Eagles coaches infamous for setting training-camp tone

FILE PHOTO George Hegamin felt Andy Reid's quiet wrath in 1999 when the coach made him push a sled in the intense heat.
FILE PHOTO George Hegamin felt Andy Reid's quiet wrath in 1999 when the coach made him push a sled in the intense heat.
Posted: July 22, 2013

This is how a typical day went at Dick Vermeil's first training camp as the Eagles' head coach in 1976:

Players were awakened in their dorm rooms at Widener University at 6:45 a.m. Breakfast was at 7, and it was mandatory - which meant, for a lot of players, checking in, grabbing a glass of orange juice and running back to bed.

Special-teams players began practice at about 8:45. The full squad began at 9 a.m. Players were in full pads, and there was plenty of hitting, and practice sometimes pushed until noon - including some striders and other conditioning drills at the end, just for fun. Then there was lunch and a nap and another practice at 4 p.m. - full pads again, hitting again, usually lasting past 6:30. Then there was dinner, followed by meetings that usually lasted until 10:30.

Curfew was at 11. At 11:01, if you were not checked in, the fine was $100. From there, $2 was added for every minute late - and the clock did not stop until the player found Vermeil personally and advised him of his arrival. (Back then, this was considered real money, by the way.)

Then there were the weigh-ins. If a player was up to 10 pounds over his team-mandated weight, the fine was $25 a pound. Thereafter, the fine was $50 a pound.

Two players each were awarded a bottle of beer by Vermeil early in that first camp, because they had to go a whole week playing offensive tackle without a backup, taking every snap, enduring every bit of contact, twice a day. Soon, though, both had quit - just up and left. About a dozen players did that in the first days of that camp, which prompted Vermeil to say, "Seems like we're getting to the point in our society where the easiest thing to do is quit. I guess there's nothing left in our society as tough as football."

There were no smoothies.

Thirty-seven years later, Chip Kelly's first training camp as the Eagles' head coach is upon us. Changing football coaches is not like changing baseball managers, where all you have to do is fiddle with the bunt sign and away you go. Changing coaches in the NFL means changing everything - entire staffs, and playing philosophies, and patterns of discipline, and the way you do everything.

In the modern era, the Eagles have had coaches who flirted with the cutting edge, but none like Kelly. Vermeil was not anti-analytical by any means; he had a UCLA track coach teaching his players proper running technique one day in that first camp, and Vermeil was a stat freak before his time. Buddy Ryan did bring his "46 defense" to the NFL, and it confounded people for a while. Both Andy Reid and his defensive coordinator, Jim Johnson, pushed convention and were innovative.

Kelly, though, is a whole 'nother animal. And just as with Vermeil, Ryan and Reid, his first camp will set a tone and create the start of a narrative that may or may not hold up over time.

Vermeil, Ryan and Reid all held camps that were considered brutal in their time. The times changed, of course. The truth was that Vermeil's camps were physically tougher than Ryan's, and that Ryan's were physically tougher than Reid's, and that Reid's were physically tougher than Kelly's will be.

Still, those first summers were a time for statements.

For Vermeil, it was the simple notion that things would be different for a franchise that had been terrible for the better part of 15 years. Different meant work. Different meant discipline. Different meant pushing people until they snapped, and then seeing how they snapped back. As Vermeil said in the middle of that first, awful camp, "I've talked and talked and talked about building a foundation the first year, and part of that is developing a team personality. I've got one in mind, too. I want the Eagles to be known as a battling, scrapping, never-give-up bunch."

For Ryan, the statements were a little bit more complicated. He wanted toughness, but he also wanted swagger. Above all, though, he wanted bonding, both to him and to one another. He did it by killing them physically, belittling those who could not keep up, and thus creating a fraternity among the survivors - and it was brutal. On a typical day, Ryan mocked one player who was hospitalized more than once with heat-related problems, calling him, "The General." "You know," he said, "like General Hospital."

For Reid, the statements were different still. After the blood and guts (and highs and lows) of Ray Rhodes, he wanted discipline and consistency to be the rule. That was the mandate - and it, too, would be reinforced with hitting in training camp. If it was nothing like Vermeil, it still was more than any NFL team of these times. That camp also featured the single lousiest thing Reid ever did as coach - forcing a player, George Hegamin, to push a blocking sled up and down the field, in front of reporters, as a punishment for walking out of camp.

Now comes Kelly, with his loud music and constant motion and plays signaled in by waggling hands and emphasis on nutrition and rest and personalized post-practice smoothies for all. Fans will analyze every nuance and eat up every pronouncement from the new coach. The whole Chip Kelly experience is still very much the Chip Kelly honeymoon.

All of which suggests a quote from Vermeil, on the eve of that '76 camp.

He said: "I thank the people here for their patience and loyalty, and I will work for their respect. So far, it's been like a honeymoon for me, but I know as soon as we lose a few, that'll all be over. I can live with that, because I know what I'm working to accomplish."

