March 2, 2010

1978: Cardinals Hire Bud Wilkinson as Head Coach

The St. Louis Cardinals had done well under Head Coach Don Coryell, winning the NFC East in 1974 and ’75 and just missing with a 10-4 record in 1976. It was the first time the team had made it to the postseason since 1948, but the Cardinals failed to win any playoff games, and when the club sank to 7-7 in 1977, Coryell was forced to resign.

On March 2, 1978 owner Bill Bidwill announced that collegiate coaching legend Bud Wilkinson would be the new head coach. The news was met with more than a little astonishment. To be sure, Wilkinson was a college coaching icon who had put together a 145-29-4 record at Oklahoma from 1947 thru 1963. In the midst of that was a remarkable 47-game winning streak from 1953-57. The Sooners won eight of ten bowl appearances during that time, as well as three national championships.

However, since leaving Oklahoma in 1963, Wilkinson had stayed away from coaching; he ran a losing campaign for the US Senate in 1964, served as director of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, and spent ten years as a broadcaster of college football games. There was speculation that, at age 62 (making him the oldest head coach in the NFL at the time), he had been away from active involvement in the game for too long and would have difficulty relating to modern pro football players.

The initial reaction of some of the Cardinals players was not encouraging. Center Tom Banks, already trying to renegotiate his contract, called the hiring “one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen. Insanity prevails.” Eric Williams, a second-year linebacker, summed up the feelings of several players when he stated “Everybody said, ‘Wow, like that dude is old.’”

To Wilkinson’s credit, he won over many of the doubters, including Banks. Known for his low-key and gentlemanly manner, he was an excellent motivator. He kept Coryell’s offensive line coach, Jim Hanifan, who had been a candidate for the head coaching job and fell in line behind the new coach, who in turn recognized that the offense had been one of the team’s strengths.

However, there were problems facing the Cardinals that persuasion couldn’t overcome. Coryell had clashed with Bidwill on personnel matters, and the team had typically drafted poorly. Before Wilkinson was hired, HB Terry Metcalf, an all-purpose talent who was the team’s best outside running threat, left for the Canadian Football League. WR Ike Harris and G Conrad Dobler were traded to New Orleans, weakening both positions.

The naysayers appeared to be vindicated when St. Louis proceeded to lose the first eight games of the ’78 season. Without Metcalf’s breakaway ability, the offense was forced to rely solely on the inside running tandem of FB Jim Otis and RB Wayne Morris – as a result, the Cardinals ranked 25th in team rushing (1954 yards). TE J.V. Cain suffered from a bad heel and the offensive line encountered numerous injury problems. The defense was poor against the run. First draft pick Steve Little, a placekicker/punter out of Arkansas who Wilkinson had promoted as the key to improving the team’s ability to win the battle of field position, suffered from a knee injury and was unable to dislodge veteran placekicker Jim Bakken while proving to be a mediocre punter.

Wilkinson took his share of the heat for the poor start, but he also drew credit when the club turned the season around and went 6-2 the rest of the way. As QB Jim Hart said, “He kept us together. He was always positive. I think people expected us to fall apart when we kept losing, but we didn’t and Bud was the major factor.” Hart, the 34-year-old offensive captain, played his part as he passed for 3121 yards and was voted the club’s MVP by his teammates.

While Wilkinson was able to maintain the team’s morale and, moreover, took a major step toward improving the running game with the drafting of RB Ottis Anderson from the University of Miami in the first round of the ’79 draft, deficiencies in the front office and the meddling of owner Bidwill ultimately brought a premature end to his coaching regime in the second year.

Tragedy in training camp, as Cain died of heart failure, cast an early pall on the 1979 season. Anderson had an immediate impact, rushing for 193 yards in the season opening game against Dallas, but the Cardinals lost that game and were 3-10 when Wilkinson was let go. Bidwill’s insistence on starting Steve Pisarkiewicz, the 1977 first round draft choice out of Missouri, ahead of the savvy veteran Hart at quarterback had been resisted by Wilkinson, and in combination with the failure to build upon the strong second half showing in ’78, was the final straw that led to the legendary coach’s dismissal. He had completed not quite half of the four-year contract he was signed to.

Larry Wilson, the all-time great Cardinals free safety, stepped in as interim coach for the rest of the way. With Pisarkiewicz at quarterback, St. Louis won two of the last three games for an overall 5-11 record and last place finish in the NFC East. The two wins didn’t herald stardom for the young quarterback – he was gone in 1980, finishing out his NFL career as a backup in Green Bay. Jim Hanifan, who had been passed over in favor of Wilkinson in ’78, was elevated to head coach.

As for Bud Wilkinson, the stint with the Cardinals was a mediocre postscript to an outstanding coaching career. His overall record for the 1978 and ’79 seasons was a dismal 9-20. However, he had displayed class and grace under pressure, and also showed that he had not lost his skill as a motivator. But he couldn’t overcome the organization’s failings, which likely doomed his tenure before it even started. And as a postscript, prior to the tenure of Ken Whisenhunt, who became the Cardinals’ coach in 2007, none of Wilkinson’s successors left the club with an overall winning record.