Better with Age
'Coach' Dick Vermeil chalks up a win with his own premium wine label
by Bill Donahue


Dick Vermeil is a living legend in the Philadelphia area: famous for his emotions, respected for his will to win, loved for his deep-rooted passion.


It’s this passion that has forever endeared him to fans of the Philadelphia Eagles, which he coached to the doorstep of a National Football League championship in 1980, though the team ultimately lost to the Oakland Raiders. It’s this passion that made locals cheer when he won the big game as head coach of the St. Louis Rams in 1999. And it’s this same passion he’s now pouring into Vermeil Wines, a family of premier reds and whites cultivated from exceptional fruit harvested in California’s Napa Valley.


In many ways his foray into the wine business is a return to his roots, having been born and raised among generations of winemakers in California until moving east to coach the Eagles in the late 1970s. After retiring from coaching—the first time—in the early 1980s, he went on to work in two other high-profile positions: CBS Sports commentator for NFL and college football games; and spokesman for Blue Cross and Blue Shield. He would eventually return to coaching after a 14-year hiatus—first with the Rams, and later with the Kansas City Chiefs, making his most recent exit from the game after the 2005 season.


Even after he moved on to coach elsewhere, his heart never left Philly; to this day, he lives in a tranquil expanse of rural Chester County, overlooking a ridge one could easily confuse with Napa’s rolling hills. He travels often—for charity events and speaking engagements, to personal appearances stumping for his wines, to marketing meetings in his partners’ offices in Egg Harbor Township, N.J., and back to his first home in northern California to help produce the wines that bear his name.


It’s no wonder Vermeil found his way into the wine business, as he comes from a lineage of oenophiles. (His grandfather, Al Vermeil, made all the family wines with grapes from the very same vineyards that now produce Vermeil Wines.) He credits his father, Jean Louis Vermeil II, with instilling in him an appreciation for wine, one that only intensified during his time stalking the NFL sidelines. He bottled his own wines recreationally before partnering with Paul Smith and OnTheEdge Winery to produce professionally crafted wines made from grapes cultivated on the grounds of Frediani Vineyards in Calistoga, Calif.


Although the wine business takes up a good deal of his time and energy, his ties to the sport that earned him his celebrity remain strong. In fact, two NFL quarterbacks—Trent Green, who earned a Super Bowl ring with Vermeil as a member of the Rams, and Todd Collins, who spent much of his career playing for the Vermeil-coached Chiefs—have since joined the Vermeil Wines ownership team.


Suburban Life caught up with “Coach” at his home, which is not far from Coatesville, to learn more about his lifelong passion for the grape, his emotions on and off the field, and his views on the lockout currently threatening the Eagles’ 2011 season.


Suburban Life Magazine: When you first came here in 1976, it seems like some people were unsure as to whether you and the city would be a good fit, but it worked out pretty well on both sides—the 1980 Super Bowl, Coach of the Year honors, the fact that you still live in the area, etc. What were your initial impressions when you first came here from the West Coast?

Dick Vermeil: First off there was a weather shock, and it was so different for my kids—one in high school, one a freshman in college—and it was a tough transition for them. It was easy for me; all you do is work, and when you’re in a situation like that you’re not totally aware of what the outside environment and community are like.


Everybody told me about how passionate the fans were in regard to the Philadelphia Eagles. A number of friends told me not to take the job. I didn’t apply for it, and initially I didn’t take it. I had a good job at the time, and I thought we had a shot at winning the national championship with UCLA. Other people thought it wouldn’t be a good thing for me to go to Philadelphia, but I went anyway, and fortunately I was able to surround myself with fine coaches; we had Marion Campbell and Fred Bruney—those kinds of coaches. We built an organization and built a team. Now I don’t go anywhere without someone mentioning something about that time, like Wilbert Montgomery’s touchdown run in the 1980 NFC Championship Game [against the Cowboys].


Fans remain loyal for years, and they want to remember those good years. They hang on to those memories, and people will always come up to me and tell me something like, “I was only eight years old, watching this game or that game with my dad …”


SLM: What about the greater Philadelphia area has kept you here?

