By Howard Balzer
Wednesday will be a momentous day in the history of the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a Blue-Ribbon Panel of 25 selectors will discuss and vote on a special 15-person Centennial Class in honor of the NFL’s 100th anniversary.
Notable for St. Louis football fans is that head coaches Don Coryell and Dick Vermeil are two of the eight finalists in that category. Only two will be elected from a group that also includes Bill Cowher, Tom Flores, Mike Holmgren, Jimmy Johnson, Buddy Parker and Dan Reeves.
Coryell has been a finalist five times in previous years including 2019, but didn’t receive enough votes to be elected as he and Flores last year were competing against players. That is not the case this year.
In addition to the coaches, the committee will be whittling a list of 20 players to 10 and 10 contributors to three.
The entire class of 20, including the modern-day group that will be selected the day before the Super Bowl, will be present or represented by a family member at the usual enshrinement ceremony in August when the five modern-players, contributors and coaches will be formally enshrined.
The 10 seniors players will then be enshrined during a four-day Centennial Celebration in Canton surrounding the 100th anniversary date of Sept. 17.
Coryell should be saluted as much for his impact on the game as his success. His high-powered offenses of the 1970s and ‘80s gave birth to so much of what we see in today’s NFL.
As for Vermeil, his ability to turn around moribund franchises is unequaled in NFL history.
*Prior to becoming head coach of the Eagles in 1976, the franchise hadn’t had a winning record since being 9-5 in 1966 and had that one winning season in the previous 14 seasons. In the nine seasons from 1967-1975, the Eagles were 39-81-6 (33.3 percent) and they were 16-37-3 (29.5) from 1962-1965. Then, in the first two seasons under Vermeil, the Eagles were 4-10 and 7-9.
However, from 1978-81, they were in the playoffs each season and advanced to the Super Bowl in 1980. The record fell off to 3-6 in the 1982 strike year. Even including that final season, Philadelphia was 45-28 (61.6) in those five seasons and 42-22 (65.6) prior to the strike year.
*When he became head coach of the Rams in 1997, that team’s record was 36-76 (32.1) in the previous seven seasons. Similar to his first two seasons in Philadelphia, the Rams were 5-11 and 4-12 in 1997 and 1998. Then came another turnaround, one that resulted in a Super Bowl victory in 1999 after a 13-3 regular season. Also notable is that in his first season in Philadelphia, the Eagels did not have picks in the first three rounds of the draft and they had none in the first two rounds of his second season.
*Vermeil has always said he regretted walking away after that season, and then came back to coaching in 2001 with the Chiefs. They didn’t share the same futility as the Eagles and Rams, but were 23-25 in the previous three seasons.
The Chiefs were 6-10 and 8-8 in Vermeil’s first two seasons, when, like clockwork, came the third-season reversal. Kansas City was 13-3 in 2003 and in his final three seasons as a NFL head coach, Vermeil’s record was 30-18.
There will be those that say a coach with a career regular-season record of 120-109 (52.4) and 126-114 overall (52.5) is not Hall-of-Fame worthy. However, a deeper dive is imperative considering how he brought a unique culture to each place he led and achieved eventual success.
In the nine total seasons after his first two with each franchise, his teams went to two Super Bowls, won three division titles, were in the playoffs six times and had seven winning records.
Here is where the numbers scream excellence and HOF worthiness: In those nine seasons, Vermeil’s regular-season record is 88-49 (64.2) and 94-54 (63.5) including his 6-5 postseason record. Without the strike-shortened season when they were 2-5 after the strike ended, the record in those nine seasons is 91-48 (65.5) overall and 85-43 (66.4) in the regular season.
None of his teams had a top quarterback when he arrived. In Philadelphia, he added quarterback Ron Jaworski and running back Wilbert Montgomery. With the Rams it was quarterbacks Kurt Warner and Trent Green, running back Marshall Faulk, left tackle Orlando Pace, guard Adam Timmerman and wide receiver Torry Holt. He then brought Green to the Chiefs along with left tackle Willie Roaf and running back Priest Holmes.
That ability to build a program wherever he went puts the 15-year coaching career of Dick Vermeil in true perspective.
*One of four coaches to lead two different teams to the Super Bowl.
*One of five coaches to lead three different teams to the playoffs.
NFL Coach of the Year: 1979, 1999.
NFC Coach of the year: 1978, 1979, 1999.
First special teams coach in the NFL: 1969.
Only coach in history to take two franchises with 6-plus losing seasons to the Super Bowl. Vince Lombardi is the only HOF coach that took over a franchise with 6-plus years without a winning season.