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Jim Hanifan, legendary coach with the Big Red and Rams, dies at age 87

Jim Hanifan, legendary coach with the Big Red and Rams, dies at age 87

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Jim Hanifan

Former Rams offensive line coach Jim Hanifan is introduced on the field on Dec. 21, 2003, along with his offensive unit as Hanifan coaches in his last regular season home game before retiring. PHOTO BY J.B. FORBES

There are any number of reasons Jim Hanifan, a California native and college football star at the University of California, became an imbedded piece of the St. Louis sports community.

Hanifan was an assistant coach and then head coach for the St. Louis Football Cardinals, segments that covered 12 seasons. Ten years later, following coaching stints in Washington and Atlanta, Hanifan returned as a coach for the Rams, helping St. Louis to its first and only Super Bowl title. He then became a color analyst on Rams broadcasts.

What came along with all of that was an unforgettable St. Louis personality. Anyone who knew "Hanny" knew a story from him and a story about him. Anyone who met him left with a crushed hand and a warm smile.

Hanifan, a legendary offensive line coach and larger-than-life sports personality, died Tuesday evening at age 87. The exact cause of death was unknown.

Hanifan's daughter Kathy Hinder told the Post-Dispatch on Wednesday night that doctors were still trying to determine what was ailing Hanifan at the time of his death at Missouri Baptist Hospital. But she pointed out that his death was not related to COVID-19.

She said a public memorial service will wait until the coronavirus pandemic has eased, with initial thoughts that something could be held in the summer. Knowing Hanifan, the bigger the better. He celebrated life, and loved celebrations of all shapes and sizes.

What made a gruff and gracious son of Irish immigrants a beloved figure in his adopted home was the way he represented it and the way he embraced it.

Hanifan told the story often. It was his first season in St. Louis as part of head coach Don Coryell's new regime. Hired off the campus of San Diego State, Coryell's crew had an inauspicious debut as their first St. Louis edition finished 4-9-1 in 1973. It was the third consecutive four-win season for the Big Red. Leaving the season-ending meetings at Busch Stadium, Hanifan drove home on Highway 40 and reflected on the situation, wondering if he was in the right place, the right town. Then it struck him.

"That's when I realized why I like it so much here," Hanifan said. "It's the people. There are a lot of nice people here - neighbors, friendly people, people trying to help you out. So I've always had a fondness for St. Louis.

"It never made me think that it was a huge, major, big-time metropolis. I felt like it was a big community where you knew every doggone person in town."

And if you were Jim Hanifan, everyone knew you. The list of people he influenced professionally is long and illustrious. It includes Hall of Fame players, championship teams and coaches from the NFL, college and high school ranks. It includes celebrities from all walks of life.

It also includes neighborhood friends and average Joes he met at restaurants, fundraisers and filling stations. Hanifan treated all the same.

"Would I have been a Hall of Famer without him as my coach? Probably not," former Cardinals offensive tackle Dan Dierdorf said in the introduction to Hanifan's biography, Beyond Xs and Os, My Thirty Years in the NFL.

"When I thought who was the person who was the biggest influence on my professional career, it wasn't even close. There was no one who could rival what Jim Hanifan did for me."

Hanifan spent 30 years coaching in the NFL and seven years coaching at the college level. If the keepers of the castle in Canton, Ohio ever see fit to induct assistant coaches into their exclusive society, Hanifan will preside indefinitely in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He is widely regarded as the premier offensive line coach in NFL history.

That history began in St. Louis with the Football Cardinals. Over three seasons, 1974 through 1976, the Cardinals won more games (31) than any team in the NFL. After 25 seasons without a postseason game, they made back-to-back trips to the playoffs in '74 and '75.

Coryell's innovative passing attack was the catalyst for this Camelot, anchored by the strong arm of pocket-passer Jim Hart and the all-purpose magic of Terry Metcalf. But the foundation for the "Cardiac Cards" was Hanifan's offensive line of Dierdorf, Conrad Dobler, Roger Finnie, Bob Young and Tom Banks.

Often colorful, sometimes crass, the unit reflected their ardent mentor and became one of the best in NFL history. Hanifan also coached the famous "Hogs" in Washington, another of the NFL's historically prominent lines.

Hanifan's line in St. Louis is largely credited with introducing weight-training to NFL camps and pioneering an aggressive style of play. The Cardinals approached the line of scrimmage the way an assault force approaches a beachhead. Characterized by the somewhat unconventional methods of Dobler, who made Sports Illustrated's cover as "Pro Football's Dirtiest Player," Hanifan's Heroes didn't play football, they waged it.

Dierdorf went back-to-back seasons, 1976-77, without allowing a single sack. During the entire 1975 season, Hanifan's group allowed only eight sacks, then an NFL record.

Coryell resigned after the '77 season and Hanifan went with him, coaching in San Diego for a season before coming back as the Cardinals' head coach in 1980. During six years on the job, he had three winning seasons. But for a missed field goal by Neil O'Donoghue in the last game at Washington, his 9-7 1984 team would have made the playoffs.

