By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Friday, Oct. 03 2008
"Honey, I've just been fired. I'm on my way to New Orleans for an interview.
Call you from there."
Fired at 2 p.m. that day in early 1996 by the Cleveland Browns, Rick Venturi
had to catch a 4:30 p.m. flight to New Orleans or he might not get that job
with the Saints. He didn't have a cell phone back then and couldn't find his
So he scribbled the note. Couldn't find any Scotch tape, so he just kind of
smashed it over the doorknob, and off he went.
To this day, a framed copy of the note hangs in the Venturi home in
Chesterfield, a reminder of the unpredictable life of a football coach. Now, at
age 62, Venturi hasn't seen it all as a football coach. Just most of it.
In 1978 at Northwestern, at age 31, he became the youngest head coach in Big
Ten Conference history.
He has coached through hurricane seasons and franchise relocations. He has been
an interim head coach, not once but twice in the NFL. He survived a
crash-and-burn experience at Northwestern, and a classic case of coaching
burnout with Cleveland.
And now, with the firing of Scott Linehan and the elevation of Jim Haslett to
head coach, Venturi suddenly finds himself as the Rams' defensive coordinator
for the final 12 games of this season.
"This makes four different franchises (as a coordinator), so I guess it's an
inevitability," Venturi says, laughing.
Venturi previously has been a coordinator with the Colts, Browns and Saints
during his 27 seasons coaching in the NFL.
"I feel like I've done it most of my life," he said.
And Venturi, it seems, was born for a life in coaching. His late father, Joe
Venturi, was doing graduate work at St. Louis University when he got his start
in coaching at the now defunct McBride High.
Joe Venturi then moved to central Illinois where he launched a career that
landed him in the Illinois High School Football Coaches' Hall of Fame. Rick,
who was born in Taylorville, Ill., recalls summers filled with trips to St.
Louis for Cardinals baseball or the Muny opera.
But football was always at the forefront in the Venturi household. A brother,
John, is also in the Illinois prep coaches hall of fame. To this day, Venturi
wears his father's Hall of Fame ring during football season.
Venturi's father died in 2001 while Venturi was an assistant on Haslett's staff
in New Orleans. A few days later, following a victory over Carolina, Haslett
presented Venturi with a game ball, in memory of his father. When he returned
home for the funeral, Venturi placed it in his father's casket.
Venturi wanted to be a college head coach by the time he was 35. He made it,
with four years to spare, in 1978. But that experience at Northwestern turned
out to be a nightmare. Northwestern was among the dregs of college football at
that time, and as a rookie head coach, Venturi was butting heads with the likes
of Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes.
Venturi opened the '78 season by tying Illinois, and proceeded to lose 31 of
his next 32 games with the Wildcats over three seasons.
"I was a fire-breathing young guy," Venturi recalled. "I didn't believe I could
fail. I didn't believe anything like that could happen. No way. 'I'll be the
next head coach at Oklahoma.' I had ambition beyond belief. When I got
destroyed, really, I had to grow up quickly."
That was a life-changing experience for Venturi. It scarred him deeply, but
also made him a better person. "I'm not too swelled up with myself," he now
A second life-changing experience came in 1995 with the Cleveland Browns. After
an 11-5 playoff season in '94 under head coach Bill Belichick, Venturi was
promoted from secondary coach to defensive coordinator in '95.
As usual, he went at it with everything he had. But the 20-hour days, endless
cups of coffee, and countless cigarettes finally caught up with him. He hit the
wall during training camp, and was treated for what was described at the time
as heat-related exhaustion and job-related stress.
"When I went through the near-breakdown in '95, it made a better man out of
me," Venturi said. "I was just on a track to nowhere. ... I was forced to
develop a better life perspective. A better coach's perspective.
"The best thing '95 did for me was it forced me to get out of that inward
(coaches') tunnel. To get out on my motorcycle. To enjoy politics. To walk."
Venturi tries to get out on his motorcycle every Friday afternoon, weather
"It's kind of a catharsis for me," he says. "Kind of a getting away. Just a
release. Because this business is so pressurizing. It's so consuming."
Venturi, who came with Haslett to the Rams in 2006 as linebackers coach,
actually has two motorcycles — a BMW and a Suzuki.
"I look outside (at Rams Park) to see which one's parked, because you know what
kind of mood he's in," linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa said. "If he has that BMW,
he's probably a little more 'chill' because he likes to cruise in that. But
when he's in that Suzuki, it's full-speed — you better not mess up or he's
going to be on your butt."
Venturi smiled when Tinoisamoa's comments were relayed to him.
"Pisa thinks he's got me figured out," Venturi said. "And he's probably
Even at 62, Venturi hasn't lost his fire.
"He's a firecracker, man," Tinoisamoa said, adding with a laugh, "A lot of
energy even at his old age. ... He may seem old, but he could probably
body-slam me if he really wanted to."
But Venturi is also a teacher. His work with the linebackers has been full of
what Tinoisamoa calls "a lot of parables and old history stuff."
Venturi brings those qualities to the defensive coordinator position. He has
worked with Haslett for so long — they were on the New Orleans staff together
as early as 1996 — that the transition from Haslett as coordinator to Venturi
will be seamless.
"Jim and I, we think as one," Venturi said. "We've been together for so long.
We've coached this system for so long that we're very much on the same page."
Venturi will call plays from the sideline, and it will be the same scheme and
the same approach.
"I've known Jim since he played," Venturi said. "When he first started coaching
and he was hungry to be a coach, he used to come and visit with me at
Indianapolis and actually stay (during training camp)."
In fact, they've been together so long that it doesn't take Haslett long to
come up with his favorite Venturi story from their time together in New Orleans.
"I get a call," Haslett said. "He's had a motorcycle accident. His wife's not
in town, so I kind of set up the ambulance to go get him, get him in the
hospital. He's going to get surgery. He broke his ankle in about five places.
"A car pulled out in front of him, he's hit, he rolls in a ditch and almost
drowns. They pull him out of the ditch, he's laying there, and the guy in the
ambulance says to him, 'Coach, how's the defense going to be this year?' "