Vitt ready for latest battle

With Mike Martz sidelined with a heart infection, the Rams will turn to a coach used to overcoming adversity.

Updated: October 17, 2005, 11:36 AM ET
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

As Mike Martz fights a serious heart infection, who better to fill in than a loyal assistant who twice beat cancer?

Rams assistant head coach Joe Vitt is East Coast tough. As a young Seahawks assistant in the mid-1980s, Vitt found out he had cancer. He fought through the treatments, kept working and temporarily won the battle. He had a less serious threat a few years later.

Those battles were easy compared with last season. His wife, Linda, was hospitalized with a life-threatening blood clot. It happened during the middle of the Rams' season and Vitt, who spends most of his fall hours at the office coaching, faced the toughest challenge of his life. He lives for his work, but his life would be worthless without his wife.

Somehow, Vitt found time to care for Linda in the hospital and work enough hours to help turn around a Rams defense that had started slow. The Rams made the playoffs, and Vitt's wife regained her health. He fought through the exhaustion of close to a month without sleep and kept his family, head coach and extended family -- the players -- happy.

"Look at my history," Vitt said. "I suffered through some catastrophic illnesses."

The beauty about Vitt is that he doesn't like outsiders looking at his history. He has coached in the NFL for 27 years with almost no publicity. A request to the Rams' public relations office produced only one story about Vitt, and that story was about his 2004 hiring. Though he has a close relationship with a reporter or two, Vitt disdains publicity.

His first telephone news conference with the Indianapolis media before Monday night's game against the Colts lasted only four minutes. He answered every question, but he's not one to elaborate.

After 27 years, he never thought he would be a head coach for Monday Night Football. It's not that he couldn't have followed that path. He never really wanted to be the boss. For more than a decade, he has spent his Januarys getting calls from coaches on other teams wanting to add him to their staff. Few coaches work as hard, or are as loyal, as Vitt.

"I love Joe Vitt, you know what I mean?," Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden said. "He's a guy who really inspired me as a young coach in Philly … He's just one helluva guy. I would expect him to take the torch from Coach Martz and keep the Rams playing hard until he gets back."

As Vitt has evolved into a candidate as a defensive coordinator, the offers have improved. He takes those offers and discusses them with family and friends. Before he's ready to make a decision, he'll also consult a few key friends.

Usually, the answer is the same. He'll stay with the coach who hired him, even if it means giving up a chance to make more money. In his coaching career, he's worked for only six head coaches -- Ted Marchibroda, Mike McCormack, Chuck Knox, Ray Rhodes, Dick Vermeil and Martz.

"I've worked for wonderful coaches who have been coaches of the year," Vitt said. "I have spent my time around good people, qualified people who have been winners in the league."

The past two weeks have been particularly tough for Vitt. Martz has been fighting a fever for more than six weeks and was gradually getting worse, with a disease that was destroying his heart. Martz hired him as assistant head coach, the coach he wanted to be closest to him in times of crisis. Vitt works with the linebackers and helps on the field with the defensive play calling.

Mike Martz
The Rams will have to adjust to not having Mike Martz.
Martz needed more. Two weeks ago, Martz checked into the hospital and Vitt ran the practices. The Rams' coach learned he had endocarditis, a curable but dangerous heart infection. Martz fought through the fever and fatigue to coach against the Seahawks on Oct. 9.

Martz called Vitt into the office Monday and told him to take control of the team until he gets his health right. He was the natural choice because Vitt also has a close relationship with the Rams' top executives, John Shaw and Jay Zygmunt.

Vitt was considered so valuable as an assistant that Zygmunt recruited him to help talk free agents into signing with the team when free agency began in the early 1990s. Vitt is street tough. His vocabulary is brief and sometimes salty.

The Rams were recruiting quarterback Scott Mitchell. Knowing Mitchell was a Mormon, Vitt and Zygmunt knew their drive around Los Angeles would take them past one of the big Mormon temples in town. The limo passed the temple, but their pointing out the amazing complex didn't seem to faze Mitchell.

Vitt asked where Mitchell served his Mormon mission. Mitchell said, "Beverly Hills." Vitt had to bite back a swearword on that one.

"Joe is his own character," Zygmunt said. "He loves his players, and he's always going to say good things about them. I don't know of any person who loves his job as much as he does. He loves coaching, and he loves coaching his players."

The Indianapolis writers were trying to be sensitive to Vitt's mission. It has been a tough year for NFL coaches. Rhodes, Seattle's defensive coordinator, suffered a mild stroke. Packers offensive coordinator Tom Rossley had heart problems. Mike Holmgren of the Seahawks had a heart scare in the spring.

The Indy writers wondered aloud whether too much pressure is building up on coaches, particularly one who has a history with cancer.

Vitt snapped back positively, "To me, I'd be a lot sicker had I not been in this league. The pressure would be if I wasn't in this business. I love it. We're not in the business of finding a cure for cancer. People who work at IBM and Microsoft, they have catastrophic illnesses, too."

At 51, Vitt has a youth about him that comes from his love for the game. Players love playing for him because he's supportive and fun. He's a teacher first and spends extra time with details to make them better.

That attention to detail started when he was a strength coach with the Baltimore Colts from 1979 to 1981, and it blossomed during his years with Knox in Seattle. He went from strength coach to defensive backs coach to one of the best press box coaches for picking up play calls and adjustments during games.

Meetings are particularly lively with Vitt, who can curse with the best of them. Contrast Vitt's high-energy style with the chardonnay approach of Martz.

"The only thing different for the defense is that team meetings are run by Vitt," defensive end Tyoka Jackson said. "He's a little bit more fiery when he talks. He's a linebacker coach, and linebackers are a little bit crazy anyway, so he brings that craziness to the team meetings. Coach [Martz] is a little bit more cerebral. Coach Vitt's use of language is not top-shelf like coach Martz. I look forward to the pregame."

One thing is for sure, Vitt has a lot of people rooting for him.

"Joe Vitt is a great communicator," Vermeil said. "He's consistently intense, but at the same time adds a degree of humor to his intense communication with his players. He's a very bright, unique individual who any head coach would really appreciate having on his staff. He's been a great leader of his individual position, and I think those same qualities will help him play his role while he fills in for Mike Martz."

Early reports are Martz is winning his battle in the hospital. While he's there, Vitt will fight the battles on the field for the Rams.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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