This is a town that worships its star athletes. Bobby Clarke of the Flyers. Larry Bowa of the Phillies. Julius Erving of the 76ers. Rocky.

But there is one man in this sports-crazy city who outshines them all, and he is a coach. "Whether he wants the role or not," one Philadelphia writer wrote, "Dick Vermeil is the star of the Philadelphia Eagles. . . . He has captured the hearts of millions."

Of the frustrations that gave Philadelphia the reputation as the town that booed Santa Claus, the Eagles topped the list throughout the '60s and into the '70s. From the day that Norm Van Brocklin retired after leading the club to the NFL title in 1960, the Eagles knew nothing but failure.

The team did not lack for talented players, but it always found a way be a loser. Consistently.

Then, in 1976, came Vermeil. He came from UCLA with blond hair, blue eyes, Hollywood good looks and a square jaw that he set firmly when he told his new team that things would be done his way or not be done at all.

He came on the heels of a stunning Rose Bowl victory that knocked Woody Hayes out of a national championship and convinced Eagle owner Leonard Tose that he could work the miracle needed in Philadelphia. And he came with a rah-rah attitude toward football that critics said would never float in the pros.

Many of the Eagles would not go along with the Vermeil work ethic. Quickly, they were gone. They were replaced by Vermeil-type players. Few overwhelmed you with natural talent, but like Vermeil, they probably would outwork you.

By his third year, 1978, Vermeil had turned the Eagles into a playoff team. This year they again are a playoff team and the entire city is convinced they are a Super Bowl-caliber team. More important, the Eagles are convinced they are a Super Bowl-caliber team.

"Last year some people said we were lucky to win nine games," said quarterback Ron Jaworski, one of several Vermeil reclamation projects. "Maybe we were. But this year, we won 11 games and every game we lost we should have, could have, won. When we play our game, we can play with anybody. We beat Pittsburgh, we beat Dallas. They were in the Super Bowl last year. Now, why not us?"

"People in this city had started to believe that losing was in the genes or something," said one Eagle staffer. "They didn't expect things to be different with Dick. They expected more losses. Now, he's a genius because we've won without overwhelming talent."

The Eagles, dubbed the Little Football Team That Could, are similar in some ways to the 1979 Redskins.

Those that cannot follow Vermeil's strict rules are eliminated. Last summer when running backs James Betterson and Mike Hogan were arrested on drug charges both were immediately banished. There was no question of being innocent until proven guilty. Guilt by association was bad enough as far as Vermeil was concerned.

"I had set down the rule long ago," he said. "Even an association with drugs would not be tolerated. I hope they're both exonerated but if I didn't do what I did, I'd be letting my team down."

To let the team down is akin to a crime against nature in Vermeil's book. His work hours are legend: sleeping on the couch in his plush office three nights a week; carrying a pocket tape recorder so as not to forget ideas. t

"During the season I can't think about anything except football," he said. "Am I obsessed with winning? Absolutely."

Winning and work have been obsessions of Vermeil since his days as a boy in Calistoga, Calif., a tiny farming town in the Napa Valley. There, as the second of four children, he began working in his father's garage as a boy. His father believed in work as a vocation, an avocation and everything else in life. He instilled those beliefs in his son early.

"The only way I ever knew my father was through working with him," Vermeil says today. "He gave me a foundation to grow on."

The other major influence in Vermeil's early life was his high school football coach, Bill Wood, who convinced him to go to college -- he was the first in his family to graduate from high school -- and to think about coaching as a career. "If not for him I would have stayed in the garage," Vermeil said. "I figured I'd work with my father and maybe be a race driver."

Instead he went on to San Jose State and then into coaching. He still is close to Wood and sent him a game ball after the Eagles' 10th win this season, a 44-7 rout of the Detroit Lions.

Vermeil served his apprenticeship under George Allen, John Ralston, Tommy Prothro and Chuck Knox. I've begged, borrowed and stolen something from all of them, but I've always been myself," he said.

There is more to Vermeil than hard work; all NFL coaches work hard. He has several outstanding players -- wide receiver Harold Carmichael, running back Wilbert Montgomery, center Guy Morriss, tight end Keight Krepfle, place-kicker Tony Franklin -- but the rest are a combination of youngsters, retreads and no-names.

"i like to think that I can lead people," Vermeil said when asked what makes him a good coach. "I think I can get more out of some guys than others have, make them play better than they have played before.

"To me, that's a coach."

That is what Vermeil has done. And because he has done it so well the Eagles almost ooze confidence.

"I know that if I screw up I'll hear about it, but I won't be yanked," said Jawonski. "That's the way everyone feels here. We believe in him, he believes in us. It's corny as hell but how can you knock the man?"

The man, who is 43 and the father of three grown children, has been knocked by some for being conservative in his play-calling. He has been described as the "Ronald Reagan of football coaches."

"Sure, I'm conservative," he said laughing, hands folded on his desk, a half-empty coffee cup to his right. "I believe in making sure my team has a chance to win every game it plays. I don't think gambling does that, necessarily. Solid football does. And a lot of times your play-calling is dictated by your talent. When you've got Wilbert Montgomery (1,521 yards this season) in your backfield, you want to get the ball in his hands a lot."

Behind Vermeil, as he spoke was a picture of George Allen. Written on the picture is a note from Allen: "You have prepared yourself well. You are a winner."

Vermeil was asked if the hundreds of hours of preparing to be a winner have been worth it. His expression softened and, for the first time he leaned back in his chair.

"In many ways it hasn't been," he said quietly. "I've got three kids in college now and I passed up a lot of time with them. Instead, I invested it with other people's kids. Deep down, it's hard for me to justify that.

"But from the point of view of selfsatisfaction, it's been worth it. I'm a driven guy. I need to know that I've done a good job, given myself every opportunity to succeed. If I had it all to do over, I'm sure I'd think about what I was doing. But I might do it the same way."

Probably, he would do it the same way. Because Vermeil is driven as much by the fear of failure as by the desire to win. Perhaps his wife Carol summed him up best in a recent Philadelphia magazine story.

"He'll never be done," she said. "When he's dead, that's when he'll be done."