Dick Vermeil and Carl Peterson, football lifers who seemed connected at the hip during their seasons with UCLA, the Philadelphia Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs, are still together after all these years.
But instead of football, they are connected by upscale wine.
“Carl is like my brother,” the 78-year-old Vermeil said in a recent interview. “At one time, I used to think of him as a son, then he got older and I didn’t.”
Peterson, who declined to give his age but is believed to be around 70, also thinks of Vermeil as a sibling.
“But as an OLDER brother,” he cracked.
The two have developed a chemistry over the years. Like an old married couple, they can finish each others’ sentences. They dabbled in the wine business about 20 years ago, but went heavily into the industry—with two other partners and three former Kansas City Chiefs players—in 2008.
From the football fields to the vineyards, Vermeil and Peterson are a natural fit.
“When you coach together like we did, in the atmospheres in college and different pro teams, you develop a real positive relationship,” Vermeil said. “Carl and I became very close friends, with great love and respect for each other. It goes way beyond just a working relationship.”
Vermeil, who was so dedicated to coaching that it wasn’t unusual for him to work through the night and sleep in his Veterans Stadium office when he coached the Eagles from 1976 to 1982, has the same passion about wine that he had for football. It takes him back to his family roots in Napa Valley, and it is why in 2008 he launched Vermeil Wines, a boutique winery in Calistoga, Calif., 70 miles north of San Francisco.
What once was a hobby has turned into a business for energetic-beyond-his-years Vermeil, who as a youngster used to help his grandfather make wine.
“I’ve been making wine for a long, long time. I made 150, 200 cases a year since the 1990s,” he said. “The first bottling was 1999; we made 150 cases of Cabernet-Sauvignon. We turned that whole process into a business in 2008.
“We did 2,500 cases last year.”
Vermeil, who lives on a 114-acre farm in East Fallowfield, Chester County, PA, and does lots of charity work in the Philadelphia area, said it “wasn’t my idea to turn it into a business, and we did it. I’m not sorry we did, but it does require a lot of time.”
The former coach, a man who got the Eagles to the 1981 Super Bowl and won the title with St. Louis in 2000, spends his time promoting his wines and trying to get them into liquor stores.
Peterson, who also is involved in FanVision, an interactive, hand-held media device company, is one of Vermeil’s silent partners.
Vermeil’s wines have received strong reviews and a multitude of awards, but the business is still making the long climb to try to join the big boys.
“We’re breaking even right now,” Vermeil said. “It is getting better, but it’s a struggle.”
Back in the early 1970s, Vermeil was an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Rams when he met Peterson while his NFL team held spring practices at UCLA, where Peterson was an assistant.
“You could tell right away he was a very special coach,” Peterson said.
When Vermeil took over as UCLA’s head coach in 1974, he retained Peterson on his staff.
“He interviewed nine of us between midnight and 3 a.m.,” Peterson recalled. “He was still with the Rams and they were in the playoffs, but that was the only time he had, and he retained seven of the nine assistant coaches. Not only did he ask me to stay as the receivers coach, but to be his administrative assistant. He gave me more responsibility than I had before, and I appreciated that very much.
“And that’s how it all began.”
In their second year together, UCLA won the Rose Bowl by stunning then-No. 1 Ohio State. Vermeil became a hot commodity. He was named the Eagles’ head coach and he took Peterson with him.
“I was thrilled about that,” Peterson said.
In his first year with the Eagles in 1976, Peterson coached the tight ends and was an administrative assistant. In his second year, player-personnel director Herman Ball retired, and Vermeil approached Peterson.
“He pulled me in and said, ‘Look, I need someone in the front office, someone I can trust. You have a doctorate in administration and I’m sure you can handle it. Would you consider doing it?’” Peterson said.
Peterson wanted a night to think it over.
The next day, Vermeil asked Peterson if he had made a decision.
“I told him I’d probably rather be the guy who does the hiring and firing than the guy that is always hired and fired,” Peterson remembered with a smile. “I said to him, ‘In other words, I’m taking the job.’ And he says to me, ‘Are you going to fire me?’ I said, ‘How can I fire you when you hired me!?’”
They laughed. They have done a lot of laughing over the years, had a lot of success, and built a bond that has never been severed.
Peterson, who later built the Philadelphia Stars into a USFL powerhouse, said things weren’t easy in his first year in the Eagles’ front office.
“We didn’t have many draft choices,” he said. “I mean, I was signing everybody off the street. Vince Papale and all the rest. This was in ’77. And years later, I had a chance to hire the guy who hired me, Dick Vermeil. Is that a great story or what? That doesn’t happen very often.”
Peterson, then Kansas City’s president and general manager, hired Vermeil to coach his Chiefs in 2001.
“It turned out to be his last five years in the NFL. And through all these years, I got to know his wife, Carol—I call her Saint Carol because she puts up with Dick and the hours he puts in—and their three kids and their grandchildren and all the rest. It was so great to have him here with me and to spend five years together with the Chiefs.”
