Why Frank “Pop” Ivy Left the Cardinals in 1961

(Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Robert L. Burnes’ book Big Red: Story of the St. Louis Football Cardinals. Frank “Pop” Ivy was a member of the 1947 NFL Champion Chicago Cardinals and was the St. Louis Cardinals first head coach after they relocated from Chicago. He led them to a 6-5-1 record in 1960, but the team fell apart in 1961 and he resigned with just two games left in the season.)

When Pop Ivy abruptly resigned with two games left in the 1961 season, the general public impression was that he had been fired.

Walter Wolfner (the Cardinals Director of Operations) denied it vigorously. “We had no fault to find with Pop’s work, especially considering the injuries. He was under no pressure from management. In fact, I was waiting until the end of the season to talk to him about a new contract. I was shocked when he told me he wanted out.” The coach maintained that no one had pushed him, no one had leaned on him to leave. “It was my own idea,” he said.

Frank “Pop” Ivy won three Grey Cups with the Edmonton Eskimos in the CFL before landing the head coaching job with the Chicago Cardinals. He compiled a 15-31-2 record in 3+ seasons.

Fourteen years later he (Ivy) still said the same thing.”I said it then and I say it now, I did it myself. It was no spur-of-the-moment decision. I’d been thinking about if for weeks.”

But why? Did he feel that his often unorthodox system was a failure? “No, not at all. If anything I was more convinced than ever that it would go. Basically, I suppose, I felt that I had lost control of the team. It was split beyond repair. I saw no way to resolve it and I felt the only way out was to leave as gracefully as possible.”

He sighed deeply. “The Etcheverry (Cards QB Sam Etcheverry) thing was the primary problem, I’ve always felt. If Sam had been able to play up to the ability I saw in Canada, I think everything would have been all right.” But Sam Etcheverry was never the quarterback he had been in Canada. “Some people have said that they thought Sam’s arm was lame when he came out of Canada, but I don’t think so. I do know he hurt his arm on the first pass he threw in camp. Just a little pop pass, too,” Ivy said with a rueful laugh. “Darn thing could not have traveled more than ten or fifteen yards but he did something to his arm. I saw him grab it.”

Some players who had expected miracles from Sam the Rifle, were openly critical, not of Etcheverry but of management, for disposing of (backup QB) John Roach so quickly. There were arguments among players and among coaches. During some practice sessions Ivy’s usually urbane look was replaced by one of total dejection. The players, those who were particularly critical, said Etcheverry’s problem was not just his arm but that he did not have the mobility to maneuver..

“We tried everything to get our offense to function,” Ivy said. “We went to the shotgun, to the double wing, even to a spread formation without success. In the Pittsburgh game, Etcheverry was swarmed over several times in the first half. We took him out, put in Goog (Ralph Guglielmi) and he fumbled the first two times he put his hands on the ball.”

The team’s inability, for a second year, to win at home was particularly disturbing to Ivy. They lost their first four games at Busch Stadium and looked flat and punchless. After a 21-10 loss to Cleveland, Ivy said: “We just can’t move the ball. I can’t say if we are asking players to do something they can’t do… or if we are not coaching them well enough.” That was the beginning of the end.

(Editor’s Note: The Cardinals hired Wally Lemm after the 1961 season. Pop Ivy was hired by the AFL Houston Oilers and won the Conference Championship his first season, but lost the AFL Title game 20-17 to the Dallas Texans in double overtime. Ivy later became a long time NFL scout until retirement. He passed away in 2003 at the age of 87.)

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