Former St. Louis Rams coach Dick Vermeil spent a recent three-day stretch in California with one of his close friends, former assistant Mike White.
The occasion: Vermeil's induction into the California Sports Hall of Fame.
"The whole essence of my acceptance was, I am a 'because of' guy," Vermeil said during a recent phone conversation. "Because I've had good coaches, because I've had good players, I'm now in three different state halls of fame. Because of Al Saunders, because of Mike Martz, because of Jim Hanifan, because of Mike White, because of Pete Giunta, because of John Bunting --"
Vermeil reeled off several more former assistants in rapid succession -- too many for me to write down all their names. All played a role in Vermeil's success with UCLA, the Philadelphia Eagles, Rams and Kansas City Chiefs. Some rank among his closest friends.
It is no surprise, then, that Vermeil is lending his name to the cause of assistants during an uncertain time for NFL employees at all levels. He envisions a day when assistants regain some of the ground they've lost even while salaries have risen in recent years.
"I hope somewhere down the road the owners do not create a problem they do not need to create," Vermeil said. "Right now, they are in deep negotiations with the Players Association. Those players are of very little value without coaches coaching them. If the coaches ever really solidified, there would be one more negotiation that they would have to go through to keep things running smoothly."
Right, I thought, but owners would have little trouble finding eager replacements. Hundreds of college coaches would jump at the chance to coach in the NFL, just as many current pro assistants did in years past. And they would likely accept whatever terms NFL teams offered, just as current assistants agreed to clauses that would reduce and/or suspend significant chunks of pay during a lockout.
Vermeil flatly rejected this line of thinking. The fire and intensity he brought to the sideline resonated in his response.
"Yeah, you know something?" he said. "You only have to lose a few good ones on your staff and you are losing your ass and you are still charging the same amount of money for the season ticket. You've got great coaches and some of those guys make a difference. They make a difference in winning and losing. A lot of people in the league have found out it's not easy to replace those guys."
Finding assistants is easy. Finding the best ones can be difficult. It's one reason teams replace them regularly. NFC West teams willfully replaced four coordinators this offseason alone. A fifth, Pat Shurmer, left the Rams to become head coach of the Cleveland Browns. Other assistants also came and went, as they always do.
Josh McDaniels (St. Louis), Ray Horton (Arizona), Vic Fangio (San Francisco), Tom Cable (Seattle) and Darrell Bevell (Seattle) stand out as the most significant hires to NFC West staffs this offseason.
"These guys to me are the guys that touch the product you put on the field -- more than the head coach, more than the owner, more than the president, more than the general manager, more than the personnel department, more than anybody else," Vermeil said. "I just have always felt the better frame of mind they are in, the better impression and the better communication and the better contact they make with the player that plays on Sunday. Therefore, the better the team plays."