Tom Banks is arguably the greatest center in Big Red history. He was a team leader and outspoken critic of management which made him a fan favorite during his playing days in St. Louis. Banks tells it like it is (and still does) and the fans loved him for it. The All-Pro center was drafted in the eighth round out of Auburn in 1970 and played 11 seasons for the Cardinals (1970-1980). After missing his rookie season due to a broken ankle, Banks became one of the top NFL centers in the mid-70s anchoring an offensive line that only gave up 8 sacks in 1975. He earned Pro Bowl honors from 1975-1978. I recently spoke with Tom about his time at Auburn, his days in St. Louis, and finishing his career with the Birmingham Stallions of the USFL.
Q: Tom, tell us a little about your father, Tom Banks Sr.? I understand that he was a pretty good ball player himself.
Banks: My dad came out of WWII and went to Jones Junior College in Mississippi. It was impossible to get a scholarship to a major school because of all the veterans coming back from war. He was an undersized offensive lineman at 185 pounds, but he became a Junior College All-American. He took a year off to work in the steel mill when I was born and said it was the best decision he ever made because it made him realize to value education. He went to Auburn in 1949 and earned a scholarship. He played in the first Senior Bowl in Mobile, AL in 1951 and I was in the stands sitting on my mom’s lap. I was only 2 and a half years old. Later we became the first father-son to play in the Senior Bowl (Banks played in the 1970 game).
Q: You were recruited by Bear Bryant at Alabama. Why did you choose Auburn?
Banks: My family literally lived in the shadow of the stadium in Auburn. I was raised an Auburn guy, and my goal was to follow my dad and lead the team out in front of the Auburn fans on Saturdays as he had done. It was a great moment when I received the scholarship offer. I didn’t visit any other school or talk to anyone else because Auburn was the only place I ever wanted to go.
Q: You were a two-time All-SEC center at Auburn and also played with Heisman Trophy winner Pat Sullivan. Tell us a little about Pat.
Banks: Pat and I started playing together in grammar school and played through high school and college. I remember when I was an eighth grader and this guy (Pat) comes out throwing the ball around and we’re like who is this guy? He’s a sixth grader and he’s throwing the ball through the wall. You could tell he was something special right away. Pat was just one of those guys, and he still is, I just talked to him last week. He exudes confidence, and he’s not cocky, he’s humble, but when he stepped into the huddle it was his team.
Q: What was your most memorable college game?
Banks: My senior year, Alabama had beaten us five years in a row and I’m sure you know that’s the biggest game in the south, some would say the entire country. My dad’s team had beaten Alabama in 1949 which was a huge game in Auburn’s history. I just told my guys, we are not going to lose this game, in no uncertain terms. We were behind at half time, but we came out in the second half and ran up and down the field and beat them 49-26. Actually, I’m looking at the game ball from that game right now and all my guys signed it and gave it to me. It’s one of my prized mementos. I’ve got some cool stuff here, but that game ball from 1969 is at the top.
Q: Tell me about the 1970 Senior Bowl game.
Banks: I played for coach Shula and the game ended in a 37-37 tie. After the game someone broke out cigars in the locker room even though it was a tie. Being in the shower, smoking cigars and having a beer were my first experiences of pro ball! (laughing)
Q: You were drafted by the Cardinals in 1970. What did you know about St. Louis and what were your first impressions?
Banks: When I got drafted I didn’t know anything about St. Louis. But when I got up there and went to training camp and saw the fans come out, I thought, man, this is great! St. Louis took me in like I was one of their own and I really think part of that was I always told the truth. I always had a great relationship with the fans up there and I never understood why St. Louis got the reputation for not being a football town. We always thought it was great.
Q: A late season collapse in 1970 led to Charlie Winner being dismissed. Bob Hollway took over in 1971, but had little success. Tell me what you remember about Bob.
Banks: I thought Bob Hollway had good intentions, but he lost the team pretty early. He tried to be a combination of Vince Lombardi and Bud Grant. He had been on coach Grant’s staff at Minnesota and he really believed what those two guys preached. He lost himself, in my opinion. The players can figure out pretty quickly if you’re not being yourself. It was not a good situation. He was determined to replace Jimmy (Hart) and we didn’t understand any of that. Tim Van Galder was probably the best of the replacements because he was a great athlete. But Jim’s passing ability and leadership put him above everyone else and the whole team knew that. It didn’t make any sense.