DV: I didn’t want to leave the community right away because I felt after a one-year break I would go back into coaching. I didn’t want to move back to California and then have to move somewhere else, so I decided to stay here. Then Blue Cross offered me an opportunity to get involved in their marketing, as did Cadillac. Then came the opportunity with CBS Sports, working 18 weekends a year and making three times as much money, because coaches weren’t paid all that well before. Then in 2004 I had an opportunity to buy property out in Chester County. Now I’m in the wine business, and from time to time I’ll be in California. I’ve thought maybe one day I’d move back to California, but it’s hard to leave an area where you feel like it’s your home.


The main thing that grows on you here is the people. I don’t think there’s any way I could be treated with anymore respect. I can’t tell you about how many times I’ve been humbled by a loyal Eagles fan, still remembering my seven years here.


SLM: You nearly rejoined the team in the early 1990s, but it didn’t quite work out. Any regrets?

DV: We came very close, but it didn’t work, probably for the good of both parties. When I talked to Jeffrey [Lurie], I had been out of it for 12 years and didn’t know if I had the confidence. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to do a job in a community in which I had done the job before. But it worked out well for the both of us, and it taught me that I wanted to coach again. Lucky for me, the Rams called.


SLM: A lot Eagles fans were thrilled to see you win the championship with the Rams in St. Louis. I imagine that had to be one of your proudest moments—closure, to a degree.

DV: No question, winning the Super Bowl was a great moment. St. Louis is much like Philly, but it didn’t carry the same passion from the fans; the team of the early era had moved away, so we had to sell [the fans] on the idea that this was their team. If we hadn’t won my third year there, they would have been in trouble financially. It was a new team in a new city, and they had lost more games in the 1990s than any team in football going into 1997. When we started winning, the city came around.


SLM: You took almost 15 years off from coaching. What was the hardest part about coming back?

DV: The tempo of life totally changes. When we took over the Rams I worked seven days a week in the offseason. Fortunately we didn’t sell the place here [in the Philadelphia area], because I knew I’d come back, but the tempo of life was just so dramatically different. The focus and concentration it takes to run a team is incredible. I was president of football operations as well, and having been out of it for 14 years, I needed good people surrounding me, which I had, from Bud Carson on down. We had at least nine really solid, solid players, and a number of them ended up in the Pro Bowl.


I also learned that the game had changed; it was a more wide-open game, far more sophisticated in volume—what you did every weekend. The media coverage had quadrupled, the media responsibilities, the press conferences.


SLM: Did you enjoy the press conferences?

DV: They didn’t bother me. Through my work with CBS Sports I developed a level of respect for what these people did for living. John Wooden [the legendary UCLA basketball coach] once told me, “Don’t read the paper, don’t watch TV when your name’s involved,” and I never did. I never was on the defense. … You’ve got to be what you are. I had embarrassed myself emotionally a number of times, but I’ve learned to live with it. I used to consider it a weakness, but now I just accept it as me being who I am.


SLM: How did St. Louis and Kansas City rank compared with the East Coast or California?

DV: Kansas City is more like Philadelphia in terms of the passion of the fans, but less intense. I used to do a radio talk show in every city I coached, and you would get some very negative comments from callers. We’d have to screen the calls, and there would be times where you may not get as many of those calls in a season [in Kansas City] than I did in one night in Philadelphia. They’re not as intense in St. Louis either, but they’re just as loyal.


SLM: You’ll live on forever in a lot of people’s minds here, as well as on the big screen, through Greg Kinnear in “Invincible,” about Vince Papale winning a spot on the Eagles roster as a walk-on. How did Kinnear do in his role as Dick Vermeil?

DV: I only saw the movie once, and I thought he did a good job. My wife [Carol] said he did a good job. He came to training camp, and he was a nice person to visit with. There’s a lot of stuff on me at NFL Films, and I think he did a lot of character study over there.


SLM: Still close with anyone from your Eagles’ teams?

DV: Oh yeah, I keep up with them. Look at the roster from those Eagles teams, players and coaches, and we had some greats: Ron Jaworski, Wilbert Montgomery, Frank LeMaster, Randy Logan, Harold Carmichael, John Spagnola, Vince Papale, John Bunting, who coached my defense. I still see the guys I was close to; they’re part of my family.


