ALUMNI IN ACTION
A Hall of Fame Dynamic
By Kenneth Mashinchi
Recent Football Hall of Fame inductee Dick Vermeil’s knack for identifying the value in people has caught the attention of Hollywood twice — a skill he credits his SJSU coaches and professors for fostering in him.
During his 240 games as a head coach in the National Football League, Dick Vermeil, ’58 BA, ’59 MA Physical Education, often faced — and overcame — seemingly impossible challenges. None were greater than when he led the St. Louis Rams to a Super Bowl victory behind an (at the time) unknown quarterback named Kurt Warner.
Nearly 14 years removed from coaching his last game, Vermeil’s most impossible task came in Canton, Ohio, on Aug. 6, 2022: summarizing a head coaching legacy that spanned five decades into an eight-minute speech at the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
“I hope that everyone I have had the opportunity to share experiences within the coaching field takes great pride in the contributions they made to my career that propelled me into this opportunity,” says Vermeil, a few weeks after he was announced as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2022. “I’d like for them to think they have a piece of the action and deserve a hell of a lot of credit that I won’t be able to express in eight minutes.”
From manning the sidelines of Hillsdale High School in San Mateo to coaching at UCLA before leading the Philadelphia Eagles, Rams and Kansas City Chiefs, Vermeil used the game of football to positively impact the lives of thousands of young men. When he thinks about how coaching left a mark on him, Vermeil points to his time at San José State University, where he played quarterback from 1956–1957 under the tutelage of then-football coach Robert T. Bronzan, ’40 Kinesiology.
“What he said and how he said it was very influential in me in starting to understand I had deeper value than what I had had ingrained in my beliefs,” Vermeil says. “He was so positive in what he thought of me that it raised my expectations and created an enthusiasm to keep getting better and be what he thought I ought to be.”
Dick Vermeil in 1956 at Hillsdale High School in San Mateo. Photo: Courtesy of SJSU Athletics.
Vermeil coached the Philadelphia Eagles from 1976-82. Photo: Courtesy of SJSU Athletics.
Recruited to SJSU as a walk-on, Vermeil earned a scholarship after the first spring practice. He took over as the starting quarterback midway through his second year at SJSU, with his first start coming in Eugene against the University of Oregon, whose team went on to play in the Rose Bowl that year.
“I wasn’t exposed to so-called big-time football growing up, so all of a sudden I find myself starting that game,” Vermeil recalls. “It was an unbelievable feeling of arrival — ‘My God, I made it.’ To me, I guess it would be like starting an NFL game as a first-round draft choice.”
Vermeil’s NFL coaching journey and knack for seeing value in people has been immortalized twice by Hollywood — first in the 2006 film “Invincible,” in which Greg Kinnear portrayed him; and most recently in the 2021 movie “American Underdog,” with Dennis Quaid depicting Vermeil when he tapped Kurt Warner to lead the Rams in 1999. Warner was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2017.
On and off the field, Vermeil says his time as a first-generation college student at SJSU was positive, especially in the physical education department. His experience was unique, because he got to know his coaches and professors in a different light: He also served as their mechanic. Vermeil worked nights at Vince’s Garage in San José to support himself and his wife and son. He could purchase parts at wholesale prices to repair coaches’ cars while he completed his graduate degree at SJSU.
“The whole physical education department at that time was a positive influence on everyone who walked into the classroom; they weren’t there to eliminate you, they were there to educate you,” he remembers. “My time at SJSU was probably as positive a time in influencing my future as anything I did in my lifetime.”
“We are excited and proud that the Hall of Fame selected a legendary Spartan, Dick Vermeil, to be recognized for his career. Coach Vermeil’s storied career is only surpassed by the quality of man he is and the volume of lives he has touched. All Spartans are proud of Coach Vermeil!”
— SJSU Head Football Coach Brent Brennan
Top photo: Time spent rising up the quarterback depth chart at SJSU propelled Dick Vermeil, the 27th head coach to be elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, to pro football’s ultimate prize: a Super Bowl trophy. Photo: Courtesy of SJSU Athletics.