KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Not long after Carl Peterson became a graduate-assistant football coach at UCLA in 1973, he encountered then-Los Angeles Rams assistant Dick Vermeil as the Rams conducted practices at UCLA. Even in Vermeil’s subordinate role, Peterson was struck by his charisma and energy.
Enough so that when Vermeil was hired to take over as UCLA’s head coach after that season, not only was Peterson in need of the job, but he also was particularly eager to work with Vermeil.
Never mind that Vermeil had someone else in mind for that receivers coaching position and initially had decided not to retain Peterson.
While Vermeil was finishing up that tenure with the Rams preparing for the playoffs, he conducted his UCLA interviews between midnight and 3 a.m. to finalize a staff that needed an administrative assistant, too.
So … Peterson kept showing up around midnight, night after night.
Finally, as Vermeil yet again emerged from his office in the early morning hours and saw the resolute would-be assistant leaning on the fender of Peterson’s ‘69 Volkswagen (“a truly great” car, Peterson says to this day), Vermeil was irresistibly compelled by Peterson’s determination.
“‘If that job means that much to you,’” Vermeil recalled saying, “‘I want you on my staff.’”
That’s how Vermeil and Peterson became what Vermeil calls “hooked (at) the hip.”
Some 50 years later, that scene is no mere nostalgia but at the crux of why Vermeil was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, and was to be inducted on Saturday.
They’ll be entwined again there as Peterson will present Vermeil for the honor of a lifetime.
“If you have success, much of it is determined by the decisions you make,” Vermeil said in a Hall of Fame Zoom call a few weeks ago. “And (hiring Peterson at UCLA) was a great decision.”
One that ultimately led to a series of other decisions. Some better than others, as he sees it now.
Put them all together, though, and they explain why a remarkable career rooted in Philadelphia and pivotally amplified in St. Louis also had its final exclamation point in Kansas City.
After all, this is where Peterson hired Vermeil and he became one of only two NFL coaches (along with Hall of Famer Bill Parcells) to guide a third franchise to a division title having led two others to Super Bowls.
That was only possible because a few months after Vermeil retired from the then-St. Louis Rams, after steering them from the dregs to their unfathomable Super Bowl XXXIV victory, he found himself regretting the decision and thinking, “What the hell did I do?”
Enter Peterson, by then the CEO, president and general manager of the Chiefs.
Peterson had tried before to hire Vermeil amid a broadcasting career that made for much of his 14 years between coaching stints after he became the embodiment of burnout in Philly. (That was perhaps epitomized by a motto, Vermeil reminded, that, “The only way to kill time was to work it to death.”)
The last time, in 1989, Peterson hired Marty Schottenheimer, who revived a listless franchise (one playoff appearance in the previous 17 seasons) with a 101-58-1 regular-season record that, alas, never quite converted in his starcrossed postseasons here (3-7).
As it happens, though, even then Peterson succeeded in planting the seeds of a future reunion with Vermeil when he persuaded him to be an analyst for Chiefs preseason games. That largely was how Vermeil and his wife, Carol, came to know Kansas City.
Not that Peterson knew it would ever quite work out. Especially after Vermeil called him one day in 1997 and told him he took the Rams job.
“ ‘Right state,’ ” Peterson told him, “ ‘wrong team.’ ”
Not for Vermeil, who nearly a generation and entire culture of the game removed from his start with the Eagles in 1976 resurrected another pitiful franchise: the Rams.
In his third season in St. Louis, 1999, he whisked the franchise to its first playoff appearance in a decade and its first Super Bowl victory. And when the then-64-year-old Vermeil retired for the second time days later, that figured to be that for his NFL career.
But Peterson either was attuned to Vermeil’s sense of regret that he’d left the Rams too early or just remained as determined as he was when he won over Vermeil to begin with.
So even when Vermeil told him not to pursue it, Peterson went calling to his Pennsylvania home. He also brought along Lynn Stiles, then an executive with the Chiefs who had been on that UCLA staff and an assistant with the Eagles during that Super Bowl run.
