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Back in 1996, Dick Vermeil's schedule as a college football analyst for ABC-TV eased off enough for him to offer his wife, Carol, a present for which she had yearned since they were young marrieds: a summer vacation in France.

Vermeil threw himself into the planning, just as he does everything. He and Carol researched the most desirable areas and finally rented a villa in the south of France for July and August of '97. They devoured guide books. They spent almost a year taking French lessons.

Then something happened that Vermeil didn't want Carol to know. He started getting calls from the St. Louis Rams inquiring whether he would be interested in resuming his coaching career after a 14-year absence. He didn't tell Carol because he had promised her, after leaving the Philadelphia Eagles in 1982, that he would never coach again.

Then the calls from St. Louis became more persistent and finally Vermeil agreed to a contract. That was the easy part. The hard part was breaking the news to Carol. Her husband would not be anywhere near Cap Antibes or Cannes during the summer of '97. He would be in training camp.

"Honey," he said to her. "I have to tell you this. I'm going to take the Rams' head coaching job."

Long pause. Followed by this reply: "How do you say 'bleep you' in French?"

Carol Vermeil made peace with her unwanted situation long ago. Football wives often make the necessary adjustments because adjustments are so often asked of them. Last Sunday in the Vermeil box at the TWA Dome, she had voodoo dolls of Tampa Bay players stationed strategically and would ask visitors to stick pins in them. Maybe it worked, since the Rams held on to win the NFC Championship Game.

There is no word whether Carol Vermeil will have voodoo dolls dressed as Tennessee Titans in the Georgia Dome today, but her husband will be prepared for Super Bowl XXXIV, probably much better than he and his Eagles were prepared for Super Bowl XV.

Vermeil is the same nice guy he's always been. He's so emotional he can be counted on to weep at a dramatic victory, dramatic defeat or even the waiving of a player of whom he is fond. He wept four times after the victory over the Bucs. His naivete is legendary, but he's more realistic these days. Football still consumes him, but he'll come up for air and pay attention to non-football life now.

Back when he coached the Eagles in 1976 he was in a darkened room, breaking down film when his concentration was jarred by loud noises. Annoyed, he called his assistant Carl Peterson, now president of the Kansas City Chiefs, and asked him where the noise was coming from.

"Outside," explained Peterson. "It's the marching bands and the fireworks."

"For what?" demanded Vermeil.

"The birthday celebration."

"Whose birthday?"

"The country's birthday, Dick, it's the bicentennial celebration."

"I don't care whose birthday it is," demanded Vermeil. "I want those bands to stop."

Then there was the time a rock concert was scheduled for Veteran's Stadium and Vermeil fretted about what damage it might do to the turf and the distraction it might be for his team. The group scheduled to perform was the Rolling Stones.

"Do you know who the Rolling Stones are?" a young sportswriter asked Vermeil.

"No I don't," admitted Dick, "but my kids get their magazine."

When the Eagles took the field in Super Bowl XV, they marched out with their arms rigidly at their sides like third-graders at recess. This was not taken as a good sign by veteran Super Bowl watchers. Before the first quarter was over, Oakland had a 14-0 lead and the longest play in Super history up to then, an 80-yard touchdown pass play. The Eagles, wiretight from the start, were cooked right there and eventually lost, 27-10.

Ron Jaworski, his quarterback in Philadelphia, used to say that Vermeil was the ultimate control freak, down to nosing about into the operation of the ticket office.

Vermeil has been looser with this team. Last year he narrowly avoided a player revolt. This season he changed, delegating authority, conceding Charley Armey, the former Bills' scout now vice president of personnel for the Rams, an important say in choosing talent. He altered the training camp routine because he admitted he was draining his players' enthusiasm. What he doesn't concede is that he's changed a lot as a coach.

Yet he has changed significantly, and that's why the Rams changed from punching bag to Super Bowl favorites. From here they look like a winner today.

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