Most St. Louis football fans probably remember Jim Hanifan from his assistant coaching days with Don Coryell and the Cardiac Cards or when he was the Big Red head coach from 1980-1985. Younger fans may remember his time with the St. Louis Rams or later as the straight-shooting beloved analyst in the Rams radio booth with Steve Savard.
But some forget that Jim Hanifan was one of the few assistant coaches who stuck around for a year after Don Coryell left the Cardinals in 1978. Owner Bill Bidwill shocked the football world when he hired college coaching legend Bud Wilkinson, who led Oklahoma to three national championships and 14 conference titles. At the time, Hanifan had a year left on his contract, but he also had several offers to leave St. Louis.
“I had options,” Hanny wrote in his book Beyond Xs & Os, My Thirty Years in the NFL. “At least six teams were vying for my services. I thought I was back in high school, being recruited all over again.”
Hanifan decided to stay in St. Louis and work under Wilkinson, a man who he once said “probably has more charisma than anybody I have ever met in my life.”
The 1978 season did not go well. The Cards started the season with eight losses before rallying for a 6-10 record. The following season saw the Big Red start 3-10 before Wilkinson was fired after a close loss to a bad Cincinnati Bengals team.
Hanifan was a man of many stories and he loved to tell a particular one about his time with Wilkinson prior to the 1978 season. The following is an excerpt from his previously referenced book Beyond Xs & Os, My Thirty Years in the NFL.
Bud was truly a national figure and had so many contacts in so many places. One place where he knew all of the important people was the automobile industry. At a time when a lot of teams were having real problems getting free cars for their assistant coaches, Bud was able to get cars for everybody on our staff. Bud actually had about three cars for himself, and one was a brand new Ford LTD. We took turns driving the car, with each of the coaches getting it for a week or so then turning it over to the next coach.
My week to have the car happened to be the same week that all of the scouts from across the country were meeting in St. Louis. Bidwill threw a party, and then we were going to watch the baseball game. I had a lot of friends in town, people whom I had either played against or had coached with or against. After a couple of innings at the game, a bunch of us left and went around the corner to Kelly’s Corner, where the owner, John McMahon, was a good friend of mine.
One of the scouts, Tom Branz, for some reason liked the stockyards in East St. Louis and the Stockyards Bar. He decided he wanted to go there, so we all agreed to go with him.
I had never been there so I was following them in the new Ford LTD. We went across the bridge into Illinois, but then they surprised me and took the first exit. I was going too fast and couldn’t make the turn, so I went on and took the next exit. When I came off the ramp, I had no idea where I was except that I was in downtown East St. Louis.
I knew better than to stop. I kept driving, hoping I would come across an area where I could stop and get directions. I kept driving, and pretty soon I was in the boonies, way out in the sticks. I was on a country road, and I was really lost. All of a sudden, here comes this cotton-pickin’ train.
I stopped, thinking it would be maybe 30 cars or so, but no, it’s one of those unbelievable Midwestern trains that can have 200 or more cars. I started to count the cars, but after about 30 our so I got tired of that.
What I had not done was put the car in park. I still had the car in drive, with my foot on the brake. It was getting late, and after a while, my head started to drop. Pretty soon my head dropped to my chest, and my foot came off the brake. I slid through the railway crossing barrier and into the train.
I took that brand new Ford LTD smack dab into the train. I don’t know how fast the train was going, but at least 30 miles an hour and maybe a lot faster. My car eased in there at maybe two miles an hour and hit that on-rushing train.
The fact that I am able to recount this story years later says something about the Lord. The Lord had a design and something for me to do. I should have been carried down that road, wherever it was, and been gone forever.
What happened was I woke up rather quickly. People have thought I made this up, but the honest truth is the first thing I saw was a big orange ball right in front of me. Why, I don’t know. My car was raised up at about a 45 degree angle toward the train. All I could hear was “hippity-hop, hippity-hop, thump thump.” I thought, “It’s an alien.”
I came to enough to know I had to get out of there, and I threw the car in reverse. Luckily it worked. I shot backwards, like a stunt even Evel Knievel couldn’t pull off. Why my car was up against the railroad cars like that and my car was just bouncing off them and not getting caught or dragging down the tracks I will never know.
I got out of the car and walked around front. It was a total wreck. The front of the car looked like I had been in a butcher shop and somebody had sliced it all the way up. The engine was still running, but I don’t know how. One headlight was working, but it was just hanging there.
