's pretty common.

Who was the greatest football player you've ever had?

Well, first of all, when you talk about great football players, I think it's a description that is thrown around a little bit too much these days. We tend to put too many guys in that category. It diminishes the quality of the real great ones when you put too many in there. Wilbert Montgomery was a great football player. Priest Holmes is a great football player. Marshall Faulk is a great athlete and a great football player. Orlando Pace is a great athlete and football player. Harold Carmichael is great. Go all the way back to David "Deacon" Jones and Merlin Olsen -- these are really great players. Willie Roaf was a great football player, and Will Shields. Kurt Warner is a great football player -- what he did is just beyond expectations.

Which is a better comparison for Vince Papale, Rocky or Kurt Warner?

I tell you, Kurt's story is almost as extraordinary. Most teams wouldn't even give him a chance, wouldn't even give him a workout -- wouldn't even work him out! It's sad. I've always had great luck with free-agent kids, and I have a compassion for those types.

You're a compassionate guy.

Well, I can relate to young folks working their way up when given the opportunity. I have reason to believe in them because of successes like Vince and Kurt, and Herman Edwards, who was an undrafted free agent and look at him now. And I had another guy, a 30-year-old Marine that went to Bemidji State who we gave a shot and he ended up playing for us and doing well. There are other guys out there now, guys like Kurt and Vince, who will never get the chance. It's sad. I really feel for them.

You're known as being a very sentimental guy; much has been made of that trait, it almost defines you, what do you think about that?

We'll I've always been that way. I've always been on the emotional side; I have a hard time holding back my feelings. What I do to control it is not go that way in terms of what I'm talking about because I know that as soon as I start talking about something I'm very passionate about, it draws emotion out of me and I've embarrassed myself many times. I try to discipline myself by staying away from what I know gets me.

You say you've embarrassed yourself, but would you really want there to be an emotional disconnect between you and your work?

I've embarrassed myself many times, but hey, that's me, that's how I am, I've learned to live with it and if they don't like it, the hell with them. Grown men aren't supposed to cry! (laughs heartily) Aaaa-ny-way.

How we doing, are you all set?

One more question. What's Steak Vermeil?

Ha-ha. It's a porterhouse steak cooked medium rare with tons of garlic. There was an owner at this little restaurant in South Philly, his name was Cous, it was called Cous' Little Italy. I used to go there and eat all the time -- I'm half Italian, you know, so I was always in there -- great food, and Cous was a big Eagles fan and he named a steak after me. They still have it [at successor Villa di Roma].

You're a wine connoisseur; what are you drinking with that?

Nothing fancy. I've got a label called Jean Louis Vermeil Cabernet made by On The Edge Winery, a little, tiny family vineyard back home in Napa Valley. Steak and cab. Can't beat it.

Mary Buckheit is a regular contributor to and can be reached at