Originally published Jan. 20, 1981
CALISTOGA, Calif. — He was starting at the bottom, with a team that had been trampled the year before. So he started at the bottom, painting their shoes white and issuing stark white shoelaces to every player.
"One of the first things you've got to do," Bill Woods says, "is decide...are you a team or a bunch of individuals. The shoelaces were a minor thing, but I wanted everyone on the squad exactly alike.
"We stressed it. The kids kind of took to it. If you win, kids will take to anything."
Woods made the practices longer and harder. Switched from the single-wing to the belly-series T. Had a jut-jawed quarterback named Dick Vermeil to make it work.
It worked. Calistoga High went from 1-7 the year before to 7-1 and Bill Woods had put his mark on Dick Vermeil forever.
"I remember the very first game, against Lakeport," Louie Vermeil says. "They ran out onto the field to warm up, all wearing white shoes with white shoelaces.
"I said, 'Well, win, lose or draw, we've got ourselves a football coach.' The funny thing is, at practice, he had told the boys, 'I don't want anyone who played football 50 years ago to tell my boys how to play...I'm the coach.'
"So, Dick and Stan came home and told me and said, 'No more, Dad.' But after that, every Friday morning, Bill Woods would show up at the house, have coffee, and talk football."
They can do it again this weekend in New Orleans. Sit around, drink coffee, talk football. In addition to all his Napa Valley relations, Dick Vermeil is bringing Bill Woods to the Super Bowl as his guest, repaying the man who lit the coaching fire that has been raging inside him ever since.
"Usually," Woods says, "it's pretty easy to turn something around. If you've got a few things working for you. For one thing, nobody expects too much.
"I thought we had a remarkable group of kids. Pretty solid. Good-sized tackle, good guards. And, we had Dick, which made a big difference offensively. Plus, we had a couple of kids who could run fast.
"Dick was very aggressive, very intense. He hasn't changed at all. He was exactly what you wanted at quarterback.
"I had played at Pacific with Eddie LeBaron and those guys. We were pretty well into that inside belly series and outside belly series. Throwing off the run. Dick was agile, strong. He ran the quarter for me in track. And he did a good job.
"He had a fairly strong arm. We didn't have that much intention of doing a lot of passing. Why should we? You move it on the ground, you don't mess around."
Move it on the ground, you don't mess around. Sound familiar? So does Vermeil's insistence that everyone dress alike on the field. And where do you think Vermeil got his practice schedules?
"They didn't seem so long to me," Woods says wryly. "We just practiced 'til we got it done. It just didn't matter what it said on the clock.
"I'm not a strong believer in praise. If you do something right, hey, you're supposed to do it right. If you do something wrong, I'll let you know about it.
"Oh, some things we did just for fun. At the end of practice we'd do some forward rolls, some fancy sidesteps, instead of just straight wind sprints.
"And sometimes I'd pick something some of them just couldn't do, tricky stuff, and everybody would get a laugh out of guys trying.
"Dick was a great competitor. You could see right off he didn't want anybody to get the best of him. I had no time for kids who didn't care. Let 'em go home. And if you wound up with only 12 who stuck, you'd still be better off.
"When Dick took the Eagles job, as far as a coach, that's the best situation. No way to go but up. I knew from a football situation, it was the worst possible place. But he's done a marvelous job.
"What I think about football players is that they're the same, deep down. Sure, some of 'em got some crust on 'em. You get rid of those.
"Most players want it to be the way it's supposed to be. They're not in it just for the dollar. They want it to be the way it was in high school.
"They want success. If they don't want success, you don't want 'em around. And I think Dick's players really believe in him."
Woods taught four subjects, coached football and track, and got paid $3,400. When he got through running off the players who didn't care enough, he was left with a 17-man squad.
Warren Butler, who would go on to be mayor of Calistoga, was one of the 17. The year before, he'd been the quarterback on a single-wing team that went 1-7.
"The coaching was lousy," Butler says. "I'd call the plays. I'd say 'Dick, you feel like carrying the ball?' He'd say 'Yeah.' I'd say 'OK, take it around left end.'
