This is the fourth in a five-part series of stories remembering Jim Hart, the Cardinals’ all-time passing leader.
The latter years of Jim Hart’s Cardinals career (1978-83) were marked by seminal events that tested both Hart’s and the team’s resolve.
There was the death of tight end J.V. Cain; a war of wills between coach Bud Wilkinson and owner Bill Bidwill that resulted in Wilkinson’s ouster; the arrival of quarterback Neil Lomax that led to Hart’s demotion; and, finally, Hart’s unceremonious release by the team.
It was a mostly distressing time, coming on the heels of the “Cardiac Cards” era, a stretch (1974-76) under coach Don Coryell during which the Big Red posted three double-digit winning seasons, made two playoff appearances, and sent multiple players to the Pro Bowl.
After Coryell left, Bidwill shocked the NFL world when he named Bud Wilkinson as the team’s new head coach in 1978. Wilkinson was a legendary college coach who guided the University of Oklahoma football team to glory from 1946-63, but now he was in his early 60’s and hadn’t been on a sideline for years.
Although Wilkinson kept the Coryell offense, the Cardinals started 0-8 in his first season and finished with a 6-10 record. Despite that, Hart recorded career highs in pass attempts (477), completions (240) and yards (3,121).
The record has stood the test of time. And it might just stand for the rest of time.
When Jim Bakken retired from the St. Louis Cardinals in 1979, after 17 seasons in the NFL, he was the franchise’s all-time scoring leader with 1,380 points.
Forty-four years later, that hasn’t changed. Bakken still holds that record—and he may never let go of it. Of the 49 players below him on the team scoring list, most are retired or playing for another team. The only exceptions are 37-year-old kicker Matt Prater (42nd with 137 points) and quarterback Kyler Murray (tied for 47th with 120 points).
“I guess I didn’t really think about that,” Bakken says when asked if he ever imagined his record would last this long. Actually, he takes more pride in a single-game NFL record he set.
On September 24, 1967, a windy day at Pitt Stadium in Pittsburgh, Bakken kicked seven field goals (18, 24, 33, 29, 24, 32 and 23 yards) in a 28-14 victory over the Steelers. (He attempted two more field goals into the wind that missed their mark.)
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.”
Desperate for defensive line help in the 1974 NFL draft, Big Red personnel director George Boone shocked everyone when he selected tight end James Victor Cain with the 7th overall pick in the draft.
“We didn’t feel we could pass up a guy like that,” Boone told the St. Louis Post Dispatch after the Cardinals picked the Colorado All-American.
The Big Red already had a pretty good tight end in future Hall of Famer Jackie Smith, so they worked Cain out at both tight end and wide receiver during his first training camp. And it didn’t take long for the tall, rangy Houston native to make an impression with his new teammates in St. Louis.
J.V. Cain caught 76 passes for 1014 yards and 9 touchdowns in four seasons with the Cardinals.
“You seldom see a wide receiver hit people all over the field the way J.V. does,” reserve quarterback Bill Bynum said. “He’s so big and strong that he can get down into the pattern quickly and doesn’t have to worry about having trouble releasing from the linebacker.”
“Cain is just super,” head coach Don Coryell said. “He catches everything. That’s what I like about him. He’s a tremendous athlete.”
From undrafted free agent to one of the most prolific passers in NFL history, Jim Hart’s career had more than its fair share of challenges. The Chicago area native had to overcome fan favorite Charley Johnson in the late 60s, the Bob Hollway era in the early 70s, a career threatening shoulder injury in 1973, and #1 draft pick Steve Pisarkiewicz in 1979. But he could not beat his last challenger, Father Time, which is still undefeated.
After losing his starting job to Neil Lomax, the Big Red released the 39 year old Hart in 1984. He would retire a year later as the team’s all-time leading passer, throwing for 34,665 yards and 209 TD passes. Only Johnny Unitas and Fran Tarkenton had thrown for more yards than Hart.
Prentice Gautt is a name that may not be familiar to younger generations of football fans. But the former Oklahoma Sooner, Cleveland Brown, and St. Louis Cardinal running back was a pioneer in the 1950s, becoming the first African-American to play football at OU, joining the team just one year after most racial restrictions were lifted at the school.
Gautt became a two-time All-Big Eight running back, led the team in rushing his junior and senior seasons, and earned MVP of the 1959 Orange Bowl. He was named an Academic All-American his senior season.
Although Gautt excelled on the gridiron, he faced many of the same racial obstacles encountered by Jackie Robinson off the field. Many local restaurants refused to serve him and he was not allowed to stay in some hotels with the rest of the team. Gautt also went through verbal and physical abuse at OU, including late hits in practice.