SLM: Other than the Phillies, Philadelphia has had a long championship drought. What needs to happen to turn the tide?

DV: I’m a firm believer that it will happen. I can’t define when but [the Eagles] are close. I believe in Andy Reid. I’ve been around all of them, and I’ve watched Andy coach, and I just believe they will get it done. One injury could ruin your opportunity. … The Eagles went to the Super Bowl [in 2005] and lost, and it takes the same commitment to get there and lose as it does to get there and win. They all do the same thing to get there. The team that loses didn’t do anything less, and it took me a long time to realize that.


SLM: What’s your take on the current situation with the lockout? What needs to happen to fix it?

DV: From what I understand by talking with friends, most of the things are resolved; it’s just the financial side. I just hope management doesn’t surrender the individuality of the coaches and how they coach their teams. … I was glad they didn’t come up with an 18-game season, because it’s a season of attrition and you have to respect what these guys go through every week. If you eliminate opportunities for coaches to coach and teachers to teach, it ruins the game. The players need those preseason games, they need those practices. Even the veterans and older players need it, because the older players have to work harder to maintain their skills. You can’t do that by cutting practices shorter, and you can’t do that by taking the coaches’ individuality out of the game.


SLM: You grew up in Napa Valley, in a family of winemakers. At what point did you realize you wanted to pursue wine as a business venture?

DV: I grew up in Calistoga. My grandfather Vermeil got grapes from the Frediani Vineyard. … I always had an interest in wine and started making wine in 1999 as a hobby; I bottled 150 to 200 cases per year under the Jean Louis Vermeil label, and the winery that made it sold it as their cabernet. After I got out of coaching, some friends and I got together and said, “Let’s turn this into a business.” That was three years ago, and now we’re doing 5,000 cases a year.


SLM: You’re not just a name on a bottle; you’re very involved in terms of events, and interacting with fellow fans and wine lovers.

DV: I also go out [to Napa Valley] during the crush and work; I drive the tractor in the morning, and work in the winery in the afternoons. Carol works in the winery in the afternoon, too. You don’t need to know a whole lot, but you do have to be willing to work.


SLM: What’s your preferred varietal?

DV: I’m a red-wine drinker; I like a good cabernet, and it will always be our lead bottle. We do a proprietary red wine we call XXXIV (34), after Super Bowl XXXIV. We made 2,000 cases in 2008, and we’re almost sold out of it.


SLM: A lot of wine lovers I know say they’d love to run a winery of their own someday. If any of us ever get to that point, what lessons can we expect to learn?

DV: The toughest part is not making it; it’s selling it. Just because my name’s on the bottle doesn’t mean people will buy it. It’s got to be good wine. It’s tough out there in terms of the wine world, because there are so many good ones. If I lived in Kansas City or St. Louis, it would probably be an easier sell, but in the state of Pennsylvania, even though my name is well known here, business is governed by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. Our bottles are in the premium stores, but sometimes they can be hard to find elsewhere. All things considered, things are going well. Business from the first to the second year was up over 200 percent, and it’s up over last year. If we didn’t have a recognizable name on the bottle and the credibility behind it, it would be really tough.


I’ve made friends with a lot of people here and ended up developing unbelievable relationships in the business community as well. I spend thousands of hours in charity organizations and have met a lot of people, and I’ve shared a glass of wine with thousands of them.


SLM: What’s next for you?

DV: I enjoy doing corporate speaking, and I’ve been doing that; it gives me a team to coach for a couple of hours, and the events are always held in nice locations. I can take my wife and add two or three days to the trip so we can enjoy the location—I’ve been all over. I’d say I end up doing 10 speaking engagements a year that I get paid for. I’m also involved in restoring old race cars. The first one is in the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame and Museum in Iowa (editor’s note: Vermeil’s late father, Jean Louis, was a 1995 museum inductee), and now I’m working on my second. I worked as a journeyman mechanic in a garage when I was a high school coach, and this gives me a chance to get my hands greasy again.


Jeff Fusco is a freelance photographer based in the Philadelphia area.