The train stopped, and three guys came down and started ripping into me. “Hold it right there,” I said. “Wait a minute. We have a problem here. You guys are mad at me, but look at my car. My car is a total wreck. I think your train won!”
They said, “We’re calling the cops.” I said “Call ’em.”
The officer got there quickly. He talked to them then he came over and talked to me. He took out his tape measure and went from my car to the train, then measured the skids and jotted it all down. He had gotten the conductor and the engineer calmed down.
It told them, “I didn’t mean to run into your train. I was not attacking the train.”
The officer finished making all of his notes, then he came over to me.
“From the distance involved and the skid marks, I estimate you were going 47 miles an hour when you hit the train,” he said. I said, “What?” He repeated what he had just said.
“My dear friend,” I said, “if I was driving 47 miles an hour when I hit the train, you and I would not be talking now. I tried to tell you earlier. I fell asleep, my foot came off the brake and I slid into the train. The skid marks you measured was when my rear end was roaring the other way, away from the train.”
He looked at me and all of a sudden it hit him, and he started to laugh. He turned around to the conductor and engineer and told them to get back on the train and get out of there. Then he turned back to me and told me to take off.
I got back in the car and started to go, and then I realized—I was still lost. “The only thing I’ve found that I know is this train, and he’s leaving.” I told the officer, “do me a favor. I would love to get back to East St. Louis. Just get me to the river.”
He did that, and finally I was on Interstate 55 headed toward my home near Fenton. Now it was about 4 a.m., and I knew there was a good chance I would be stopped by a Missouri Highway Patrolman and have to go over the entire story again. What happened to you? Well, first I had a train wreck. Luckily, nobody stopped me, and I made it home.
All I wanted to do was lie down and sleep, but as I walked into the bedroom, Mariana woke up. “Where have you been?” she yelled at me. I said, “I don’t even want to talk about it.” She insisted, but I was too tired. What had started off as a really fun night with a bunch of my buddies had just been a miserable experience for the past seven or eight hours.
I had been asleep about two hours when I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was my son Jimmy, who was five at the time. “Daddy, come downstairs for breakfast,” he said. I knew what Mariana was up to. She was doing this on purpose. All husbands understand—she thought I was out having a good time and therefore she was going to punish me. I got up because it was my boy and went downstairs. I had to go to work anyway.
Mariana got up from the breakfast table and went outside and looked at the car. Then Kathy, our daughter, did the same thing. They both asked what happened, and the only thing I could think of, which I learned as either a player or a coach, was “no comment.” I knew if I told them the truth, they would not believe it and think I had made up the story.
Then Jimmy did the same thing, and he’s the only one I can talk to. “Shut up and eat your breakfast,” I said.
I had to turn the car into McMahon Ford, and I had to repeat the story a couple of times. While I was telling the story, Mariana was sitting outside waiting for me, sweating in the heat and humidity, because our other car did not have air conditioning. Finally I cam over and told her she could leave, that I was getting another car. She was none too pleased with me.
I really thought that was going to be the end of it, but I got a call from the insurance company and had to tell the agent the whole story. She couldn’t help but laugh, too. I had managed to keep the whole thing from Bud until one day we were in a meeting, and Larry Wilson poked his head in about three times, saying little one-liners about the wreck.
Bud was looking at me, and after the third time I said, “Coach I’ve got to talk to you about something and I might as well do it now.” I told the story again, and all of my good friends on the staff were doubled over because they were laughing so hard. Bud never even smiled. He had this real stoic look on his face, and I was thinking, “I don’t blame him if he fires me.”
He listened to the whole story and at the end he said, “Well I’ll be damned,” and he slammed his fist down on the table and broke into this gigantic belly laugh.
It turned out his twin brother had almost the exact same thing happen to him when he was a senior in high school in Minneapolis and he had escaped uninjured as well.
I looked at Bud and said, “God bless you. What a wonderful human being you are.”
It wasn’t over, however. The players naturally found out about it, and my good friend Tim Kearney went around calling me “choo choo” for weeks.
Jim Hanifan left the Cardinals after the 1978 season to reunite with Don Coryell in San Diego, but returned a year later to take over the Big Red job in 1980. Bud Wilkinson was fired by the Cardinals during the 1979 season and returned to ESPN where he was a college football analyst. He passed away in 1994 at the age of 77.