Peterson “offered me the job in ’89 and I didn’t go, and Marty Schottenheimer went and did a great job,” Vermeil said.
At the time, Vermeil was enamored with broadcasting.
“I told him, ‘At the minimal, I want you to come here every summer and do the color analysis of a Kansas City Chiefs preseason [game],’” Peterson said. “He said he would love to do it. He did that for me for eight years, and then he called me one day and said, ‘Carl, I took the job.’”
Job? What job?
“What are you talking about?” Peterson said.
Vermeil: “I took the coaching job with St. Louis.”
Peterson: “Right state, wrong team. What the hell are you doing?”
Fifteen years after the emotionally drained coach left the Eagles by introducing the phrase “burned out” to professional sports, Vermeil was back on the sidelines.
Every time the Rams’ head coaching spot was open, Peterson said, owner Georgia Frontiere would call Vermeil. This time, he couldn’t say no. “Her late husband, Carroll Rosenbloom, had once told her that someday, that bright young assistant coach of the Los Angeles Rams would be the head coach of the Rams,” Peterson said. “Dick took the job and we talked every week.”
In Vermeil’s third year with St. Louis, the Rams won the Super Bowl. Vermeil then retired from coaching for the second time.
“But I could tell he had a void in his heart and still wanted to coach,” Peterson said.
A year later, Peterson talked his “brother” into becoming the Chiefs’ head coach.
“I went after him and got him,” said Peterson, who helped the Chiefs register nine playoff berths during his 20 seasons (1989-2008) in the front office. “I got Carol, too, because she’s the one I had to recruit. And he did a great job for five years and then decided he had enough.”
But the Vermeil-Peterson partnership wasn’t over when Vermeil stepped down after directing the Chiefs to a 10-6 record in 2005. Their wine company keeps them connected.
“What I love about Dick, he’s retired from coaching, but he’s selling the Dick Vermeil wine like he’s coaching again,” Peterson said. “He’s all over the country, doing wine tastings and wine dinners. Anything Dick does, he puts his whole heart and soul into it. His enthusiasm is infectious. I’ve been to so many wine tastings and wine dinners with him, and he gets up there and talks about it and the people love him…and it’s a labor of love for him.”
Peterson said it was Vermeil who approached him about joining his wine team in the late 1990s.
“He said he always wanted to make a wine named after his father and grandfather. I said great, and I invested a few dollars. This was a boutique wine and I think we did 250 cases a year at that point,” Peterson said. “But after he was with me and the Chiefs for five years and retires again, Dick and I and our two business partners wanted to make a real business out of it, with a marketing guy, a general manager. So the four of us pumped in some more money”—as did former Chiefs Todd Collins and Trent Green—and it became a serious project.
Throughout Vermeil’s NFL coaching career, starting with the Eagles, “he would always find time to teach his players about fine wine,” Peterson said. “In the off-season, he and Carol would do these barbecues and they’d have players and their wives or girlfriends over and he would always serve wine and talk about it with them. He’d have the defensive backs over one night, then all the defensive linemen or all the wide receivers…. Everybody was family to Dick and I think that’s one of the reasons he has always been so successful at every level of coaching. He relates so well to players and their families, and he doesn’t forget them after their careers are over.”
Vermeil grew up in the Napa Valley, and when he was a youngster, he helped his grandfather make different wines.
“Wine was always a big ceremony at our dinner table,” Vermeil said. “There was a discussion about taste and blends and aromas. It was always a part of our dinner conversation, especially when we were opening a new vintage that my grandfather had made. It left a positive imprint on me.”
Vermeil said his paternal grandfather was 100 percent French and “my grandmother on that side was 100 percent Italian. We ended up in the Napa Valley because the Italian side of my dad’s family was successful in San Francisco and started buying properties in the Napa Valley and the Calistoga area. And this home which is still there—the home I was born in—is why my dad ended up staying in Calistoga and opening up a garage and living the rest of his life there.”
Vermeil gets back to the Napa Valley three or four times a year.
“My part of the business is selling it,” said Vermeil, who has six wines—five reds, one white. “So I’m in St. Louis, I’m in Kansas City, I’m in Houston. Sometime’s I’m in Florida. I’m all around, selling it.”
In the last several months, Vermeil said, he has spent more time in the Philadelphia area “because some of the state stores have our wine and I’ve stayed here and helped market it. In the fall, I spend time in St. Louis, Kansas City and Houston.”
“A little winery cannot make inexpensive wine because there’s no volume,” he said. “They have to make good wine. Big wineries can make a lot of wine and sell it for $20 a bottle and they’re making 500,000 cases. We’re making 2,500 cases and we’re making quality wine. We’re winning awards for our wines and we’re proud of them—and they keep getting better.”
Vermeil said the average price for his white wine is “in the $20s, and we have some reds in the low $40s. We have Cabernets at $80. A lot of time it depends on how much you buy, too. We have a $150 label called Rosedale Red which is 100 percent quality…. But we only make 100 cases” of the high-priced wines.
“We go to great lengths to make them great.”
Just like he and Peterson did on the football field.