The hiring of Bud Wilkinson at St. Louis has moved the Cardinals' center, Tom Banks to the very limits of ecstacy. Banks is the gentleman who once suggested that the Cardinals' general manager and owner carry a load of cement between their ears. The milk of human kindness courses strongly through this muscular creature, as we see in the sweet nothings he uttered the day Wilkinson became his coach.
"This is completely out of the blue," Banks told St. Louis newspapermen."It's one of the weirdest things I've ever seen. This whole season has been unbelievable. It's one trip after another. You can't look at anything rationally. There's no logic. Insanity prevails."
Welcome to pro ball, Bud.
Fifteen years out of the business, can Bud Wilkinson be a successful coach at a level he's never tried? He won everything in his 17 years at the University of Oklahoma. He belongs with Rockne and Leahy, Hayes and Bryant. But he quit coaching in 1963.
He became a politician, losing a 1964 campaign for the U.S. Senate and later working National Physical Fitness programs at the request of three presidents. We saw him on television, doing commentary on football games, and he was good, maybe a little stiff but always perceptive and unquestionably credible.
Whenever a coaching job is open, certain names come up. Since he left Notre Dame. Ara Parseghian has been mentioned for jobs everywhere. He keeps saying no, and signs are that people now believe he's out for good. They believed that of Wilkinson, too, because he's a wealthy man, made rich in insurance, and you never saw his name in speculation.
Newspaper clippings in our library say Wilkinson turn town his alma mater. Minnesota, in 1971. That was 15 years after his teams won a record 47 straight games and two straight national championships. In 1965, the clippings said, Wilkinson was offered a three-year contract to coach the Washington Redskins. He said no because he had other contracts to honor.
There is mention in the library of earlier pro offers, from Atlanta and Baltimore, but after Wilkinson turned down Minnesota, his name never again came up. He was, as the sports writers say A Legend.
Yet here he is at St. Louis, a coach again, and the question is not so much why - his insurance business has been hurt by recent changes in the tax laws and he's bored by the even grayness of this Legend work.
In the NFL, where no one cares what you did 20 years ago but everyone cares what you'll do today, the question about Bud Wilkinson is: can he win?
Two of his old Oklahoma players aren't sure. Jerry Tubbs and Ralph Neely are veterans of the NFL in the employ of the Dallas Cowboys. Tubbs, an All-American in 1956, is an assistant coach. Neely, who played on Wilkinson's last Oklahoma team, has been an all-pro lineman ever since.
They both wonder if 15 years isn't too long to be away.
I see where he's said blocking and tackling and execution is still the name of the game." Tubbs said, "That's right. But - a big but - there's a big difference in how you handle things between colleges and pros. In one, you're operating with a 19-year-old kid. In the other, the player's 35. The psychology of it is so different.
"I'll say this about Bud. He is very optimistic, very organizaed and he likes a challenge. He's getting a real challenge. And it's not going to be easy."
As our sweetheart center, Tom Banks, indicated, St. Louis' situation is a mess. Under Don Coryell's coaching, the Cardinals were good enough to win at Dallas, yet bad enough to lose at Tampa Bay. Once the toast of the NFL, the Cardinals were charred crumbs by season's end. Coryell threatened to quit if the owner. Bill Bidwill, didn't keep out of the coaching business. Finally, Coryell said he'd stay, but by then Bidwill had locked him out of the stadium.
Banks, star runner Terry Metcalf and assorted other Cardinals said they'd had it. They wanted out of St. Louis. "If Joe Sullivan is such a great general manager why doesn't he get rid of Bill Bidwill?" Banks said.
And here comes Bud Wilkinson, A Legend, striding boldly into . . . quicksand?
"Whether Bud can win or not is a big 'if,' Tubbs said. "If he has the opportunity to last long enough, 'if' he gets the right kind of assistant coaches. 'if' he gets good football players . . . That's a lot of 'ifs.'"
Somebody pointed out to Tubbs that Bidwill, in hiring Wilkinson, identified the coach as the man who could take the Cardinals to the Super Bowl. Is that a realistic expectation?
"No, I would say not." Tubbs said. "They have so many guys playing out their options. And they've got problems in the front office. You don't come in, a new coach with a new team, and tear up this league. And don't forget: St. Louis had an excellent, excellent caoch in Don Coryell."
Neely said Wilkinson must hire assistants with NFL experience who can help him learn what's happened in the last 15 years. "The game has technically improved and is so much more sophisticated," Neely said. "It won't be easy to bring himself up to date."
That is only part of Wilkinson's task. "The other thing is, coaching of kids who play the game is different than it was 15 years ago, or even seven years ago. When Bud Wilkinson coached in college, he was a tremendous psychologist and motivator. But whereas in college it was 80 percent the coaches' motivation and 20 percent self-motivation, in the pros it's the other way around - its 80 percent self-motivation."
Neely wonders how Wilkinson will handle "those quote-unquote individuals at St. Louis, who are not team players at all." He wonders how long it will take Wilkinson to master a game that changes so rapidly it sometimes leaves even working coaches befuddled. Mostly, Neely wonders how St. Louis thinks anyone is going to take the Cardinals to the Super Bowl.
"In their same division, there's a team called the Dallas Cowboys," Neely said.
Welcome to the NFL, Bud.