Lamar Hunt called, too.
“Again,” Vermeil said, smiling, “a great, great decision.”
Behind Vermeil on his shelves as he spoke were four helmets that might as well have been labeled the pillars of his career: those of the Eagles and Rams on one shelf, and UCLA and the Chiefs up above. The man once known as the “Calistoga Comet” also wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the name of his California hometown, not to mention the site now of his Vermeil Wines’ Calistoga Tasting Room.
As ever, Vermeil reflected fondly on his time in Kansas City, where he went 44-36 and perhaps was best known for the 2003 Chiefs team that went 13-3 only to lose 38-31 to the Colts in the playoff opener.
Pleased as he is that Andy Reid (with whom Vermeil played matchmaker for the Chiefs) has taken the Chiefs to four straight AFC Championship Games and given the franchise its first four grasps of the trophy in the name of its late founder, he reiterated something he says often:
“I really regret not doing a good enough job to personally hand the Lamar Hunt Trophy to Lamar Hunt,” Vermeil said.
In that respect, anyway, Vermeil isn’t necessarily seen through the same lens here as in Philly, where he remains an absolute icon, or St. Louis, where he’s still revered.
Just the same, he certainly won over Kansas City and views it as an essential part of the journey.
Coming off the Super Bowl win in St. Louis, he said, he was more accessible in many ways. He had better control of his emotions and broader perspective.
He backed off a bit with players, he added, all the more a radical difference from his time in Philly.
And he took time to enjoy the community more than he had allowed himself as an active coach at the other stops. Instead of grinding even in the offseason, he said, he went out and made friends while Carol got deeply involved with Operation Breakthrough.
“It enhanced me as a person,” he said. “I don’t know if I was a better coach.”
Whether he was or not, his five years with the Chiefs further burnished Vermeil’s resume as Hall of Fame-worthy.
And it happened because of Peterson, who was perhaps Vermeil’s most fierce advocate for induction in Canton.
Which goes back to Vermeil’s decision to hire him nearly half a century ago, when Vermeil also assigned Peterson an administrative capacity that would ultimately blossom into his greatest professional gift.
Along with many others, Peterson’s work was an element of Vermeil’s second UCLA team beating Ohio State and coach Woody Hayes in the Rose Bowl. Vermeil’s vitality and command presence in that moment captured the imagination of Eagles owner Leonard Tose, who turned to Vermeil when the franchise was in tatters.
(Full disclosure: As a kid growing up in the Philly area, I remember getting autographs at their nearby Widener training camp; I later “worked” for the Eagles as an unpaid intern in their ticket office, where it turns out I was best remembered for being able to zing pencils into the soft drop ceiling and performing head-handstands. I didn’t know Vermeil then but admired him all along and count myself lucky to get to know him a bit in St. Louis and all the more in recent years).
Vermeil brought Peterson with him to the Eagles. Soon, he deployed him in a personnel and administration role that helped the Eagles earn a berth to Super Bowl XV and proved a springboard for Peterson.
He left the Eagles to become part-owner, president and GM of the Philadelphia (then Baltimore) Stars of the fledgling USFL. The Stars won two back-to-back USFL titles, and a few years later the Chiefs turned to Peterson to reset their drooping organization.
And did he ever.
Peterson this year was a semifinalist in the Pro Football Hall of Fame “contributor” category, recognition that makes it all the more curious that the Chiefs have not yet put him in their own Hall of Fame.
Beyond the marketing wizardry that energized Arrowhead Stadium and its tailgating phenomenon and so many other key contributions, Vermeil himself is another highlight of Peterson’s tenure.
So it’s only fitting that they would be joined at the hip again for this moment, one Vermeil knows is all about those who helped enable it. Not to mention a lot of decisions along the way.©2022 The Kansas City Star. Visit kansascity.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.