Cunningham didn't bother to shop last Christmas for his wife. He had never purchased a Christmas present in his life, he said. His schedule as a football coach was too hectic, his time too precious. Cunningham's practices echoed with profanities strung together so tightly that they were humorous, not effective. Players sprinted from station to station as the horn blew during a Cunningham minicamp. A practice's success or failure depended on the number of snaps accumulated and the hustle a player showed between those snaps. Cunningham's Chiefs lost as many as they won, and in the world of NFL football that isn't enough.
Vermeil was hired for $3.3 million a year to do better. What is already evident is that Vermeil's Chiefs -- and his home life -- won't look anything like those of recent coaches. (This coach seems unlikely to humiliate his wife at Christmas or at Tanner's.)
At the Chiefs' minicamp, Carol Vermeil sits atop a golf cart. She wears a pair of khaki shorts, a sunbonnet and a smile. Her husband stands in the middle of about a hundred players and coaches while she waits.
"Not every pass is going to be perfect," says Vermeil after Marvin "Snoop" Minnis makes a difficult catch of a ball thrown a step behind him and two feet from the ground. "That's why they pay you the big bucks," Vermeil says as he pats his rookie receiver on the rear.
Nursing a bruised shoulder, Sylvester Morris stands in sweats near the other receivers, watching the drills. Vermeil walks up and massages the receiver's shoulders while chuckling and talking quietly. Morris had a disappointing rookie year after the Chiefs' number-one draft pick in 2000 showed early promise with three touchdown catches against the Chargers in week three. The addition of Minnis means added pressure on Morris to perform. Their conversation is private, but Vermeil's show of support is very public.
Al Saunders, the Chiefs' new assistant head coach and offensive coordinator, came over from St. Louis with Vermeil. He left the Chiefs two years ago when Carl Peterson picked Cunningham for the top job over him. To say Saunders is a different kind of football coach than Cunningham is like saying The Christian Science Monitor is a different kind of publication than Hustler.
Saunders lines up like a safety, head up on Derrick Alexander during a passing drill. Alexander hauls in a skinny post pattern with Saunders right on his heels. Alexander kicks it into third gear and leaves the 51-year-old coach in his wake. "I'm getting too old to chase you down," pants Saunders. But he's not too old to repeat this routine with every twenty-something receiver trying to make the Chiefs' roster. Minnis catches a routine pass over the middle, and Saunders follows him to the goal line and back to the huddle. Just as the rookie relaxes, Saunders spikes the football from his grasp with his right fist. "Hold onto the ball at all times," Saunders says.
"Great, great guy. Great coach," says Minnis. "He makes it easier for the younger guys coming in and the team in general because he's into the game and he's a winner. By looking at him, we feed off that, and that's going to make us a winning team."
"If you work hard and have fun, that's the big thing," says Vermeil following the minicamp workout. "There will be time for us to get serious and get our game faces on. That's not now. Now's the time to learn and have fun working and getting to know each other and come together."
Vermeil exits the practice field with his left arm draped around his wife. How good or bad his football team will be is unknown. Do you think Carol would like a home playoff game for Christmas?