Here he is, ladies and gentlemen. Step right up and have a look. All the management asks is that you don't breathe too hard on the body. Note, if you will, the nickel-plated, official coaching-model whistle around the neck. Everything is just as it was found when the tomb was opened in St. Louis on March 2. Now you're probably all remarking to yourselves how well preserved this old specimen is. Fifteen years away from the game, and he can still wear those bright red pants and the polo shirt and the cap with the team emblem. Fifteen years of talking to people like Richard Nixon and Chris Schenkel, and he still has each and every one of his faculties. Ladies and gentlemen, the National Football League and the St. Louis Cardinals give you Bud Wilkinson.
Ever since 1963, when he walked away from the head coaching job at Oklahoma as a Legendary Figure, Bud Wilkinson has remained a part of our landscape. His collegiate coaching record of 145-29-4 included three national championships and 47 consecutive victories. The latter is the longest winning streak in college football history. Then came an unsuccessful run for the United States Senate—"It seemed like the thing to do," Wilkinson says—and three years of advisory service to President Nixon. More visibly, he was ABC's college football color commentator for 10 years, the strong, soothing voice of reason above the din.
Now at 62, when he might be puttering around the house, spending time with his 29-year-old bride Donna, Wilkinson has accepted the uninviting task of rehabilitating the chaotic Cardinals. His place in history already secure, he cannot say exactly why he has taken on the job. "It just seemed like the thing to do," he says.
For Cardinal owner Bill Bidwill, the move assuredly seemed like the thing to do. Bidwill had been under attack from several quarters after trading away Offensive Guard Conrad Dobler and Wide Receiver Ike Harris to New Orleans, after allowing star Running Back Terry Metcalf to play out his option—and after firing Coach Don Coryell. Described by one of his own team members as a "non-person," Bidwill clearly needed to make a move that would take some of the heat off.
July 30, 1978
The response Bidwill got after hiring Wilkinson was mixed, at best. Center Tom Banks, who is insisting on renegotiating his contract and has asked to be traded, called the Wilkinson hiring "one of the weirdest things I've ever seen. Insanity prevails." Wide Receiver Mel Gray said, unenthusiastically, "Bid-will pulled this thing off, but I don't know what he's gotten us into." Second-year Linebacker Eric Williams vividly recalled his reaction to the announcement: "Everybody said, 'Wow, like that dude is old.' "
Perhaps even more disturbing was the assessment of Ralph Neely, the Dallas Cowboy guard who played under Wilkinson at Oklahoma in 1962-63: "I personally think the odds are against him. The game has changed so much in the last 15 years that it won't be easy. And if he thinks the game hasn't changed and that the players haven't changed, he's in for a rude awakening. The old-time mid-'60s methods won't work. He treated his players like gentlemen and expected the same from them; I don't know how well that will work with some guys in the pros."
To his credit, Wilkinson has gone out of his way to win the confidence of his new players, and many of them now are anxious to play for him. Even Banks was impressed with Wilkinson after the two had met. When Wilkinson asked Banks to tell him what troubled him, Banks gave him an earful. "He seemed like he wanted to know the truth," says Banks, "which is not always the case. There are obviously key people he wants to be able to relate to, and he's going out of his way to show us he can deal with us on a personal level."
Selling jobs like the one he did on Banks are nothing new to Wilkinson. "Bud is a great manipulator," says one of his associates. "He can make people do things they don't really want to do, then make it seem like it was their idea." Neely agrees. "Bud is a very articulate man," he says. "At Oklahoma, when he got through talking to you, he had you convinced you could run through a brick wall. He and Tom Landry are a lot alike in one respect: they both look only at the bottom line, and that's winning."
The bottom line at Oklahoma showed 14 conference championships in 17 years, four undefeated seasons, and two Sugar Bowl and four Orange Bowl trophies. Wilkinson was so successful that in 1957 three Texas oilmen, avid University of Houston backers, offered to give Wilkinson two gushing oil wells and two yachts—one of them a 125-footer—if he would coach their team. Wilkinson declined.
