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Dick Vermeil: Leadership through the eyes of a football coach

Vermeil took two different teams to the Super Bowl two decades apart. Now he's working on a $150 million venture capital fund.

Jeff Wilkins had just missed a relatively easy 38-yard field goal that caused the 1999 St. Louis Rams their first defeat after six wins. The media was ready to brand Wilkins as the goat--the guy who blew it.

But they were certainly not going to hear it from the mouth of Rams coach Dick Vermeil.

"If I blame him, then the next time he goes up to kick, he's got doubts in his head about my confidence in him. Then he will start missing all the time," said Vermeil, who retired from coaching after the Rams won the Super Bowl. (Wilkins kicked three field goals in that championship game.)

"The L in leadership can stand for loyalty," Vermeil noted. "The best time to demonstrate loyalty is when you are losing. If you blame them, you are not ever going to get them on your side. But if they know you are covering for them, the freer they are to turn it loose without fear of making mistakes. And that is when you win."

Vermeil, who was guest lecturer at several sections of a Wharton MBA management class Sept. 20, took two different teams to the Super Bowl two decades apart. He went there with the Philadelphia Eagles after the 1980 season, losing to the Oakland Raiders 27-10, and returned last year with the Rams, winning 23-16. Now he is working with Safeguard Scientifics and Bridge Tech Partners on a $150 million venture capital fund that will support women and minority-owned firms in the technology, media and communications areas.

"I like to say that I have left coaching, but I'm certainly not retired," said Vermeil. "And I have definite ideas on leadership. Mine may not be the only way, but it is the way I have found effective."

Vermeil feels it is more important to have a group you can work with than the most talented performers. "That L in leadership can also stand for like," he said. "If you don't like people, you can't be a good leader. If the team member feels the leadership likes him, there are better vibes and a better performance. And, frankly, I can't work with someone I don't like."

Vermeil joked that his new associates in business constantly use acronyms, some of which he can't decipher, but that he has relented and started talking about Leader as an acronym.

One of his Es in Leader is ego." "It is important to have a good ego, but it is dangerous to have a big ego," said Vermeil, repeating it twice for emphasis. "If you believe you are the sole reason for your success, then you can't be a leader. You have to keep your own talent in perspective.

"I have found that it is always better to give credit. I say to my players, 'You want credit? Go to a bank.' I instruct them when they are interviewed to always talk about another guy on the team. It will come back around to you and everyone will be happy for it. Big egos just ruin a team."

Vermeil's prime A in his acronym is adversity. "If you are afraid of obstacles, then don't get into a leadership situation," he said. He noted that his first two seasons with the Rams were dismal, that before last year, the team had the worst record in the National Football League in the 1990s. But each week, he told the media and his players about some aspect of their game that had gotten better.

"As you strive to be successful, you have to discover the small wins before the glory comes," he said. "It may not immediately show in your stock price or your technology, but you have to emphasize these small wins. You can't let adversity develop doubt in your overall plan."

Vermeil rattled off a few more As, including achievement and attitude, but he dwelt for a while on appreciate.

"You've got to appreciate everyone who works for you. Morale is built from the bottom up," he said. When he got to St. Louis, he discovered that no one had ever had a meeting of the support staff of the team. He asked for one and told everyone from the person who cut the grass to the secretaries for the executives that they were part of his team.

"You don't have to be a phony about it, but when they feel the scoreboard at the end of the game counts for them, too, they will do all they can to help you," said Vermeil. "And if there is someone you can't appreciate, no matter how good his skills, get rid of him."

Vermeil said that only nine of the players who were on the Rams when he got there were still on the 58-man roster three years later when the team won the Super Bowl. "Some were very good players, and some were not so good, but if they weren't willing to work with us, I had to let them go," he said. One was Lawrence Phillips, a first-round draft pick before Vermeil arrived who was a talented running back with a lot of disciplinary problems. Perhaps the best player on the team, Phillips had several legal run-ins before Vermeil felt compelled to cut him. It was seen by many as a courageous move, especially since the Rams were awful at that point.

"Being a leader, though, means not infecting your team with negative influences," said Vermeil. "I felt bad for Lawrence personally. His parents abandoned him at age two, and he lived in 12 or 13 different foster homes growing up. I even helped him get his next job, with San Francisco. But he just couldn't handle the system, and sometimes you have to use your leadership to let talent go."

In that context, Vermeil said it is important to define your goals and be decisive (the Ds in his leader acronym) about them. "Concentrate on what makes a difference between winning and losing," he said. "Make your decision early to give your team the time to make your decision right. Delegate where you can, but always, always maintain a 51 percent vote. And then, don't blame anyone else for the decision."

Vermeil was always known for working his players hard, something he never denied, and his E for effort is ultimately important, he said.

"The only thing in common between successful and unsuccessful people is that they both have 24-hour days," he said. "I worked hard, but hard work is only relative. I was nothing compared to my father, who ran a garage in the Napa Valley. If someone needed a car repaired in the morning and it was 3 a.m., he was there, because, he said, that was the thing you did. There is no substitute for hard work, none."

Finally, he said, it all comes down to his R for relationships.

"I really have a hard time coaching someone I can't have a personal relationship with," he said. "You have got to try to treat all people as stars in their own way. It is of the utmost importance that you choose the right people to work with and build that relationship with them so they know you are loyal to them.

"Contrary to what is often reported, there are a lot of good people playing professional football. You find the ones to whom you can relate, and you can win," he said. "There is no greater satisfaction than winning with people you enjoy working with."

 
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