Then, now.

In 1976, training camp opened on July 3. This is not a misprint. It was the earliest camp in the NFL that year, the earliest camp in memory for an NFL team - and that it came on the eve of the bicentennial celebrations in Philadelphia mattered not to the new coach. To say that Vermeil was single-minded does not begin to tell the story. As he said at the time, "Funny, but I've been here 4 months and my office is in the stadium where the Phillies play, [but] I've never seen them."

He had taken over a bad team surrounded by a bad odor. The highlight/lowlight of the previous season had been a news conference in which coach Mike McCormack was asked a rather pointed question by broadcaster/former player Tom Brookshier, and which McCormack shockingly chose to answer.

Brookshier: "Mike, how many dogs do you have on the roster?"

McCormack: "If you're talking about real mutts, I'd say two."

The next week, fans at Veterans Stadium paraded around with a large inflatable dog bone and chanted, "Al-po, Al-po . . . " McCormack's fate was sealed.

Vermeil arrived from UCLA, and the pendulum swung. You would see it from McCormack to Vermeil, and from Marion Campbell to Ryan, and from Rhodes to Reid - easier, then tougher. In the case of Vermeil, linebacker John Bunting explained it at the time, saying, "This isn't meant as a criticism, but in other years, summer camp was almost pleasant, something you almost looked forward to."

This was not going to be pleasant. The feel-good story of training camp was Vince Papale, of "Invincible" fame - but he was the only one who felt good as that camp wore on. A line from that movie is not attributed to a specific player but was believed to have been spoken by offensive tackle Stan Walters. In the middle of the hell, Vermeil and Walters were walking off the field after practice. Walters was wondering about why things had to be so hard, and the conversation went something like this:

Vermeil: "I haven't found the last three guys on the roster yet."

Walters: "But why do you have to kill the first 42 guys to find them?"

The truth is that Vermeil's '76 camp might have been the worst, but they were all bad. He had veterans quitting in his last camp, just as in his first camp. He had people being rushed to the hospital with heat illnesses. One time, a couple of years in, a fringe player famously quit by leaving the field and then removing his equipment, piece by piece, and flinging them away as he climbed the series of steps that led from the sunken practice fields up to the locker room.

But the coach knew no other way. And in that first year, especially, it was about changing a culture.

"I tell you, we're going to hit a helluva lot better this year than they did last year," Vermeil said, in the second week of that camp. "Too often, people talk about doing things, but that's all. Hell, they didn't take the Marines and train them on the beach with ice cream in their hands and then tell them to go fight. We're preparing these guys for 11 individual wars; that's what it amounts to."

Vermeil said stuff like that all the time. The Eagles were not that big a deal that first summer - the stories of this murderous camp were buried in the newspapers. The team had been bad forever, and the Phils were in the process of winning the division for the first time since baseball had divisions, and the All-Star Game was at the Vet that summer, and the Montreal Olympics were also being held. Long, hard practices for weeks on end were not big news. Neither were six losses in six exhibition games.

But Vermeil was undeterred.

"Our time is coming," he said. "I've been involved in coaching long enough to know all that hard work doesn't lead you nowhere."

Ten years later was Buddy Ryan's first camp. It opened with large crowds at West Chester - Ryan was a phenomenon before anybody even put on shoulder pads with his pronouncements about overweight players, his penchant for calling people by their numbers and not their names, and his overall brashness. As he said just before the start of camp, with a smile, "I'm not overly critical of people, I don't think. I just want perfection. What the hell?"

The fans who came out to those first few days saw sadism and nothing short of it. Players were dropping to the ground and vomiting routinely. It was not unusual for nearly a dozen players to have to be taken to Paoli Memorial Hospital for intravenous rehydrating at night. The work was hard and long, and the running after practice was cruel, and the hitting during practice was both fierce and often.

I wrote this after a few days at that camp:

"A snapshot from what most Eagles are calling their toughest training camp:

"The receiver, wearing white, is running an out pattern. The defender, wearing green, is playing about 5 yards off.

"The receiver cuts.

"The ball is in the air.

"The defender hesitates ever so slightly, then comes up and buries the receiver. The ball pops loose.

"Hushed words follow.

" 'You all right, man?'

" 'Yeah.'

" 'Good.'

"The receiver obviously did not want to get hit. It was just as obvious that the defensive back did not want to hit him. But there it was anyway, the collision of teammates that neither of them wanted.

"Off in the background, standing deep in the secondary, was Buddy Ryan. The collision was for his benefit, no one else's. That is clear; that is understood. Joe Woolley, the Eagles' director of player personnel, sums up the feeling nicely:

" 'Right now," he said, "everybody's afraid not to make the hit.' "

The irony of all of this is that Buddy Ryan actually hated training camp. He thought it was "unnatural" to lock up grown men like that for several weeks at a time, and he promised everyone the shortest possible training camp starting in Year 2, a promise he kept.