Five months ago, Bidwill offered a bit less—a four-year, well-funded contract. Before Wilkinson accepted, the leading candidates were Jim Hanifan, the Cardinals' offensive line coach, and Larry Wilson, once the club's celebrated safety, and then and now its assistant director of operations. Keeping Hanifan on the staff has been Wilkinson's most noteworthy achievement to date. Hanifan is extremely popular with his linemen, and the offensive line is the mainstay of the Cardinals. Now, instead of being disgruntled, he has become a Wilkinson disciple. "There were nine other teams in the NFL that had coaching changes," Hanifan says, "and in all of those places, the players are probably going to have to learn new offensive formations and terminology. But Bud Wilkinson just walked in and said, 'Hey, you guys are doing a hell of a job on offense; we're going to keep everything just the way it is and I'll learn the old offense from you.' That shows the man's great confidence in himself."
Still, it is going to take more than self-confidence for St. Louis to improve on last season's 7-7 record. After losing three of their first four games, then winning six straight, the Cardinals underwent a strange collapse, starting with an embarrassing 55-14 loss to Miami on Thanksgiving Day, and down went the season. The departure of Metcalf, Harris and Dobler takes a lot of punch out of the offense, and the defense...ah, yes, the defense. Last year it ranked 13th of 14 in the NFC, and it remains intact.
When Coryell was still coach and launching verbal potshots at Bidwill, one of the things he was noisiest about was his limited influence on draft choices. Wilkinson claims that he was an active participant in this year's draft, and the club's selection of Arkansas Kicker Steve Little as its No. 1 pick seems proof of that. Wilkinson is a firm believer in position football, and "Little Big Foot" is expected to give St. Louis an edge in field position every time he punts. Wilkinson was presumably also in on the decision to draft second-round choice Johnny (Dr. Doom) Barefield, a linebacker from Texas A&I who wears quarters in his ears, writes poetry about his tackling and walks around in graveyards late at night. Barefield was still unsigned and absent from the team's training camp late last week, prompting a call from Cardinal scout Stan West. West, who had played for Wilkinson at Oklahoma, pleaded with the rookie to come to his senses and report to camp. "Look at it this way," West told him, "every day you stay out is costing you 10 years' worth of quarters."
West is only one of five members of Wilkinson's staff who either played for or coached with him at Oklahoma. Pete Elliott gave up his job as athletic director at the University of Miami to join his old boss as offensive backfield coach. The defensive line coach, Rudy Feldman, another former assistant, was lured to the Cardinals from the San Diego Chargers. Jerry Thompson, who played and coached for Wilkinson at Oklahoma, will be the first specialty-teams coach in the history of the franchise, an indication of how far behind the rest of the league St. Louis' front office is. Bo Bolinger, another scout, was an All-America for Wilkinson. The sixth man is an old friend, Tom Bettis, the highly respected defensive backfield coach at Kansas City for 12 seasons before being named the Chiefs' head coach last year after Paul Wiggin was fired. But Bettis was fired at the end of the season, too, and had decided to leave football for good.
"My first response was no," Bettis says. But Wilkinson was persistent, and after one particularly impassioned pitch, he told Bettis to drink three Scotches and sleep on the offer. Bettis accepted the next day. "Five clubs wanted him to coach defense," says Wilkinson, "and two of the offers were from close personal friends. When he changed his mind and accepted, I think this organization began to turn around."
Thus surrounded by familiar and trusted aides, Wilkinson is not intimidated by the new challenge of the pro game. "I don't think there have been any changes in football in the past 15 years that are the equivalent of the discovery of the atomic bomb," he says. "I can learn it."
This season the Cardinals will use the popular 3-4 defense for the first time, but Wilkinson will not have to learn it. Shucks, all the 3-4 is is a variation on the celebrated "Oklahoma defense" that he invented three decades ago.