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"I think the time is right'

Dick Vermeil leaves coaching for second _ and, he says, last _ time on best of terms.

This time, Dick Vermeil didn't leave because of burnout.

When the 63-year-old stepped down as coach of the world champion St. Louis Rams on Tuesday, his flame was burning brighter than that of any other coach in the game.

The Vince Lombardi Trophy was sitting to his right when Vermeil, choking back tears, said, "I think the time is right."

"We're world champions," he added. "How many coaches can go out having participated in a world championship contest? This is an unbelievable feeling.

"Some great people, way more talented than Dick Vermeil, have experienced tremendous success and then followed with a very depressing way of leaving coaching."

Vermeil, who left with two years remaining on his five-year, $9-million contract, reached his decision after huddling with his wife of 44 years, Carol.

Vermeil passes the reins to offensive coordinator Mike Martz, who designed a freewheeling, diverse attack that averaged 33 points a game.

Vermeil hedged on retirement questions during Super Bowl week. Tuesday morning, he was sure.

"What else do you have to prove?" his wife asked him during Monday's victory parade in St. Louis.

Owner Georgia Frontiere tried to talk him out of it, and team president John Shaw asked him for one more year. Special teams coach Frank Gansz, a close friend, also made an impassioned plea. But Vermeil made the choice quickly because he didn't want to participate in the free-agent period, which begins Feb. 11.

"I don't want to cut the squad," he said of the team he brought from last place to the sport's pinnacle in one season. "These are my guys."

After seven years with the Philadelphia Eagles, Vermeil popularized the word "burnout" by walking away after the 1982 strike year. He said he was mentally exhausted. He used to sleep in his office and drive players and coaches to the brink with his meticulous preparation.

When the Rams brought Vermeil out of the TV booth three years ago after a 14-year coaching hiatus, it was seen as the ultimate example of the old boy network at work. Records of 5-11 and 4-12 didn't stop the jokes.

When the 1998 season ended in a near-revolt by players, Vermeil seemed to be running out of time for the last time. Four prominent players, including cornerback Todd Lyght, boycotted the final team meeting, literally tired of Vermeil's exhausting practice schedule and demands. That sent a message to the coach, who described it at the time as a "shot in the back."

But Vermeil listened. He relaxed his grip on the team and changed his coaching spots. Playing for him still was no picnic. Only nine players from his original team were on the Super Bowl roster. But the chemistry was right. Believing in players such as Warner and linebacker London Fletcher, Vermeil led the Rams to a dominant season.

"That cloud that used to be over his head is gone," linebacker D'Marco Farr said Super Bowl week. "He took responsibility for turning this franchise around _ all by himself. You could see how that burnout thing came about. It all changed this year."

"I don't have the ability to verbalize how I feel," Vermeil said. "I'm so appreciative of what my coaching staff has done. And these players geez these guys are unbelievable."

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