RIVER FALLS, Wis. -- Maybe this won't be Dick Vermeil's last year after all.
In January, at the end of Kansas City's tough and disappointing 7-9 season, the oldest head coach in the NFL honestly thought it would be.
"I've told my assistant coaches that next year will be my last," he announced.
But now the bounce is back. Despite his 69 years, the only man to coach teams to victory in both the Super Bowl and the Rose Bowl feels animated, energetic and eager.
Everything will hinge on how the 2005 Chiefs do. Provided they compete and he still feels up to the job, Vermeil just might return for his 16th campaign in a league that twice has honored him as coach of the year.
"If the team plays real well and it looks like the way we do things is capable of producing a good football team, then I might stay," Vermeil said. "I'm just going to play it out and see what happens."
He already hastily retired once and lived to regret it. Shortly after the St. Louis Rams won the Super Bowl in the 1999 season, he unexpectedly stepped down and returned to his 114-acre estate in rural Pennsylvania.
"I realized very quickly that that was a mistake. I don't sit and wallow in regret, but it was a mistake," he said. "I'm just not going to be as impulsive as I was with the Rams."
It has been four seasons since Chiefs president Carl Peterson, Vermeil's friend from UCLA and Philadelphia days, fired then-head coach Gunther Cunningham and talked Vermeil into taking his place.
A 34-30 Kansas City record, with only one playoff appearance in 2003, has left him feeling dissatisfied, hungry to see the project to a successful end. But forcing an old friend into a painful decision is the last thing he wants.
"If it doesn't seem to be working out, I certainly would not want to put Carl in the position where he would have to tell me to go," he said. "I think too much of him."
For now at least, amid the sights and sounds of Kansas City's scenic North Woods training camp, last winter's weariness has given way to a refreshing sense of renewal.
"I feel great," Vermeil said. "But we've got to get the job done. That's what they brought me here to do. So far we've only done it once. And we should have been a playoff team two other times."
A raft of new defensive players has been brought in. If the defense gels and the high-scoring offense keeps going, the Chiefs could be headed for something special.
If they reach the Super Bowl, Vermeil would be the only head coach in league history to get there with three separate franchises.
"There are times you get frustrated, you get tired," he said. "But I love my responsibilities."
In many ways, he shows no sign of slowing down. In fact, the leadership skills that have characterized a coaching career that began in a California high school 45 years ago have probably never been put to a sterner test than when Cunningham came back.
Often moody and insecure, Cunningham shocked even his closest friends when he accepted Peterson's offer to return as defensive coordinator and work for the man who took away his dream job.
It's an unusual and potentially awkward position for both men, a situation that would seem ripe with the seeds of staff discontent. But Vermeil, always a people person, made his sensitive predecessor feel welcome the moment he arrived in 2004.
He still gives the delicate relationship extra care. Just days before camp opened last month, he called Cunningham in for a private chat. They met in the spacious office of the head coach, the one Cunningham once occupied.
"It was mostly about his coaching philosophy and the way we want to approach the season," Cunningham said. "But the rest of it was real personal. I appreciated it. No matter what is done, I'm going to be loyal to Dick Vermeil."
Earning loyalty has never been a problem for Vermeil, who still hears from many men he coached in high school in the early '60s.
"I love being a leader," he said. "I love coaching. I love working with my coaches, and I love my players. And if you don't have that passion for those people, then you shouldn't be in this business. That's what's always driven me.
"Does that light still burn? You darn right it does."