They laughed last year when Bud Wilkinson opted to become a pro football coach at age 62. The fail-safe chalk players running the other National Football League clubs smiled snidely when the St. Louis Cardinals drafted a kicker, Steve Little, on the first round and got no production out of him.
There were grins when the football Cardinals engaged Bing Devine, former vice president of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team, as vice president for administration.
Then the football team made another daring choice yesterday, taking wide receiver Kirk Gibson of Michigan State in the seventh round of the NFL draft. Gibson is under contract in the Detroit Tigers' organization as an outfielder, and injured at that.
Draft aficionados are saying Cincinnati "won" the draft by taking quarterback Jack Thompson of Washington State, running back Charles Alexander of Louisiana State and tight end Dan Ross of Northeastern with its first three selections.
San Diego took two large steps in its drive to a divisional title by trading for tight end Kellen Winslow of Missouri after making a deal for veteran defensive back Willie Buchanon of Green Bay eight days earlier.
Buffalo, Kansas City and Los Angeles fortified their squads with two draft choices each in the first round, but the Cardinals may be back if Gibson ends up in the fold and Little "busts out," as Wilkinson says.
The Cardinals chose two high-rated fullbacks, Ottis Anderson of Miami (Fla.) and Theotis Brown of UCLA, to go with Wayne Morris and Jim Otis.
Devine admitted the selection of Gibson was a big gamble, but he may know something pertinent about the outfielder's chances and desire to stay in baseball.
Gibson bruised a knee in a collision in an exhibition game with the Tigers and is now with Evansville of the American Association. NFL clubs were warned by Commissioner Pete Rozelle's office that he cannot be signed while still under contract in baseball.
And even were he let out of his baseball contract, the football Cardinals would have to sign him within a year or he would go back into the pool of those eligible for next year's NFL draft.
The Cardinals would very much like Gibson to join wide receiver Mel Gray and tight and J. V. Cain, who missed last season with an Achilles' tendon injury.
Despite the loss of Cain, Terry Metcalf - and Ike Harris in 1978, the Cardinals still were seventh overall in offense and fourth in passing in the whole league and won six of their last eight games after losing their first eight.
Gibson, 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, set school records at Michigan State with 42 receptions for 806 yards last season. He caught seven touchdown passes.
Wilkinson, normally a most prudent talker, said, "Our goal is to be in the playoffs and it's a realistic goal for this team. We beat Atlanta and Philadelphia, two playoff teams, and we were very close to beating Dallas twice.
"We are not worried about the offensive line; they are close to being the best in the league, if not the best. Quarterback Jim Hart is in his prime."
Little began the season punting and kicking off. The No. 1 draft choice hurt a knee making a tackle in the eighth game after averaging 38 yards on punts.
"We're hoping he busts out this year," Wilkinson said of the fellow who set an NCAA scoring record kicking for Arkansas.
A surprise in the draft, at least to casual fans, was that quarterback Jeff Rutledge of Alabama was not picked until the ninth round, by Los Angeles. But that probably was because the Crimson Tide uses the wishbone-T formation, which is mostly a running offense.
Two Washington, D.C., products, quarterback Jeff Komlo of De Matha High, who played at Delaware, and linebacker Al Chesley of Eastern High, who played at Pittsburgh, were drafted, Komlo by Detroit on the ninth round and Chesley by Philadelphia on the 11th round.
The 12-round, 330-player selection process was completed in 17 hours 13 minutes, just three minutes under last year's and the shortest since the NFL went to a combined draft with the old American Football Legue in 1967.
The 28 teams selected 168 players aon offense, 150 on defense and 12 specialists. The position selected most often was linebacker, with 54 players including No. 1 selection Tom Cousineau of Ohio State by the Buffalo Bills.
There were 47 defensive backs taken, 46 running backs, 37 were receivers, 25 defensive ends, 24 defensive tackles, 22 offensive tackles, 21 tight ends, 17 guards, 15 quarterbacks, 10 centers, six punters, five placekickers and a kick-returner.
The schools receiving the most attention were Oklahoma and Notre Damr, with 10 players apiece drafted. CAPTION: Picture, Bud Wilkinson: "Our goal is the playoffs."