It is commonly accepted in professional football circles that it takes five years to build a winner. And in this, the fifth year of the reign off Dick Vermeil, the Eagles are only one victory away from Super Bowl 15.

The other day, the architect stood back and viewed what he had put together, and he confessed that he was surprised. The Eagles, spliced and patched, were right on schedule. The blueprints and the timetables had come out even.

Vermeil surveyed a crowded press conference at the Vet this week and he said, bluntly as usual: "I question whether anyone in this room would have bet $50 that we would do this within our five-year program . . . including myself."

When coaches talk about needing five years to put together a winner, they assume they will need that long for their scouting and drafting to pay off.This, in turn, presumes that they will be stocked with high draft choices. And the Eagles weren't.

They had mortgaged most of their immediate future. High-round draft picks had been traded away to acquire Roman Gabriel and Bill Bergey. Through his first three drafts, Vermeil felt like a guy who had just filed for bankruptcy sitting helplessly at a high-roller's auction.

So the Eagles began to build by bargain-basement shopping. They searched the waiver wires, snapping up other teams' rejects and leftovers. They made the most of those seventh- and ninth-round picks, looking not so much for talent as for a certain kind of personality.

"There are a lot of people with ability," Vermeil said. "It's whether you get it done or not that counts."

So he preached "character and commitment" with a fierce evangelical fervor, and he began weeding out the players who didn't measure up.

"Bad-attitude guys are usually the first one to jump ship when things get rough," he said.

"I've always believed attitude is important, and I couldn't enjoy coaching if I didn't enjoy being around the people I'm working with."

What Vermeil was looking for was the athlete with that walk-through-hell attitude. Never mind what the stopwatch and the scales and the computer said about him. Vermeil wanted to measure the amount of gravel in his gut, and there's no machine for that. It's something you find out in July in camp, when the heat is bubbling the tar out of the road, and you work the team for three more hours. Those who hesitate are gone before sundown.

It earned Vermeil a nickname he doesn't particularly like: The Little Dictator.

"I've been credited with being a motivator," he said, "but I think I'm a better evaluator. The key is to keep the right kind of people."

And then motivation will take care of itself.

"It sure won't be Dick Verveil motivating these guys on Sunday," he said.

But those guys he kept, he drove. Hard. Relentlessly.

"If you don't demand much, then you don't get much," he said. "We expect them to play up to, and beyond, their ability."

His first season, in 1976, the Eagles were 4-10, the same record they had compiled the year before, earning Mike McCormack an exit. There was nothing especially noteworthy about that inaugural season except for the schedule -- nine winning teams, including the eventual Super Bowl participants, Oakland and Minnesota. The Eagles did not score more than 20 points in any game until the finale against the expansion Seattle Seahawks. No one had expected much, and they weren't disappointed. But then you don't stumble out of the wilderness and into the land of milk and honey in just one year.

Vermeil's second season, 1977, the Eagles were 5-9, and that hardly seemed a dramatic improvement, except the groundwork had been laid for a defense that would sustain Philadelphia through its resurgence. Aide Marion Campbell installed the 3-4, and the Eagles gave up only 207 points, setting a club record for fewest pointts allowed in a 14-game season. The housecleaning had been completed. Vermeill had purged the team, keeping only the players he had regarded as 110-percenters. He could talk about "Eagles football" now and there were no longer any snickers about "High School Harry."

The breakthrough was reached in Vermeil's third season, 1978. Philadelphia was 9-7, a winner for the first time since 1966. This was the year a slashing runner with a shy, reclusive personality broke loose. Wilbert Montgomery rushed 1,220 yards, breaking Steve Van Buren's 29-year-old team record. The Eagles finished strongly, winning four straight -- five of their last seven -- and qualifying for the playoffs for the first time since 1960. Place-kicking nightmares cost them a 14-13 loss to Atlanta in the wild-card round.

In 1979, the Eagles climbed to 11-5, the most victories since 1961, and tied Dallas for the best record in the NFC. They beat Chicago in the wildcard game, then lost to Tampa Bay.

Montgomery took his place alongside Walter Payton, Earl Campbell and O.J. Anderson as one of the NFL's best runners, gaining 1,512 yards. The Eagles lived on their defense and ball control. And Vermeil's peers voted him NFL coach of the year.