By the current sports landscape, it’s a little tough to believe and a little tougher to understand if you didn’t live through it. But at one time, a bizzaro sports world existed in Philadelphia in 1976, where top was on bottom, and bottom was on top. Yes, the Flyers were the No. 1 team in the city, looking for a third-straight Stanley Cup and a terror to everyone who played “The Broad Street Bullies.” The Phillies were on the brink of their age of enlightenment with a farm system that produced Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt, along with Larry Bowa, Greg Luzinski and Bob Boone, and eventually their first World Series crown, and the 76ers had just acquired Julius. Dr. J” Erving and reached the NBA Finals for the first time in a decade.
As for the Eagles in the mid-1970s, they were nowhere.
And no one was willing to look for them, either.
They were a broken team that had one winning season since the 1960 NFL Championship, which included a six-year span when the Dallas Cowboys had won 11-straight games against the Eagles, who had nine-straight years in which they did not have a winning season.
Then Dick Vermeil arrived.
He came to a team that did not have a first-round draft choice until 1979 and was coming off a 4-10 season. Impatient owner Leonard Tose was going through head coaches like he would rip through poker chips. The feeling of the media around that time was that Vermeil would be headed back to his native California because the Eagles were too much of a wreck to fix.
Within three years, Vermeil had the Eagles in the playoffs. Within five, they were playing in their first Super Bowl.
The franchise never lost its fervent fanbase. Its fanbase lost faith in them. They were a great Sunday comic distraction to the other “real teams” in Philadelphia at the time.
Vermeil made the Eagles relevant again. In many ways, he saved a franchise listing.
On Saturday, he will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as part of the class that includes tackle Tony Boselli, wide receiver Cliff Branch, safety LeRoy Butler, official Art McNally, linebacker and former Philadelphia Star, the late Sam Mills, defensive end/defensive tackle Richard Seymour, and defensive tackle/defensive end Bryant Young.
Vermeil will go in as a member of the Eagles, since he calls the Delaware Valley area his home for the last 46 years.
“This team was nowhere when I got here,” said Eagles’ Hall of Famer Ron Jaworski, who led the Eagles to Super Bowl XV. “I can tell you Coach Vermeil made us winners without a whole lot of talent. The first year I got here, our first pick came in the fourth round. I remember coming here to Philadelphia when I was with the Rams on a Monday night, and we smashed them (42-3 on Nov. 3, 1975). Our bench was being hit with dog bones and golf balls from the 700 level (laughs). I remember thinking how bad I thought the Eagles were. Coach Vermeil turned the whole thing around.”
Vermeil took on the Eagles head first. He grinded them and molded them into a Super Bowl contender for four years, then went on to resurrect the St. Louis Rams into Super Bowl champions and the Kansas City Chiefs into contenders.
“I kept it simple that what I demanded of myself was the same demand I made of my players,” Vermeil said. “The players at the time I’m sure didn’t like it. But they became winners. They started buying in. When I came here in 1976, the Eagles hadn’t been in the playoffs in I think 16 years. When we went in ’78, that was the 18th year that we’ve finally been in the playoffs. It became a team the city could relate to, it became a hard-nosed team that used every ounce of ability it had, and its work ethic was something that the city of Philadelphia was able to appreciate.”
Pro Football Hall of Fame sportswriter Ray Didinger saw the transformation play out right before his eyes. Initially, he had doubts about Vermeil like everyone else.
“I remember one of Dick’s first press conferences and the talk was that he would be back in California in a few years,” he recalled. “That was the feeling when he took the job. People talk about Buddy Ryan bringing back the Eagles, no, no, no, it was Dick Vermeil who brought back the Eagles in terms of how the team was regarded here.
“The Eagles really own this town and there was very little sense that Vermeil could turn them around. He not only turned them around; he had them in the playoffs in three years and took them to their first Super Bowl. To me, it was one of the greatest coaching jobs of all time, because he had nothing to work with.
“A lot of people like to credit Buddy for making the Eagles relevant again. It was Dick Vermeil who really turned that team around. He had nothing. Buddy inherited a 7-9 team that already had Reggie White. If you look at Dick’s overall record (120-109), it’s not impressive. It’s barely over .500. But you have to understand that he inherited one of the most hopeless situations that you can ever imagine in Philadelphia and within three years had them in the playoffs.
“He rebuilt the Eagles, and then he came back 14 years later, when people thought the game had passed him by, and he did the same thing with the Rams and then the Chiefs. That Rams team was every bit as bad as the Eagles were in 1976 and he led them to the Super Bowl. Look at what he inherited and look at what he built. And he didn’t do it once, but three times. Do it once and you’re a good coach. Do it three times and you’re a great coach.”
Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who has written feature stories for SI.com, ESPN.com, NFL.com, MLB.com, Deadspin and The Philadelphia Daily News. In 2006, he was nominated for an Emmy Award for a special project piece for ESPN.com called “Love at First Beep.” He is most noted for his award-winning ESPN.com feature on high school wrestler AJ Detwiler in February 2006, which appeared on SportsCenter. In 2015, he was elected president of the Boxing Writers Association of America.