Above the hallway leading to the offices of the St. Louis Cardinals' coaches in Busch Memorial Stadium there is a new ceiling. A leak caused the old ceiling to collapse back on Dec. 10. For St. Louis, more than the roof fell in that day. The Cardinals were springing leaks all over the place. On the heels of a 26-20 loss to Washington that ended his team's playoff hopes, St. Louis Coach Don Coryell leveled a verbal blast at local fans and the Cardinal management. "I'm not staying in a place I'm not wanted," Coryell raged. "I'd like to be fired. Let me have a high school job."
Last Friday, two months to the day from Coryell's outburst, the Cardinals patched up one of their leaks by announcing that through a "mutual agreement" between Coryell and and team owner Bill Bidwill, Coryell would no longer be the coach. Unfortunately, Bidwill's patchwork wasn't as neat as the handiwork on the ceiling. For the last two months the Cardinals, who under Coryell had been one of the NFL's most successful and exciting teams, have been in turmoil, and the once dazzling Cardiac Cards were being called the Chaotic Cards.
Among other things, Coryell had complained that Bidwill's tightfistedness in salary matters saddled him with a lot of unhappy players. In fact, 12 Cardinals, including Running Back Terry Metcalf, the notorious fumbler, have rebelled against Bidwill's penuriousness by becoming free agents. All are actively shopping their services with other teams. A likely free agent, Wide Receiver Ike Harris, was dealt down the river to New Orleans along with disgruntled All-Pro Guard Conrad Dobler, who demanded to be traded when Bidwill declined to renegotiate his contract. In return for Harris and Dobler, St. Louis acquired Bob Pollard, a defensive end known as Captain Crunch—when known at all—and Guard Terry Stieve. Coryell, still the coach at the time, learned of the trade from a local reporter. The deal appears to be so lopsided in favor of New Orleans that it has diminished what little credibility the Cardinal front office may still have.
All along, Coryell had excoriated the Cardinals for not giving him a voice in college draft selections. "Coaches should have a say in who they will coach," Coryell argued, "because if a team doesn't win, it's the coach who gets fired." In 1977 the Cardinals, high powered on offense but porous on defense, used their first two draft picks for Quarterback Steve Pisarkiewicz and Running Back George Franklin. As it turned out, neither Pisarkiewicz nor Franklin played a down last season. Franklin hurt a knee during training camp, and Pisarkiewicz rode the bench behind regular Quarterback Jim Hart and backup Bill Donckers, prompting one St. Louis writer to quip, "Pisarkiewicz was the first redshirt in NFL history."
By itself, the draft serves as an alarming indicator of the inefficiency of St. Louis' personnel department. Fewer than half of the players picked in the top five rounds over the past five years remain with the Cardinals, and of their eight first-round picks in the '70s, only two—Tight End J. V. Cain and Defensive Tackle Mike Dawson—are starters.
At the time of Bidwill's "mutual agreement" announcement, Coryell and Bidwill were not on speaking terms. Their long-simmering feud escalated into a silent war on Jan. 10. The coach and the owner were scheduled to meet that day to resolve Coryell's status, and the press had been so alerted. Coryell, however, stood Bidwill up, flying to Los Angeles in quest of the Rams' then-vacant head coach's position. Coryell called Bidwill from the St. Louis airport and apprised the owner of his itinerary. "I didn't wish him bon voyage," Bidwill snaps. The irate Bidwill then refused Coryell permission to visit San Diego, where Bidwill had found him coaching on the campus of San Diego State and where bumper stickers were already proclaiming: CORYELL FOR THE CHARGERS.
Bidwill later put a damper on Coryell's hopes for the Rams' job by announcing he would not release Coryell from the last three years of his St. Louis contract unless the Rams gave the Cardinals a No. 1 draft pick. This threat irked Coryell. "The Rams have a spot for a No. 1, and he's faster than me," Coryell said.
As the verbiage flew, Bidwill had the locks changed on the Cardinal offices to keep Coryell out and to prevent the assistant coaches from scattering to other teams with Cardinal game plans. Of course, they could have the college draft lists.
Strangely, these same Cardinals had a right to be dreaming Super Bowl on Nov. 20 after they had beaten Philadelphia 21-16 for their sixth straight win. Their record was 7-3, they had defeated Dallas, and the NFC's wild-card playoff berth seemed a cinch. But then St. Louis lost to Miami 55-14 on Thanksgiving Day and 10 days later fell to the New York Giants 27-7, making that Dec. 10 game with the Redskins a "must win" if the Cardinals expected to be in the playoffs for the third time in four years.
At halftime of that game, with St. Louis losing 13-10, Coryell's wife Aliisa, who had never been happy with the family's move from hot-weather San Diego to the unpredictable climes of St. Louis, left the stadium, claiming she could no longer tolerate the fans' abusive comments about her husband. Coryell's 16-year-old daughter Mindy tried to punch one fan who made a derogatory comment about her father. After the loss to Washington, Coryell simmered for several hours, then phoned a local reporter and blew his top.