Meet Coach Vermeil

May 21, 2024

Newspaper clipping showing varsity swim team

Varsity Swim Team

Early in the first semester of my junior year in high school, I met the new swimming coach. He was the football coach in the fall and the swimming coach in the spring. These were his first head coaching positions since getting his master’s degree at San Jose State where he had also played quarterback. He was only 24 years old but had a no-nonsense aura about him. In fact, he had a very strong presence. His name was Coach Vermeil.

The Direct Approach

He was direct. In fact, his first words to me were, “Joe, you’re fat.”

Taken aback, I said, “I want to be a better swimmer. What should I do?”

“Stop eating dessert today. Switch from whole milk to non-fat milk,” was Coach Vermeil’s immediate response.

Carnation brand powdered skim milkNeedless to say, our short initial encounter left me in a state of shock.

Turns out, in 1960, non-fat milk was hard to get. You had to make it from Carnation non-fat milk powder. It smelled terrible and tasted worse.  But, I was determined.

I got major push-back from my mother on dessert. Her argument was “a meal without dessert is not a balanced meal.”

Clearly, I was on my own. But, from the day I met Coach Vermeil, I stopped eating dessert. And I drank nothing but powdered non-fat milk.

I started to lean out.

An Unlikely Tutor

Another shock during the first semester of my junior year in high school: out of the blue, my dad decided to teach me how to study. He spent a couple of hours on several Saturday mornings. First, he explained his method. Then, he showed me what he meant. Then he had me apply his method while he watched.  It was a process of outlining the book – U.S. History was the class we started with – reading a paragraph then putting it in your own words.  It was a grueling, time-consuming process but it forced you to really think through what you were trying to learn. You ended up reading the paragraph several times and physically writing out the essence of the paragraph in your own words. My retention of the material increased dramatically.

By the end of the first 6 weeks of the semester, I was getting all A’s and B’s. At this point my dad stopped helping. My report card for the second 6 weeks was mostly as with a couple B’s. During this time, I was gagging down the reconstituted Carnation non-fat milk powder and avoiding all desserts despite my mother’s arguments to the contrary. I was also jogging a mile or two every day and continuing my weight training program in my room.

By the end of the semester, my final report card was straight A’s. I could not wait for my dad to come home from work. I was so proud to show him what I had done.

He took a cursory glance at my report card. His only comment was: “Don’t let it be a flash in the pan.” And he headed off to hit his golf balls.  No hug.  No handshake. No celebration. No bonding. There was zero spirit of encouragement.

Devastated, my joy and enthusiasm fizzled out of me like air out of a flat tire. All I felt was empty. I withdrew to my room.

Things Begin to Take Shape

Swim trophyWith second semester I had 6th period P.E. Coach Vermeil started the season off with running and intense weightlifting and hundreds of sit-ups before we got in the water. His practices were longer and harder than any workouts I had ever endured. I was sore and tired.

At dinner I stuffed myself with meat loaf or hot dogs and beans then fell into bed exhausted.

I was getting leaner, faster and actually began to win a few races. I was a sprinter which meant I swam the 50-yard freestyle, the 100-yard freestyle and anchored either the 200-yard freestyle relay or the 200-yard medley relay.

My times steadily improved.

As the league championships approached, I realized I actually had a chance to win a medal. Reading the sporting clips in the San Mateo Times sports section, it looked like my strongest competition was my own teammate, Johnny Allen. Johnny was a senior and the best swimmer on the team.

In the 50-yard freestyle league finals, I was soundly beaten by Jack Reading from San Mateo high school.  When the race was over and I was second, his only comment was: “Is that the best you can do?” I was not going to forget that dig. I still got a silver medal.

Silver swimming medalIn the 100-yard freestyle I raced against Johnny Allen. We went stroke for stroke and he barely touched me out.  After we got out of the pool, Johnny shook my hand and said, “Great race!” Again, I had won a silver medal. When the season was over, at the sports banquet, Johnny Allen got the well-deserved MVP trophy for most valuable swimmer. I was pleasantly surprised when Coach Dick Vermeil called me up to the front of the room.  Coach handed me the trophy for most improved swimmer and gave me a big hug. “Great season, Joe” he said warmly. He made me feel so good and so proud.  Coach Vermeil is that kind of guy.  He is an encourager.  He made me want to work even harder and get even better. That was one of the most special nights of my life.

In one year, Coach Dick Vermeil had changed my life forever. I had never experienced that kind of encouragement and affirmation before in my life.  

Thank you for listening.
As always, I wish you and your family the very best of health.