Still, it is going to take more than self-confidence for St. Louis to improve on last season's 7-7 record. After losing three of their first four games, then winning six straight, the Cardinals underwent a strange collapse, starting with an embarrassing 55-14 loss to Miami on Thanksgiving Day, and down went the season. The departure of Metcalf, Harris and Dobler takes a lot of punch out of the offense, and the defense...ah, yes, the defense. Last year it ranked 13th of 14 in the NFC, and it remains intact.
When Coryell was still coach and launching verbal potshots at Bidwill, one of the things he was noisiest about was his limited influence on draft choices. Wilkinson claims that he was an active participant in this year's draft, and the club's selection of Arkansas Kicker Steve Little as its No. 1 pick seems proof of that. Wilkinson is a firm believer in position football, and "Little Big Foot" is expected to give St. Louis an edge in field position every time he punts. Wilkinson was presumably also in on the decision to draft second-round choice Johnny (Dr. Doom) Barefield, a linebacker from Texas A&I who wears quarters in his ears, writes poetry about his tackling and walks around in graveyards late at night. Barefield was still unsigned and absent from the team's training camp late last week, prompting a call from Cardinal scout Stan West. West, who had played for Wilkinson at Oklahoma, pleaded with the rookie to come to his senses and report to camp. "Look at it this way," West told him, "every day you stay out is costing you 10 years' worth of quarters."
West is only one of five members of Wilkinson's staff who either played for or coached with him at Oklahoma. Pete Elliott gave up his job as athletic director at the University of Miami to join his old boss as offensive backfield coach. The defensive line coach, Rudy Feldman, another former assistant, was lured to the Cardinals from the San Diego Chargers. Jerry Thompson, who played and coached for Wilkinson at Oklahoma, will be the first specialty-teams coach in the history of the franchise, an indication of how far behind the rest of the league St. Louis' front office is. Bo Bolinger, another scout, was an All-America for Wilkinson. The sixth man is an old friend, Tom Bettis, the highly respected defensive backfield coach at Kansas City for 12 seasons before being named the Chiefs' head coach last year after Paul Wiggin was fired. But Bettis was fired at the end of the season, too, and had decided to leave football for good.
"My first response was no," Bettis says. But Wilkinson was persistent, and after one particularly impassioned pitch, he told Bettis to drink three Scotches and sleep on the offer. Bettis accepted the next day. "Five clubs wanted him to coach defense," says Wilkinson, "and two of the offers were from close personal friends. When he changed his mind and accepted, I think this organization began to turn around."
Thus surrounded by familiar and trusted aides, Wilkinson is not intimidated by the new challenge of the pro game. "I don't think there have been any changes in football in the past 15 years that are the equivalent of the discovery of the atomic bomb," he says. "I can learn it."
This season the Cardinals will use the popular 3-4 defense for the first time, but Wilkinson will not have to learn it. Shucks, all the 3-4 is is a variation on the celebrated " Oklahoma defense" that he invented three decades ago.