Ohio State looked unbeatable.
It was New Year’s Day in 1976, and Ohio State was unbeaten, unchallenged and the consensus No. 1 team in college football. They had won 11 games by an average of 34-7.
The Buckeyes were a Rose Bowl win over an 8-2-1 UCLA team away from a perfect 12-0 season. They were 14-point favorites in a matchup of Woody Hayes, who had already won three national titles, and Dick Vermeil, who is in his second year as a college head coach.
You can guess the rest.
UCLA, which had lost to Ohio State by 21 points in October at the L.A. Coliseum, beat the unbeatable Buckeyes 23-10.
Vermeil spoke at length about that game Saturday in his Pro Football Hall of Fame acceptance speech in Canton, Ohio, not only because it was such a monumental win for a 39-year-old coach but because it directly led to him becoming head coach of the Eagles.
“Thank you Bruin players and staff,” Vermeil said during his 20-minute speech. “Thank you for becoming a great football team the second year and upsetting the mighty Ohio State Buckeyes.
“If you don’t do that, the ownership from the Philadelphia Eagles doesn’t get on a plane right after the game – so help me God it’s the truth – fly to Southern California, take up hotel rooms in Beverly Hills and start calling me and spending four days recruiting me to come and coach your football team in Philadelphia.
“If my football team at UCLA and my coaching staff doesn’t do as good a job as they did then, I’m not standing here today.”
Five weeks later, Vermeil was in Philadelphia being formally introduced as head coach of the Eagles. Within two years, he led the Eagles to their first playoff berth since 1960. By 1980, the Eagles were a Super Bowl team and Vermeil was among the most popular figures in Eagles history.
Vermeil became the 28th head coach inducted into the Hall of Fame Saturday afternoon, and although his acceptance speech touched on all parts of his coaching career – from Hillsdale (Calif.) High School to UCLA to the Eagles, Rams and Chiefs – he took plenty of time to recall his seven years with the Eagles and so many of the people who were a part of the team that brought the Eagles back to prominence after a lot of dismal years.
He thanked owner Leonard Tose, who died in 2003, and Jim Murray, the West Philly native who was the Eagles’ general manager during Vermeil’s time here. Murray, one of the founders of Ronald McDonald House, is still alive and lives in Montgomery County but he's in his mid-80s and was unable to travel to Ohio.
Vermeil thanked his three surviving assistant coaches from the 1980 Super Bowl team: Tight ends coach Lynn Styles, who was in the audience Saturday at Canton-McKinley Stadium, offensive line coach Jerry Wampfler, and Carl Peterson.
Peterson later became GM of the Philadelphia Stars as well as the Chiefs and hired Vermeil in K.C. in 2001. He presented Vermeil for enshrinement Saturday.
He also singled out Wilbert Montgomery and John Bunting, who both played for Vermeil with the Eagles and then coached under him, Bunting with the Rams, Montgomery with the Chiefs.
“Wilbert was responsible for so much of the success we had in Philadelphia, and I made a coach out of him,” Vermeil said, then asking Montgomery to stand up, he added: “The players used to call him Wilbert Vermeil. They knew how much I loved you.”
Vermeil shared his memories of his two years working alongside legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, considered the greatest basketball coach ever. Wooden won his 10th NCAA title in 1975 and then retired.
Different sport. But it didn’t matter to Vermeil.
“I took every opportunity I had to spend time with John Wooden,” he said. “Yes, he’s coaching basketball, but when you watch him practice, the intensity and the discipline and the structure was there of a great football practice and a great football coach and it was so exciting and I learned so much from him.
“A philosophy he implanted in me in conversation, I think about it all the time. One time I was complaining about the players we lost in recruiting. He said sit down. I sat down. When John Wooden says sit down, you sit down. He says, ‘Now listen coach, don’t worry about those players you don’t have. Just make sure you do a great job of making those who you have the best that they can possibly be.’ And I’ve operated under that simple philosophy the rest of my coaching career. It is so true. So true. Gosh darn it, thank you John Wooden.”
Vermeil never coached with Andy Reid, but they both lost a Super Bowl with the Eagles, won a Super Bowl with their second team, and also coached the Chiefs. During Reid’s years with the Eagles the two became very close, and Vermeil said how much it meant to him that Reid – who’ll be a 1st-ballot Hall of Famer one day – jetted to Northeastern Ohio Saturday between Chiefs training camp practices at Missouri Western State University.
“He’s a head coach in training camp, he left training camp, flew here to say congratulations to me personally last night,” Vermeil said.
“I have never had in my coaching career a better display of respect from someone else in the profession than what Andy Reid did for me last night. It will always touch me. Thank you Andy. That was unbelievable.”
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