This week, he happens to be in Carson, working with college football players who may not be ripe enough to become high-round NFL draft picks, but have the mechanics to have some kind of future in the game as a professional.
The 76-year-old former UCLA head coach who parlayed a victory over No. 1 Ohio State in the 1976 Rose Bowl into 15 years of NFL head coaching with Philadelphia, St. Louis and Kansas City will coach the one of the two rosters of seniors who are NFL-draft eligible in Saturday’s NFLPA Collegiate Bowl at the Home Depot Center. It’s the second year that the league’s players association has sponsored the game, which may not yet attract the A-listers who gravitate to the Senior Bowl or East-West Shrine exhibitions, but tries to offer more in education than just physical evaluation.
Some of the players invited are projected to be fifth-to-seventh round draft selections. Vermeil, who coached the winning squad last season, coaches the National roster that includes quarterback Dayne Crist, the former Notre Dame High quarterback who went to play for Charlie Weis at both the University of Notre Dame and Kansas, as well as UCLA safety Andrew Abbott, linebacker Damien Holmes and defensive tackle Donovan Carter. Those three Bruins will have a chance to tackle former teammate, tailback David Allen, who is on the American roster, coached by Herm Edwards.
Some of the practice sessions are televised on ESPNU (Thursday, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 1:30-to-3:30 p.m.) prior to Saturday’s game (3 p.m., ESPN2).
Prior to collecting his coaching staff together for the first time, Vermeil talked about how this all works into a win-win situation for all involved:
QUESTION: What would benefit someone playing in this game versus some of the other college all-star games?
ANSWER: The NFLPA’s whole approach to this is a little different. Yes, it is to give the players an opportunity to display their wares to the NFL, but it’s also to give them an introductory course on how to live your life as an NFL player, what problems to expect, how to solve them. The NFLPA is very serious about this orientation approach.
Q: What’s your philosophy about post-season college all-star games? Wouldn’t it seem like in today’s age, scouts and teams can get so much information game films, and they see much more at the NFL combine? What’s the value of all these games — isn’t there a greater risk of someone getting hurt?
A: You always a risk of someone getting banged up. That’s the nature of the game. But the value is they get to see them play physically in person — and there is no way you can evaluate somebody too much. There is a way to evaluate somebody too little. That’s why there are free agents who go on to become All Pros, like Priest Holmes. No one drafted him (out of the University of Texas). He goes on to set an NFL record with 26 touchdowns in one season. Never drafted. That’s one reason why I have him here as my running backs coach.
Q: If you look at last year’s game, the game MVP was G.J. Kinne, a quarterback from Tulsa, now with San Antonio Talons of the Arena League. He went undrafted in 2012. Do these players understand the odds they’re up against, the lack of guarantees of being even drafted?
A: Oh, yeah, I think they do and we’re very honest with them. We tell them how tough it’s going to be. We also use that as a motivational tool to really work and practice with great focus and concentration and intensity. So these scouts can see you at maybe a level they haven’t been able to see you at before.
Q: What was your takeaway from the first one of these games last year, when it was also open to underclassmen — but that meant no NFL scouts could attend the game? Did that affect the quality of the rosters, the attraction to fans?
A: I think it affected the quality of the players getting here. We didn’t get many of the non-eligible draft kids to come anyway. But, again, if half the purpose of this is an orientation to the NFL, the reason for having the game was still solid in relation to the NFLPA philosophy. It’s better now in that they’re only allowing draft-eligible players, so it increases that other percentage with having the scouts present. Therefore we were able to recruit more kids for this game.
Q: They also try to bill this as the only pro football game in L.A. What’s your thoughts on when we see another Rams or Raiders or any team coming back here?
A: I have no idea but I sure hope it’s soon. I cannot believe we don’t have a team in Los Angeles. What market is it rated? New York, Chicago . . . they’re all in the same family as terms of population and interest. I think it’s gonna happen but I don’t understand all the mechanics and all the problems. I understand someone trying to build a new stadium but can’t until they get a guarantee of a team moving there, so that’s what I was told.
Q: The fact you’ve been in L.A. in both the college and the pros (as a special teams assistant to George Allen with the Rams in1969), what is L.A. missing by not having a team?
A: Of course, fans still watch the games on television. But you get a team there, and they come aboard, that TV audience will magnify –it’ll quadruple — and then you get a very serious media coverage of the National Football League again. The media there in Southern California is as big as you can get with radio, television and print. It just adds a whole other dynamic that almost no other city can. The fact it’s taken this long shows you how complicated it must be.
Q: So with USC and UCLA as L.A.’s version of a major football presence, did you get a chance to evaluate Matt Barkley’s play much this year for the Trojans?
A: I saw him more his junior year, and there’s no question he has a lot of talent. But honestly, I really don’t follow college ball that much anymore. Saturdays, I’m either hunting, fishing or working, and Sundays, I’m on my rear end watching (NFL) games all day.
Q: You’ve no doubt followed Jim Mora’s success in his first year at UCLA. Was that a surprise with how fast he turned things around?
A: I follow the Bruins, sure. The timing was right for Jim. I’ve known him since he was a little kid. I guess I brought him to UCLA originally when I hired his dad to coach my linebackers. I thought he was the right fit from an experience standpoint, from a personality standpoint, an emotional standpoint and from a commitment standpoint. They’ve got a good one and I hope they keep him.
Q: You should get some kind of finders’ fees for all the way people have come to you for advice on NFL openings with the Eagles and Chiefs and other places.
A: Well, Andy Reid found a job himself with his 14 years of NFL experience (going to Kansas City). No one’s asked me much about the Eagles. The owner of the Chiefs called me for suggestions, and I gave him three names: Andy Reid, Jon Gruden and Bill Cower. That’s what you need, one those three. They called in Andy, he called me to ask what I think and I said, ‘Go, it’s a great city to coach in. A great family and a great franchise.”
Q: If Jim Mora came to you asking if he should take the Chargers job, what would you tell him?
A: I’m selfish. I’d say: Stay at UCLA and get those Bruins into a Rose Bowl and a national championship. Worry about that other (NFL) stuff down the road. Of course, I was only (at UCLA) two years.
Q: What are the pros and cons of having college coaches jump and take an NFL job? Some make it look easier than others, but you may have a better idea of what NFL teams are looking for these days.
A: Anyone who goes into the NFL and does a good job from a different environment ends up being a source that other owners want to evaluate when it’s their turn to hire somebody. And I think they’ve gotta be careful in hiring some coordinators. Some are really good because the head coach is also focused on that side of the ball and the coordinator gets a lot of credit but maybe the head coach is doing a lot of the strong decision making process. They’ve got to be careful hiring the right person out of college. How does he put a staff together? It’s hard to put an NFL staff together when you’ve been in college your whole career.
Q: Is it even harder for a college coach to keep his staff together as the program becomes successful?
A: It’s easier to keep college coaching staffs in tact than NFL coaching staffs. But a lot too depends on the environment, the cost of living, and the money put into the program. In the SEC, why do they keep winning? It’s the money they keep putting into the programs. It’s enormous, as is the pay scale for the coaches, so it’s easier for someone to stay when you get recruited for another job that’s half the money but working just as hard.