But, first, they had to get through Year 1.

It was an unforgettable few weeks. When he talked to reporters, Ryan was outrageous, twice a day. The thing that probably got the most traction was when he grabbed a public-address microphone after a Saturday practice and told the assembled thousands that his intention was, indeed, to win the NFC East in his first year. The fans ate it up. The media could not believe their good fortune.

The disdain Ryan showed for the players was funny sometimes, but uncomfortable other times. He made his first roster cuts and said they were so obvious, his wife could have done it. He had no time whatsoever for people who were hurt, or who couldn't handle the heat. He moved players up and down the depth chart seemingly on a whim, screwing with people's heads for fun. No one felt comfortable, which seemed to be the point.

(OK. Reggie White felt comfortable. But that was about it.)

The summer highlight was a trip to suburban Detroit, where the Eagles scrimmaged with the Lions for a few days before the first exhibition game. To say that Ryan was a boorish guest was to insult boors. He complained about the accommodations, and the towels, and his players started brawls with the Lions in practice. For his final act, Ryan never showed the Lions his 46 defense in practice, but then unfurled it in the game, along with a bunch of blitzes that just wrecked what was supposed to be a gentlemanly, vanilla preseason opener.

After cuts were made that summer, Ryan signed a player let go by the Lions, defensive back William Frizzell. Asked why, the coach referred back to those summer practice brawls in Michigan.

"He was the only one who fought back," Ryan said.

Which pretty much summed up what he was trying to accomplish that first summer in West Chester.

Ray Rhodes had come to the Eagles from the San Francisco 49ers, where he had worked for the genius, Bill Walsh. From that experience, he brought a not-too-physical approach to training camp. From his own personality, he brought an outrageous sense of drama to most every situation, a profane fire-and-brimstone approach that led to highs and lows and consistent inconsistency. In 1999, Andy Reid was hired to change that.

We all know he brought those big, thick binders that detailed every step he wanted to take. In there somewhere was a plan for training camp that was more harsh than any in the league at that time. For the first 3 days of camp, there would be long sessions in full pads, twice a day. There would be several periods of hitting in each session.

The periods of hitting would continue, pretty much every day, for a couple of weeks. Almost nobody did it that way anymore in 1999 - and Reid kept doing it until 2011, when a new collective-bargaining agreement drastically reduced the amount of permitted contact during practice. Reid can take this distinction to his grave: He held the last tough training camp in NFL history.

Along the way, the hitting continued, even as more precautions were taken - cold caps to quickly reduce a distressed player's body temperature; thermometers, ingested by some players, and then monitored electronically by trainers to measure core body temperature; analysis of players' perspiration so that individually specific drinks - including, yes, protein shakes that could be called smoothies - could be concocted to replace the lost electrolytes.

But the hitting did continue.

The players were predictably taken aback, especially in that first camp. But in subsequent years, as a pattern developed - specifically, the Eagles finished just about every season strong - the veterans would pull aside the younger players and explain that there really was a method to what they considered madness.

But there was this one thing, the most petty thing Reid did as the Eagles' coach. It came after an offensive lineman named George Hegamin, upset about being dropped on the depth chart, left camp for a few hours, sought out his agent, listened as his agent told him to return to camp, and then returned.

The next day came the public flogging.

Marcus Hayes described the scene:

"Reid kept him after the morning practice. With a towel around his neck and an impassioned look on his face, Reid stood beside Hegamin and slowly barked commands as the 6-7, 331-pound lineman slammed into a blocking sled in 80-degree heat.

"A few front-office employees, a cluster of running backs, a ball boy or two and a trainer stood inside the fenced-in fields. A gaggle of reporters witnessed the penance from just outside.

"Hegamin started at the goal line of the northernmost practice field behind Veterans Stadium. He hit the sled again . . . and again . . . and again. It would move four feet; six feet; two feet, then twist sideways. Hegamin would reach up and straighten it, or maybe Reid would turn it back around for him.

"Hegamin finished after about five minutes. Reid abruptly turned and strode away, resembling a troubled father after meting out discipline. Over Reid's right shoulder an exhausted Hegamin was down on both knees."

It was the least player-friendly thing Reid ever did. It also spoke to the danger of early narratives. Reid, Ryan and Vermeil all began as dictators and that was the story of their first training camps - but, in the end, all three of them were somewhere between well-liked and revered by their players. All three of them ended up being quite protective of the players whom they worked so hard at the start.

All of which has to give you some pause, about drawing early conclusions, as another Eagles coach prepares to open his first training camp, as he begins to tell his story.

Complete coverage of theĀ 2013 Philadelphia Eagles training camp

Email: hofmanr@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @theidlerich

Blog: ph.ly/DNL

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