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Better with Age

by Bill Donahue; Photo by Jeff Fusco
More than 30 years after coaching the Eagles into the Super Bowl, Dick Vermeil chalks up a win with his own premium wine label.

Dick Vermeil is a living legend in the Delaware Valley: famous for his emotional displays, 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 an NFL?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 made from exceptional fruit harvested in California’s Napa Valley.

Vermeil comes from a lineage of winemakers and 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 recreationally before partnering with Paul Smith and OnThEdge Winery to produce professionally crafted recipes.

Although Vermeil grew up in California, even after he moved on to coach elsewhere, his heart never left this area: 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 local appearances stumping for his wines, to marketing meetings in his partners’ offices in Egg Harbor Township, and then back to his first home in northern California to help produce the wines that bear his name.

South Jersey Magazine caught up with Vermeil at his home to learn more about his lifelong passion for the grape, and his emotions on and off the field.

SOUTH JERSEY MAGAZINE: When you first came here from the West Coast in 1976, it seemed some people were unsure as to whether you and the city would be a good fit. What were your initial impressions?
DICK VERMEIL: First off, there was a weather shock, and it was so different for my three kids … 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. ... Now I don’t go anywhere without someone mentioning something about that time.

SJM: What about the Delaware Valley 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. ... 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 any more 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.

SJM: 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.

SJM: 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. 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.

SJM: 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 a 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.

SJM: Many people here also re­mem­ber you through Greg Kinnear’s portrayal of you in Invincible, about Cherry Hill resident Vince Papale winning a spot on the Eagles roster as a walk-on. How did Kinnear do?
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.

SJM: 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.

SJM: The Eagles have 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.

SJM: 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 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.

SJM: You’re not just a name on a bottle; you’re very involved in promoting your wines.
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 afternoon. 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.

SJM: 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. ... 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, 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.

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 10 (January, 2012).
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