It has been 19 years since Dick Vermeil delivered a locker room speech to his team at a Super Bowl. But as the St. Louis Rams coach and his Tennessee Titans counterpart, Jeff Fisher, today conducted their final news conferences before Sunday's Super Bowl at the Georgia Dome, Vermeil had no trouble remembering what he told his Philadelphia Eagles players just before they faced the Oakland Raiders on Jan. 25, 1981.
"I thanked them for bringing me there," Vermeil said. "I told them that win, lose or draw, my feelings for them wouldn't change."
The Eagles lost 27-10, that day. Now he's back, and he and Fisher have formed one of the week's best story lines.
Their differences are obvious. Vermeil is 63 and has 10 grandchildren. He is emotional and theatrical, and his time as a television broadcaster during his 14-year sabbatical from coaching taught him how to handle the spotlight. Fisher is 41 and only 14 years removed from being a cornerback and kick returner with the Chicago Bears. He is far from flamboyant, but his players adore him for his straightforward manner.
In other ways, however, Vermeil's and Fisher's paths to this Super Bowl are similar. Each began this season under a serious professional strain. The Rams went 9-23 in Vermeil's first two seasons with the team. The Oilers-Titans franchise had a 32-38 record in Fisher's five previous seasons as its coach, and owner Bud Adams made it clear Fisher had to produce a playoff appearance this season.
"We struggled for a couple years," Vermeil said. "I think most teams that get to the Super Bowl went through a period of struggles, and that helps you better appreciate being here."
Now Vermeil is the toast of the NFL, and Adams says he wants to talk to Fisher soon about a contract extension. But as Fisher said today: "I've got obviously more important things on my mind right now."
It is a hectic time for the coaches, who have had one week--instead of the usual two--to deal with the Super Bowl demands on top of preparing for a game.
"Our club is relaxed," Fisher said. "They're poised. They're enjoying themselves.
"We've taken the same approach as we did all year. I told our players if they sensed any coaches being tight, tell me and I'd send the coaches home."
Both coaches dismissed the teams' regular season meeting--a 24-21 victory by the Titans on Oct. 31 in Nashville--as a prospective indicator of what will happen Sunday. Vermeil said he thinks the Rams have an advantage because the Titans, as a wild-card team, had to play one more playoff game to get here.
"We should have more left in the tank," Vermeil said.
Both coaches at times have found themselves having to defend their underdog teams' presence here at the end of a season in which the league lacked a seemingly invincible club. Fisher used that void as a selling point to his players this season.
"I didn't think there was a team out there this year," Fisher said. "That's why we took the approach, 'Why not us?' "
Fisher has a Super Bowl ring from the 1985 Bears. He spent the season on the injured reserve list with a career-ending ankle injury, but served as an unofficial coach for defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, who hired Fisher as an Eagles assistant coach the following season. Fisher's former Bears teammate, the late running back Walter Payton, is scheduled to be honored Sunday.
" . . . The thing I cherish the most from my time with the Bears was the chance to be Walter's teammate and friend," Fisher said.
Vermeil and the Rams have had to all but apologize for their 11-6 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC championship game last Sunday because their high-octane offense was shut down. Vermeil said today he takes that game as a positive, since his club demonstrated it could win an important game with defense.
Vermeil did acknowledge that the Rams probably cannot win Sunday unless they get better production from running back Marshall Faulk and wide receiver Isaac Bruce. Faulk and Bruce had three receptions apiece last Sunday totaling 27 yards, and Faulk rushed for 44 yards.
"We've got to do a better job, starting with me," Vermeil said.
It was a day for Vermeil to reflect on a long coaching journey that, until this season, didn't seem headed for a happy ending in St. Louis.
"When I came back, I was led to believe it was the best young talent and the best job open," Vermeil said. "[The players] all looked good to me, because they're all bigger and stronger than they were when I used to coach. I had to raise my standards of what I call a good football player.
"I thought we could get it going sooner. My thoughts from time to time were, 'What the hell am I doing here?' . . . There was a time when I said, 'If I had it to do over again, I wouldn't do it.' But I'm glad I did."
Now Vermeil will get to walk away from the Rams and coaching on his terms and his timetable, handing the job to offensive coordinator Mike Martz with what promises to be a full cupboard of talent.
"This football team now is a great football team, and it will be better in the future because it's young," Vermeil said.