"That game we won, I don't know how we won it. Upper Lake. Their punter kicked the ball straight up in the air and it landed in their backfield. My brother-in-law picked it up and scored a touchdown.
"Later, we're on the one-yard line. I call my play three times and didn't make it. Fourth down I give the ball to Dick. He fumbles, the fullback falls on it, and we win, 13-6.
"We used to play at Cloverdale, on a field that was only 90 yards long. You'd get to the end zone and they'd take it back 10 yards. If a guy broke loose on a long run it was up to the ref to decide if he'd have scored, going 10 more yards.
"When Bill Woods came in, Dick became the quarterback, and I was the halfback. The only game we lost was to St. Helena." In a downpour.
"That loss still sticks in Dick's craw. Raining so hard, they considered postponing it. Then decided to play.
"Jack Kahl was our fastest runner, but he was really light. They had me at 140, but I only weighed 130. Dick was about 10 pounds heavier. We're trying to run in two inches of water. No way."
Vermeil played two years at Napa JC, then moved on to San Jose State as a walk-on. After two days of spring practice, he had his scholarship. After two weeks, he was the starting quarterback.
Bob Bronzan was the San Jose coach. Taught a class called "Coaching Methods." Remembers Vermeil the student, as well as the quarterback.
"I was pretty rough on that class," Bronzan says. "Some rebelled, some took to it. Dick fell into the second category."
In a memorable game, Pacific, quarterbacked by Tom Flores, whipped San Jose, quarterbacked by Dick Vermeil.
"Pacific had this big end who was about 6-4, 230," Bronzan says. "Kid named Farell Funston. Flores completed six or seven in a row to this guy, driving us crazy and wrecking our defensive game plan."
When Vermeil graduated, he asked Bronzan to write a letter of recommendation for his job placement file. Bronzan recently recalled the contents for an Oakland writer.
"It was the shortest letter I've ever written," Bronzan said. "I merely said, 'I wish my son would be like Dick Vermeil.' I thought that said everything."
Vermeil's first job was at Hillsdale High in San Mateo. He hit that field with the crackling brilliance of a lightning bolt. Bob Christopherson remembers it vividly.
"He was 24," Christopherson says. "I was a junior, about 17. There was an intensity about him. I kept a scrapbook, and I have a picture of him, right out there with us, no pads, showing us blocking techniques.
"We were picked to finish sixth or seventh in the eight-team Peninsula League. We came in second, and beat the team that finished first, Capachino.
"And that summer he worked on a football book. It ended up more than an inch thick and weighed over a pound. It had everything, from blocking drills, to how to line up in a huddle.
"We ran a multiple defense. I think he copied it from Alabama. We played seven league games my senior year and we only gave up a total of 20 points.
"The thing I remember best is the use of prayer. As a mental focusing device. I was the unofficial chaplain and I'd say the prayer before the game.
"Not to win. But to fulfill our potential, to avert injury on either side. Non-denominational. And it became a heavy emotional tool. There was always a tremendous amount of tears.
"I guess my ultimate memory is when we played Burlingame, just before the championship game, my senior year. Coach Vermeil had gone out and scouted them four or five times. We knew all the little keys and the defensive co-captains got index cards with the keys written on them.
"I remember, before the game, his wife, Carol, was standing near two glass doors. Dick began talking. He told us he had never played on a championship team. And here, next-to-last game, we had that opportunity.
"He got all emotional, started crying. You could see Carol crying. I just fell apart. I could barely get the words out for the prayer. And then he said, 'OK, let's go, let's do what we have to do.'
"We broke the doors down going out to the field. And we won, 46-7. And after the game, more tears.
"Then we played Capachino for the title. Two minutes to go, we're leading, 13-7, and they have the ball on our five. All they have to do is punch it in, and we lose.
"I could see Dick on the sidelines, looking up at some eucalyptus trees. And I said, 'Let's pray.' I called time out.
"The ref came running over, wondering what was going on. I'll never forget the defensive huddle, all of us with tears running down our faces. We stopped 'em dead. Eight guys pursuing the ballcarrier on every play."
Christopherson went on to Brigham Young, where football had the taste of ashes. He's a geography teacher at American River College in Sacramento now, but he still speaks with evangelical zeal of those Hillsdale High memories.