Q: Management made some strange trades in the early 70s. They traded John Gilliam, MacArthur Lane, and Ahmad Rashad. Some would say they gave those players away. What were the team’s thoughts on these trades.
Banks: It never made any sense the way they (management) did things. You had the coaching staff and players on one side and the scouting department and management team on the other side. There was no working together. Here’s the players you get, do something with them. It was just not a good situation and it was obvious to the players. We were like, why are they doing this?
Q: Defensive coordinator Chuck Drulis passed away on the team plane in 1972. Tell us what you remember about that?
Banks: It was surreal. We were on our way to Houston for an exhibition game against the Oilers when coach passed away. We had to immediately land at the nearest airport, I think somewhere in Arkansas. However, one thing I remember from that game was it was the first time we had seen Bob Young. He was a little rotund (laughing) and we were giving him some crap about that and then the next week he shows up in our locker room after being cut by the Oilers. Turned out to be one of my best friends of all-time.
Q: After consecutive four win seasons, Bob Hollway was fired in 1973 and Bill Bidwill surprises everyone by bringing in little-known Don Coryell from San Diego State. Tell us a bit about coach Coryell’s first season.
Banks: He completely changed the atmosphere. He took what we had there and made it into something. Other coaches couldn’t do that. It was a perfect time coming together as a team and the atmosphere he created. When you have Joe Gibbs, Jim Hanifan, and Rod Dowhower on the coaching staff, that’s pretty good stuff. We still only won four games, but we were competitive and players were having fun. We knew better days were ahead.
Q: You only played with Larry Wilson for a couple of seasons early in your career. Tell us a little about the Hall of Famer.
Banks: We played together for three years. My rookie year we scrimmaged the Bears in Rensselaer, Indiana and Larry put a lick on a guy that I had never seen before. I mean he came up from his toes all the way through his neck. I mean this was a scrimmage in the preseason. And I thought, oh my God, this guy is serious! Larry was a very intense player and of course he was getting older at that point. I have a lot of respect for Larry. He left it all on the field every time he went out there.
Q: Everyone knows that you were an outspoken critic of management. I’m sure we could talk for hours about Joe Sullivan (Director of Operations) and owner Bill Bidwill. Tell us some of your thoughts on contract negotiations, salaries, and the organizational culture in the 1970s.
Banks: It was very frustrating trying to deal with Joe Sullivan and Billy. When you know you’re getting screwed, but you want to play anyway, it’s a lousy feeling. They did nothing to make us feel wanted there. They owned our rights. Either we were going to play for them or we weren’t going to play. How do you get any kind of loyalty from your employees with that kind of attitude? It just doesn’t happen. We had the best offensive line in the NFL, but were paid well below league average. But, the guys loved playing together.
Banks: Billy may have come down to the locker room two or three times during my eleven years in St. Louis and he was very uncomfortable. Now Stormy (brother Stormy Bidwill) would come down when he was the president and he would walk around the whole locker room, shake your hand, and thank you for your efforts. He would ask about your family, and I thought, my gosh this guy’s great! But Bill wouldn’t even acknowledge you. He was very uncomfortable. You know, we would always wonder about when he was a ball boy when he was a kid… did the guys just abuse him, or what? How did he get this personality? It didn’t seem like he enjoyed being the owner of the team and that should be a great job!
Q: What are your thoughts about George Boone (Personnel Director) and how the team handled the draft?
Banks: With George Boone running things, and I liked George personally, but that whole situation was ridiculous. The group of scouts had no relationship with the coaches. That doesn’t make any sense. But Billy wanted it that way. He wanted a division between the scout team/management and coaching staff.
Banks: I remember Coach Coryell found out about the Dobler trade while listening to the radio on his way to the office. And, you know, a lot of coaches in St. Louis found out they were getting fired when their office locks were changed. It happened to Coach Winner, it happened to Bob Hollway, Bud Wilkinson… That’s a great way to do business, isn’t it? You don’t treat your people like that. My understanding is that Michael (Bidwill) is doing a much better job and he has respect all around the league. But his dad was a different matter.
(Part 2 will cover the Cardiac Cards and some of his teammates)