By BILL WAGNERCAPITAL GAZETTE |NOV 27, 2019 | 8:15 AM
In the joyous Navy football locker room following a 35-3 rout of South Florida on Oct. 19, there was a recognizable figure speaking to the team.
Video from the postgame celebration showed one of the most successful head coaches in National Football League history delivering a speech to the Midshipmen.
It was none other than Dick Vermeil, who led the Philadelphia Eagles into Super Bowl XV and the Los Angeles Rams to victory in Super Bowl XXXIV.
Vermeil, who spent 15 seasons as an NFL head coach, has become an avid Navy football fan.
“Coach Vermeil loves coming to our games, which is great for our program. It’s pretty cool seeing him standing on the sidelines,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “Obviously, one of the greatest coaches ever.”
When Niumatalolo realized Vermeil was in the locker following the South Florida victory, he did not hesitate to ask the potential Hall of Famer to address the Midshipmen.
“I have to remember whenever Coach Vermeil is here because why would I talk? Just sit down and let the Super Bowl champion coach talk to the team,” Niumatalolo said. “He’s a tremendous person, a real humble man and it’s awesome for our kids to hear from him.”
Former Navy football player Pat Hoffman is responsible for connecting Vermeil to the program. Their friendship is rooted in a high school field hockey game between Gwynned Mercy Academy and Villa Maria Academy.
Hoffman, who lives in Audubon, Pennsylvania, was in attendance to watch his daughter play goalie for Gwynned Mercy. Vermeil, who has lived in Glen Mills, Pennsylvania ever since he coached the Eagles, was on hand to see his granddaughter — the star forward for Villa Maria.
There was a weather delay and Hoffman, a lifelong Philadelphia Eagles fan, wound up talking to Vermeil in the parking lot. Several months later, Vermeil served as the keynote speaker for an event held at a country club in Reading, Pennsylvania. Hoffman was in attendance along with some business clients.
“Coach Vermeil comes up to me and asks: ‘Have we met?’ I reminded him about the field hockey game, and we wound up chatting for about 15 minutes,” Hoffman said. “Afterward, Coach Vermeil pulled me aside and gave me his business card.”
Hoffman wound up calling Vermeil and inviting him to attend a Navy football game. Vermeil readily accepted and wound up witnessing one of the biggest upsets in recent program history.
After watching the first half from a private suite, Vermeil used a sideline pass to see the action up-close and personal during the second half. Hoffman said the 82-year-old coach was grinning from ear-to-ear as Navy completed a wild 46-40 victory over sixth-ranked Houston.
That win set off a wild celebration with Niumatalolo famously high stepping while running onto the field in a moment of euphoria just before the Brigade of Midshipmen stormed the field.
It was October 8, 2016 and Vermeil was hooked. He has attended one game every year since and Navy has never lost whenever he has visited.
In 2017, Vermeil saw another thrilling comeback victory as Navy defeated service academy rival Air Force, 48-45. This season’s trip to Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium was easier on the heart as the Midshipmen routed the Bulls.
Hoffman, who grew up in Ambler, Pennsylvania, and was recruited out of Wissahickon High by legendary Navy head coach George Welsh, was a varsity letterman in 1984 and 1985. He played offensive tackle under coach Gary Tranquill and blocked for superstar tailback Napoleon McCallum.
“Coach Vermeil loves everything about Navy football and just enjoys the whole game-day experience,” Hoffman said. “He is so incredibly respectful of what the Naval Academy is all about. I know he considered it a tremendous honor to be asked to address the team in the locker room after games.”
Vermeil coached the Eagles from 1976 through 1982, a run that culminated with 27-10 loss to the Oakland Raiders in January 1981. Vermeil, who had been head coach at UCLA prior to moving to the NFL, cited burnout in initially retiring in 1983.
Following a 15-year hiatus, Vermeil returned to the sidelines as head coach of the St. Louis Rams and directed a remarkable turnaround. After enduring records of 5-11 and 4-12 in his first couple seasons, Vermeil led the Rams to a 13-3 mark in 1999. Quarterback Kurt Warner would lead St. Louis to a Super Bowl victory over the Tennessee Titans.
Vermeil, who was named NFL Coach of the Year for the second time in his career, walked away from the game again in 1999. However, he came out of retirement once more to lead the Kansas City Chiefs from 2001 to 2005, finishing with a career record of 126-114.
Vermeil’s association with the Naval Academy began many years beforehand when he spoke at a leadership event at the invitation of Admiral Tom Lynch, who was superintendent at the time.
“I had an opportunity to speak at the Naval Academy and came away just so impressed with the entire institution along with the leadership and character of every individual I met,” Vermeil said. “That is when I first met Tom Lynch, who is such a great man. I was thrilled when we reconnected later in life and became close friends.”
Adm. Lynch settled in Philadelphia after retiring from the Navy and was working for a private equity firm when he crossed paths with Vermeil again. At the time, Vermeil was helping former college and professional athletes, primarily African Americans, get into the entrepreneurial game.
“Dick had a business on our campus and we got to know each other much better during that period,” Lynch recalled. “I was also Chairman of the Boys Scouts of America in the Philadelphia area and Dick was a strong supporter of the program, always available to speak at banquets or make appearances at fundraisers.”
Lynch, who was captain of the 1963 Navy football team and retired as a Rear Admiral, has always been impressed with the diverse nature of Vermeil. The California native owns a winery in Napa Valley and loves working on the 114-acre homestead in rural Chester County, Pennsylvania he calls “The Ranch.”
“Dick is such a quality, first-class guy. Everyone will tell you that,” Lynch said. “I just think Dick is the most interesting man, a real renaissance man. Naturally, I’m absolutely thrilled that he loves Navy football and everything it stands for. He loves the patriotism and dedication of the players, loves Coach Niumatalolo and loves the triple option.”
Whenever Vermeil attends Navy games, he watches the first half from Lynch’s private box before going to the field. Randy Cross, who serves as color commentator for the CBS Sports broadcast of Navy home games, played for Vermeil at UCLA.
“When Randy saw Coach Vermeil standing down on the field by the Navy bench, he had the CBS sideline reporter interview him,” said Hoffman, who was right there when Sheehan Stanwick-Burch did so.
So enjoyable was the Navy game-day experience in 2016 and 2017, Vermeil brought his wife Carolyn this season. They attended the Navy Football Brotherhood tailgate party beforehand.
“What a wonderful time we had. That alumni tailgate party with all the formers players is always a great experience,” Vermeil said. “All you do is meet people that impress you. You’re shaking hands with men who served as helicopter pilots or Navy SEALs, who reached the rank of admiral or captain. It makes you proud to be an American.”
Vermeil has gotten to know Niumatalolo quite well, especially after they both speak at the funeral of Dick Tomey. Niumatalolo played at Hawaii for Tomey, who served as defensive coordinator at UCLA under Vermeil.
“Ken is an outstanding coach and an even better human being. What he’s done with that Navy program is simply phenomenal,” Vermeil said.
Above all else, Vermeil enjoys watching the way Navy plays and getting to meet the players following games.
“I’m so amazed by those types of student-athletes, who are such great representatives of this country. To play football at such a high level while dealing with all the demands of a service academy is something to be admired,” Vermeil said. “I have so much respect for how hard those guys play.”
Vermeil strode the sidelines of stadiums in every NFL city and some of the most famous venues in Division I college football as well. He believes the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium experience is as good as it gets.
“I think it’s a spectacular atmosphere. There’s no end to all the positives you experience at a Navy football game,” he said. “I’m a Navy fan, believe me. It’s what we as Americans should all respect and appreciate.”