Above the hallway leading to the offices of the St. Louis Cardinals' coaches in Busch Memorial Stadium there is a new ceiling. A leak caused the old ceiling to collapse back on Dec. 10. For St. Louis, more than the roof fell in that day. The Cardinals were springing leaks all over the place. On the heels of a 26-20 loss to Washington that ended his team's playoff hopes, St. Louis Coach Don Coryell leveled a verbal blast at local fans and the Cardinal management. "I'm not staying in a place I'm not wanted," Coryell raged. "I'd like to be fired. Let me have a high school job."
Last Friday, two months to the day from Coryell's outburst, the Cardinals patched up one of their leaks by announcing that through a "mutual agreement" between Coryell and and team owner Bill Bidwill, Coryell would no longer be the coach. Unfortunately, Bidwill's patchwork wasn't as neat as the handiwork on the ceiling. For the last two months the Cardinals, who under Coryell had been one of the NFL's most successful and exciting teams, have been in turmoil, and the once dazzling Cardiac Cards were being called the Chaotic Cards.
Among other things, Coryell had complained that Bidwill's tightfistedness in salary matters saddled him with a lot of unhappy players. In fact, 12 Cardinals, including Running Back Terry Metcalf, the notorious fumbler, have rebelled against Bidwill's penuriousness by becoming free agents. All are actively shopping their services with other teams. A likely free agent, Wide Receiver Ike Harris, was dealt down the river to New Orleans along with disgruntled All-Pro Guard Conrad Dobler, who demanded to be traded when Bidwill declined to renegotiate his contract. In return for Harris and Dobler, St. Louis acquired Bob Pollard, a defensive end known as Captain Crunch—when known at all—and Guard Terry Stieve. Coryell, still the coach at the time, learned of the trade from a local reporter. The deal appears to be so lopsided in favor of New Orleans that it has diminished what little credibility the Cardinal front office may still have.
All along, Coryell had excoriated the Cardinals for not giving him a voice in college draft selections. "Coaches should have a say in who they will coach," Coryell argued, "because if a team doesn't win, it's the coach who gets fired." In 1977 the Cardinals, high powered on offense but porous on defense, used their first two draft picks for Quarterback Steve Pisarkiewicz and Running Back George Franklin. As it turned out, neither Pisarkiewicz nor Franklin played a down last season. Franklin hurt a knee during training camp, and Pisarkiewicz rode the bench behind regular Quarterback Jim Hart and backup Bill Donckers, prompting one St. Louis writer to quip, "Pisarkiewicz was the first redshirt in NFL history."
February 20, 1978
By itself, the draft serves as an alarming indicator of the inefficiency of St. Louis' personnel department. Fewer than half of the players picked in the top five rounds over the past five years remain with the Cardinals, and of their eight first-round picks in the '70s, only two—Tight End J. V. Cain and Defensive Tackle Mike Dawson—are starters.
At the time of Bidwill's "mutual agreement" announcement, Coryell and Bidwill were not on speaking terms. Their long-simmering feud escalated into a silent war on Jan. 10. The coach and the owner were scheduled to meet that day to resolve Coryell's status, and the press had been so alerted. Coryell, however, stood Bidwill up, flying to Los Angeles in quest of the Rams' then-vacant head coach's position. Coryell called Bidwill from the St. Louis airport and apprised the owner of his itinerary. "I didn't wish him bon voyage," Bidwill snaps. The irate Bidwill then refused Coryell permission to visit San Diego, where Bidwill had found him coaching on the campus of San Diego State and where bumper stickers were already proclaiming: CORYELL FOR THE CHARGERS.
Bidwill later put a damper on Coryell's hopes for the Rams' job by announcing he would not release Coryell from the last three years of his St. Louis contract unless the Rams gave the Cardinals a No. 1 draft pick. This threat irked Coryell. "The Rams have a spot for a No. 1, and he's faster than me," Coryell said.
As the verbiage flew, Bidwill had the locks changed on the Cardinal offices to keep Coryell out and to prevent the assistant coaches from scattering to other teams with Cardinal game plans. Of course, they could have the college draft lists.
Strangely, these same Cardinals had a right to be dreaming Super Bowl on Nov. 20 after they had beaten Philadelphia 21-16 for their sixth straight win. Their record was 7-3, they had defeated Dallas, and the NFC's wild-card playoff berth seemed a cinch. But then St. Louis lost to Miami 55-14 on Thanksgiving Day and 10 days later fell to the New York Giants 27-7, making that Dec. 10 game with the Redskins a "must win" if the Cardinals expected to be in the playoffs for the third time in four years.
At halftime of that game, with St. Louis losing 13-10, Coryell's wife Aliisa, who had never been happy with the family's move from hot-weather San Diego to the unpredictable climes of St. Louis, left the stadium, claiming she could no longer tolerate the fans' abusive comments about her husband. Coryell's 16-year-old daughter Mindy tried to punch one fan who made a derogatory comment about her father. After the loss to Washington, Coryell simmered for several hours, then phoned a local reporter and blew his top.
Coryell blasted management again in a column by Jack Murphy of The San Diego Union that appeared before St. Louis lost its final game of the season—and fourth in a row—to Tampa Bay. In the story were these comments: "A lot of our guys are playing out their options and they'd scatter if they could.... We have such a limited budget the trend is obvious.... Next year we'll win four games, the year after we'll win two.... Not more than two of our defensive players could start for the New York Giants."