A year later, Hanifan was unceremoniously dismissed, with owner Bill Bidwill changing the locks on the office doors during halftime of the final game in 1985. He was gone, but those who played for him never forgot him. Two years later, Hanifan was an assistant in Atlanta when St. Louis played the Falcons.

At game's end, Cardinals players came across the field and formed a line on the Falcons' sideline to shake their former coach's hand. "That was really special," said Hanifan, who often got together with former Cardinals players and annually celebrated Thanksgiving dinner at Dierdorf's house. "That's something you never forget."

Hanifan also never held a grudge. When Bidwill's name came up in conversations, when someone suggested the Cardinals owner had mistreated Hanifan by firing him in such a cold manner, Hanifan was quick to offer a different perspective.

"That may be," he often said, "but don't forget he's also the guy that hired me and gave me the opportunity to be a head coach in the National Football League."

The sentiment was typical Hanifan. He didn't spend a lot of time with negative thoughts, never had much use for them. That's not to say he didn't have disagreements. San Diego owner Gene Klein was angry with Hanifan when he left the Chargers to take the head-coaching job in St. Louis. Hanifan relished telling the story about his conversation with Klein.

"As the conversation went on, I thought he was starting to understand my side of it," Hanifan said. "So I thought things ended on a good note when he said he'd always have a job for me. That was, until he told me it would be shoveling manure for his horses."

In 1990, Hanifan joined the staff of head coach Joe Gibbs in Washington, where he helped "The Hogs" -- aka Jim Lachey, Joe Jacoby, Raleigh McKenzie, Mark Schlereth and center Jeff Bostic -- clear a path to a Super Bowl title. Counting regular season and playoffs, the line allowed nine sacks in 19 games while protecting stationary quarterback Mark Rypien.

Hanifan came back to St. Louis in 1997, hired to the staff of Dick Vermeil. Teaming with assistant John Matsko, he developed an offensive line that cultivated the pauper-to-prince story of quarterback Kurt Warner and "The Greatest Show on Turf."

The line featured Hall of Fame left tackle Orlando Pace, right tackle Fred Miller, guards Adam Timmerman and Tom Nutten, center Mike Gruttadauria, as well as Andy McCullom and Ryan Tucker. The group provided the backbone for 526 points, 6,412 yards and 16 wins in 19 games, including a 23-16 Super Bowl win over Jeff Fisher's Tennessee Titans.

Hanifan's infectious enthusiasm was a big part of the journey. Before each game, he walked up and down the sideline, grabbed each of his linemen player by the back of his neck and growled into his ear, "All right, now go out there and raise some hell!"

During the week, preparing for games, Hanifan brought the same energy, embracing even the most mundane exercises.

"We would come in on Wednesday for the next opponent's game plan, and he would be installing the fullback dive," recalled former Rams All-Pro Rams guard Timmerman. "I mean, it was our most basic play for the week, and he would be doing it with so much passion and excitement.

"And that was at age 69 or 70, just a few years before he retired. I thought, 'If I could be that passionate about whatever I'm doing in my life' That really stood out in my mind."

The fact Hanifan became a guru for offensive line behemoths was more than a bit ironic. He was the son of an Irish-born California rancher who spoke eight different languages. He was a skinny 14-year-old when he went out for football at Covina High.

But he would go on to become a standout at several positions, a captain of the team, as well as a letterman in basketball and track. Hanifan then started three years at defensive end at California. During the 1953 and '54 seasons, he also started at tight end and became an All-American. He led the nation in receiving with 44 catches in 1954 and scored seven touchdowns, including the winning touchdown in the annual Cal-Stanford "Big Game."

Hanifan was drafted by the Rams in 1955. But after playing one season for the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. He played for a team in Fort Ord, Calif. that won the National Service Championship. While serving in Schweinfurt, Germany, Hanifan played for a team that won the European Service Championship.

When he got out of the service, he began coaching at the high school and junior-college levels before getting his first collegiate job in 1966 as an assistant at the University of Utah. Later, he became an assistant coach at Cal for two years.

By the time he joined Coryell's staff at San Diego State in 1972, Hanifan had coached almost every facet of football over 13 years, at three different levels. The one area where Hanifan had no expertise or coaching experience was the offensive line. Then he met Coryell, and a star was born.

"I had signed my contract," recalled Hanifan. "I was with Don and we were driving to pick up some furniture. He had Rod Dowhower coaching quarterbacks and receivers and Ernie Zampese and Claude Gilbert were handling defense.

"I finally asked him, 'What am I going to coach?'" Don said, 'Offensive line.' I said, 'What?'

The truth of the matter is, Hanifan could have coached basket-weaving and made it something special. It wasn't the science he was teaching as much as the method with which he taught. He was dedicated to both and committed to his players, whether they were headed to the Hall of Fame or headed out the door.

"I remember him coaching people, throughout my time in St. Louis, that I knew and he probably knew weren't going to make the team," Timmerman said. "But he would coach them like every play for that team that year was going to depend on that guy. Even if he knew they were going to be cut in the afternoon, he would coach them up in the morning. Because that's just kind of the guy he was.

"I think the best thing about Hanny was his wit and his passion for the game, and just how much he cared for people."

Jim Hanifan, one of a kind.

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