On the first morning of the football season, before anyone is hurt, before anything is lost, before everyone arrives, the well-worn and over-traveled men who make this their life's work take stock. Jim Hanifan has particular reason to feel reflective today. The opponent is his old team. Joe Bugel makes his debut in Hanifan's old job. And, in one of those curious twists of the industry, he is making his debut in Bugel's.
Getting on to 40 years ago, Hanifan was accepted at law school. Everything after that is a blur. "You play a couple of years, you're drafted into the service for a couple more, you play another year, you get married, you have a kid," he summarized. "Then, all of a sudden, you're cut. Well, one thing is sure. It's too late for law school."
Coaches were some of his favorite people, starting with Pappy Waldorf at Cal-Berkeley. So Hanifan became a coach. He took a trail that began at a high school, as most of them do, and wound through several junior colleges past Utah, Cal again and San Diego State to St. Louis, San Diego, St. Louis again, Atlanta and now Washington.
This is not an especially jumbled resume for a football coach. Joe Gibbs's reads: San Diego State, Florida State, USC, Arkansas, St. Louis, Tampa Bay, San Diego and Washington. Speaking for itinerant coaches, Sid Gillman used to say: "Football whips us back and forth across the country, douses our spirit, wrecks our health, breaks our hearts and still means so much to us that our wives are jealous."
Hanifan's specialty is the offensive line; it suits him. Though often they are the most important and best-spoken members of the team, offensive linemen usually are the least-celebrated players in football. Because they almost never experience that one extreme moment of personal glory, they are charged with holding onto perspective as firmly and furtively as to the jerseys in front of them.
In a slight departure from the norm, owing to an early emphasis on running and the animated personality of Bugel, Washington's offensive line has enjoyed its own identity: the Hogs. Bugel was Boss Hog. Hanifan is something of a foster pig-parent. But, as sensitive as he might be to a loss in the family, Hanifan is disinclined to tread softly among the livestock. They put their pants on like everybody else, one hoof at a time. "I've adjusted a little on terminology," he said. "They've adjusted a little on technique. It hasn't been hard. They're mentally and physically tough people, real professionals. The game means a great deal to them."
How much it can mean to an assistant coach-turned head coach-turned assistant coach again-turned head coach again-turned assistant coach again is surprising. "Working for Bud Wilkinson one year with the Cardinals," Hanifan said, "after Bud had been away from coaching some 14 seasons, I remember watching him bawl like a baby when we won that first game. 'God,' he cried, 'I've missed this.' His business successes had been empty by comparison. That was just money. It meant nothing."
Hanifan's few winning seasons in the early '80s, the Cardinals' last few, may seem minor successes by comparison to some. But his memories aren't meager. "There were a lot of really great memories, and there were a lot of small and subtle victories," he said, "but they're based in St. Louis, not Phoenix. Like so many players who settled in Missouri after their careers ended, my memories are kind of stranded there." Nothing against Arizona, which commandeered the franchise a couple of years ago, but it makes him feel a little lost and sad.
"I just know that I'll go back to St. Louis through the years," he said. "I know I'll go down to that stadium. I know I'll sneak in some late afternoon and sit in those stands. I'll picture Terry Metcalf going 95, or maybe Conrad Dobler at practice bowling over Hanifan and Gibbs." (Dobler was a particularly wanton offensive lineman whose hobby was flattening assistant coaches by accident.)
As jarring as it still can be to study film of opponents with Cardinals on their helmets, Hanifan is consoled by looking around Redskin Park at past movies come to life. He said: "Anyone who regularly had to prepare to play the Redskins can tell you that the most underrated guy on this football team for 10 years has been Donnie Warren. Every man in the offensive line can make his block on a particular running play. But if the tight end doesn't make his, it'll still go for zilch."
Glancing at Gibbs, Hanifan naturally can make out a bit of Don Coryell, their old St. Louis and San Diego boss. "By Friday, you didn't want to be around Don," Hanifan said. " 'Uh-oh,' you'd say to yourself, 'he's got his game face on.' " (Gibbs has one too, but his doesn't burn holes in the furniture.) "I can see Coryell in Joe's work ethic and in his rapport with the players and the staff. Everyone knows Joe's the boss, but there's a closeness he allows, a certain openness he wants, that makes me feel good about the season."
At this time of year, everyone in the football business feels good. "It's true," he said. For such pessimistic men, they have such optimistic hearts. "We all say: 'Hey, our team can win this thing. We can reach that Super Bowl.' " Well, a couple of them will.