Coryell's dissatisfaction with the status quo left the Cardinal players, most of whom privately supported him, convinced that he could not now return under any circumstances. "At first everybody thought his outburst was a spur-of-the-moment thing because he wanted to win so badly," says Defensive Back Roger Wehrli, "but after that he never pulled any of his comments back. I guess he meant it." Adds Placekicker Jim Bakken, "I don't think he could have come back without an explanation to the players, without the things he said being squared away."
Draft procedures aside, the major issue in St. Louis seems to be the team's salary policy. Will Bidwill bid well for Metcalf and the other Cardinal free agents? Will he upgrade the low-by-comparison contracts of many of his stars? As Coryell says, "You can't have people mad about how much money they've been paid and expect them to do their best."
The Cardinals have not always been Scrooges. In the mid-'60s they had one of the highest payrolls in the NFL. In those days, though, the team was jointly owned by Bill Bidwill, who served as vice-president, and his older brother Stormy, who was president. "If a player didn't get what he wanted from one of us," says Bill, "he just went to the other." When Bill bought out Stormy in September of 1972, he began to institute what he felt were good business principles. "I make a concerted effort to have a sound salary structure," he says. He talks frequently of the "sanctity of the contract," and steadfastly refuses to renegotiate existing agreements.
Bidwill's tactics have come under public scrutiny as the result of the NFL's new collective bargaining agreement that allows a dissatisfied player to test his value in the marketplace when his contract expires. To prevent this, many NFL clubs have been signing their players to lucrative long-term contracts.
Bidwill goes the other way. "It's very popular now to badger us about our money policies," he says, "but if we paid a player more money, would he be a better player? I don't think having a lot of people in their option year hurts our morale. It's just the new system. Negotiating is no longer an emotional issue. That's why players hire agents. I'd like to keep all our players. If one of them comes back with a higher offer, we've just got to look at it and ask, 'Were we wrong?' "
Bidwill's chief salary negotiator is 53-year-old director of operations Joe Sullivan, whom the Cardinal players claim is out of touch with today's athlete. Sullivan sees the positive side of letting someone play out his option. "Maybe you can get a little more from a player who is down in the mouth about his salary by having him play for himself," he says. "I tell that player, 'I don't agree that you're worth what you say, but at the end of the year you'll have a chance to prove it in the open market, so go out there, work real hard and show everybody what you can do.' "
Predictably, the St. Louis players regard management's financial attitudes as a roadblock. Last year Safety Ken Reaves, whom the Cardinals permitted to enter the free market on Feb. 1 without even making him a contract offer, warned, "This club is happy because it is winning, but if it ever starts to lose, watch out. They're not interested in fielding a winner here, only in making money." Pro Bowl Center Tom Banks, who earned $60,000 last season, griped, "I'm supposed to be the best center around, but I made $17,000 less than the average salary paid centers. It's an insult, a direct slap in the face. All these years the Cardinals have led me to believe I was actually being overpaid through their own generosity. I want to be traded." As Dobler, who made only $55,000 in St. Louis, set sail for New Orleans, he took a parting shot at Bidwill. "I'm not the only guy leaving the Cardinals," he said. "I think they're having a going-out-of-business sale in St. Louis."
Another Cardinal player says, "On a football team you have to believe that everyone in the organization is devoted to winning. A lot of people on our team don't believe that's the way Bill Bidwill thinks. They think that he feels that as long as the stadium is full, everything is O.K. From a business standpoint his approach to the free market is fine, but it's not a good psychological approach. It's not conducive to winning."
Most NFL club executives seem to agree with that last assessment. "I think the great number of option playouts on the Cardinals had something to do with their collapse at the end of last season," says one front-office man. "Sometimes you have to temper good business sense with good judgment."
Poor Bill Bidwill. He don't get no respect. When Stormy was president, Bill had few responsibilities, so when he gained sole control of the team he was determined to prove himself. On the whole he hasn't done badly. In 1973, after a few months in the president's chair, he fired Stormy's handpicked coach, Bob Hollway, and hired Coryell. In his first year Coryell suffered through a 4-9-1 season, St. Louis' third in a row, and the joke around town was "For God, for country, four nine and one." But under Coryell the Cardinals developed a productive and entertaining big-play offense and won division titles in 1974 and 1975. They were a competitive 10-4 in 1976 but missed the playoffs.
While most St. Louisans think of Bidwill as being cheap, he raised the salary of Wide Receiver Mel Gray from $28,000 to $100,000 last season in order to keep him. He also raised Quarterback Jim Hart from $110,000 to $170,000, although stopping short of Hart's requested $200,000. The Cardinals have not negotiated with Metcalf yet, but Metcalf reportedly has talked with another club about a $2.35 million package, including $300,000 a year for seven years and a $250,000 signing bonus. Is Bidwill cheap not to get into a price war over Metcalf at this stage—or merely sane?
Bidwill's biggest problem may be his shyness. "Bill is uncomfortable in the presence of players, so he goes out of his way to make the players uncomfortable," says one Cardinal. "He doesn't offer you the chance to be his friend. There isn't a player on this entire club who can stand to be in the presence of Bill Bidwill."
When the players gave Bidwill the game ball after clinching the 1974 NFC East championship, he cried openly. On the other hand, long after the Cardinal loss to the Redskins last Dec. 10, Bidwill was seen sitting in his office, crying over the defeat. Maybe he sensed that winning was going to get harder for the Cardinals in the future. Or maybe he knew that the roof was about to fall in.