"His practices were keyed to five-minute intervals," Christopherson says. "They were intense, long, but not cruel or vicious. I remember he reluctantly let us call our defensive unit 'The Screaming Mutha's.'
"My junior year, San Mateo beat us, 14-7, in the third or fourth game. They outweighed us heavily. Most of us played both ways. I was the right guard on offense and a linebacker.
"And afterwards, he got on the bus. He said, 'I don't care what the score was...I'd go to hell for any one of you guys.'
"We cried openly. I sat next to a guy who told me, 'Gee, I haven't cried since I was a kid.' That one loss changed the whole season around. We were 'Vermeilized.' We knew he was in it with us.
"And now, I watch him on the sidelines and he's the same guy. Writers seem to be looking for some cosmetic fluke. They won't find a thing. It's him. Intense, genuine, inspiring."
Next stop was Napa JC, a small school nestled in wine country, with a vinegar football history. Vermeil recruited his kid brother Al, and Al told him about a quarterback who had left Cal.
"I was working nights, sulphuring the vineyards," Walt Raymond says. "And trying to sleep days. I'd just gotten married.
"Here came Dick Vermeil to recruit me. And I'm in bed with my wife. When you see him, tell him I hope his timing has improved."
That is known as your basic quarterback sack. Vermeil got Raymond, and handed him a playbook thicker and more sophisticated than the one he had at Cal.
"I was a local boy, fourth generation in St. Helena," Raymond says. "We had a good team. Started a win streak that lasted 56 games. For a while, it was the longest in the nation.
"I went to Cal got my thumb banged up, hurt a knee. Gave up football and decided to be a student. I was in the process of transferring to Cal Poly when Dick came around.
"Napa had had mediocre teams for years. But Dick managed to round up some players. He was strict, demanding, but fair. The thing that sticks in my mind is how organized practice was. None of that running around in circles.
"He already had a quarterback, a guy 6-3, an excellent player. It took a while to ease me into the job. He was trying to protect the other guy's feelings.
"We went 8-2, reversed the record in one year. And if we had won our last game we were going to a bowl game. But Santa Rosa beat us, 14-7.
"I think the turning point was the second game of the season. Against Appleton. We thought we were in over our heads, but we played well and we got confidence out of that one.
"Dick did a lot of things to psyche you up. He played speeches on tape in the locker room. Bob Richards, the pole vaulter. He had everybody wanting to play, working as a team. We won some games we were out-personneled."
The first thing he did was change the school colors from blue and gold to Green Bay's green and gold. "Yeah," Louie Vermeil remembers, "and then he found out the school didn't have the money for new uniforms, so he had to go out and raise it."
Raymond's mother was a Beringer. The Beringer winery is an historic landmark. A few years ago, Nestle bought the winery and Raymond set out to build a winery of his own. It is tough, painstaking work, but Raymond has been that route before.
"He gets the most out of everybody," Raymond says. "Emotional. We'd come out of the locker room and guys would be crying before the game started. Me, I used to throw up all the time."
Vermeil moved on to Stanford in 1965. In 1969, he coached the Rams special teams under George Allen. He spent a year at UCLA, as one of Tom Prothro's assistants. Then it was back to the Rams for two years under Prothro and a year under Chuck Knox. Then those two meteoric years as head man at UCLA.
Bill Woods has followed Vermeil's career proudly and sees him as a thoroughbred, galloping ahead of a pack of donkeys.
"I think those other coaches better get off their asses," Woods says. "One thing I've noticed in all the coaching I've been around, and that's that very few are workers.
"Most of 'em are full of bull. They don't really put out. And it's hard to put together a staff that's hard-working. Those other guys will have to wake up.
"But it's difficult to maintain winning. I was always a Yankee fan. The Yankees always won. It's easy the first time around, you catch 'em by surprise. They don't understand what happened.
"But you win and win and win some more and they start aiming for you. It's going to be tougher for the Eagles to win from now on. It's just harder to stay on top than it is to get there.
"The Super Bowl? That's kind of a tough one. I was amazed at how easy they made it look against Dallas. But you could see how determined the Eagles were.