Whatever happened to ….. Jim Hart
If a National Football League team is truly looking for a talented prospect, it will find him. Witness the experience of Jim Hart.
Hart played quarterback for Southern Illinois University (SIU) from 1963 through 1965. The school is not considered to be a major college football powerhouse. Moreover, at the time college quarterbacks who were capturing the imagination of general managers of NFL teams were Craig Morton, Joe Namath, John Hurate, Steve Spurrier and Bob Griese. Hart was under the radar, so to speak.
So it was not surprising that he was not drafted by an NFL team in the 1966 draft. Instead, the St. Louis Cardinals signed him as a free agent after the draft.
He played 19 seasons with the Cardinals and most of that time he started for the team. It can be argued that he led the best Cardinal teams in franchise history. In 1974 the Cardinals were 10-4; in ‘75 they were 11-3; and in ‘76 they finished 10-4. They made the playoffs in 1974 and 1975. And Hart played in the Pro Bowl four times — 1974, 1975, 1976, and 1977. He was also named NFC Player of the Year in 1974.
He finished his playing career with the Washington Redskins.
In the Beginning
Born on April 29, 1944, Hart was an only child. He grew up outside Chicago, Illinois living in Evanston for the first seven years and Morton Grove.
His father had diabetes and was blind and died when Hart was about seven years old. His mother re-married and that’s when the family moved to Morton Grove. His step father was a bank clerk for the First National Bank of Chicago.
Hart credits his step father for encouraging him to get into sports. “He saw something in me and instilled in me the drive to go after it,” he said. “He was athletic and we played catch a lot with a baseball.”
Hart remembers that his step father literally pushed him out of the car to participate in a local punt, pass and kick competition. Hart won that competition in his age group.
He started playing football at age 13 when he was a freshman at Niles West High School in Morton Grove. It was the high school football coach who suggested that he play quarterback. “My freshman year the football coach lived nearby and every once in a while he would give me a ride to pre-season practice. One day we were talking and he said that someone told him that I was a pitcher in little league and so he thought it would be a natural for me to go out for the quarterback position. ‘Stay with it and let’s see how that develops,’ he said. Well, it developed nicely and as they say, I never looked back,” said Hart.
He also played basketball and baseball in high school. In fact, he thought that his best sport was basketball. “Basketball was the only sport I lettered in for three years,” Hart said. At the time Hart was 6 feet, 1-inch tall. But he knew that he wouldn’t make it in basketball. “You could say that I was better than most of the kids I played against but I knew it wasn’t my forte. I knew it would be football or baseball that would carry me on into college.” He noted that there were not many baseball scholarships coming from colleges at the time, so it had to be football.
He got a football scholarship to attend Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois. He received recruitment letters from the University of Arizona, the University of Illinois, Northwestern University, State College of Iowa and some other schools. He decided to go to Southern Illinois University because it was a place he could get to reasonably well from his home. “The Central Railroad had trains going down to Carbondale four to five times a day. And the school was close enough and it was easy enough for my parents to get to so they could come down and watch me play,” said Hart. Moreover, he thought that he wouldn’t be lost in a sea of quarterbacks. “There wasn’t like six quarterbacks trying out for the team so I knew I would have a better opportunity to play and that was important.” He also thought that he would eventually play baseball as well.
However, playing baseball for SIU was not in the cards. “My freshman year the heir apparent quarterback also played centerfield for the school’s baseball team. In order for him to play baseball he had to spend more time with the baseball team and could only participate in football spring practice one day a week. The coaches never gave him a chance. So the next year when I wanted to go out for the baseball team, I told the football coach and he looked at me and said, ‘How did you get your job?’ That was his way of saying forget about baseball. I don’t really look back at it as a bad thing. Actually, it probably was the best thing that happened.”
Back then in 1963 NCAA college athletics was broken up into a University division and a College Division. Southern Illinois University was in the College Division. “We were in a conference with a lot of Illinois schools,” explained Hart. “Eastern Illinois, Western Illinois, Southern Illinois, Illinois State. But after my freshman year we were kicked out of the conference because we would win the different championships every year. So from my sophomore year on we played schools like Tulsa, Bowling Green, and Toledo.”
The school’s record wasn’t anything to get excited about. In fact, they won only six games combined during Hart’s junior and senior years. And Hart didn’t win any awards or honors for playing football for SIU. So he wasn’t surprised that he was not drafted by any team during the 1966 NFL draft. However, some teams showed interest. He received letters from the Dallas Cowboys, the San Francisco 49ers, and the Los Angeles Rams. “The Cowboys sent letters to everyone,” joked Hart.
So he figured that his football career was over. Then the head coach of the SIU football team, Don Shroyer, who had been an assistant coach with the St. Louis Cardinals prior to joining the school, decided to return to the Cardinals. “He asked me if I wanted him to set up a try out for me with the Cardinals. Of course, I said yes.” The try out was set up and Hart impressed the coaches enough that they offered him a contract. At the time Charley Winner was the head coach.
Successful Career with the Cardinals
When he went to camp with the Cardinals he was the sixth quarterback in a roster of six quarterbacks. Charley Johnson was the starter. So obviously, Hart sat on the bench for the entire season. Then in 1967 through 1968, Johnson had to leave the Cardinals to fulfill an ROTC commitment so Hart became the team’s starting quarterback. Johnson returned for the 1969 season. Prior to the 1970 season Johnson was traded to Houston and Pete Bethard was brought in to start at quarterback for the 1970 and ‘71 seasons.
In 1971 Charley Winner was fired as head coach of the Cardinals and Bob Halloway was hired. Halloway stayed with Bethard as the starter for the ‘71 season. However, Hart played in six games and threw five touchdown passes.
Bethard was dropped as the number one quarterback going into the 1972 season and the Cardinals obtained Gary Cuozzo to start at quarterback. Cuozzo had been a phenom at the University of Virginia and played four years with the Baltimore Colts and four years with the Minnesota Vikings before joining the Cardinals. Halloway, who was a disciple of Bud Grant, who was coach of the Vikings, traded for Cuozzo believing that he would be the team’s “savior.” It didn’t work out that way. Cuozzo played in eight games, threw for only 5 touchdowns and 897 yards as he completed 43.7 percent of his passes. Hart got to play six games and threw five touchdown passes and 850 yards as he completed 50.4 percent of his passes.
Cuozzo played for the Cardinals for just one season. He retired to pursue a dental career. “After the last game of the ‘72 season Coach Halloway came to me and told me it was a mistake to bring in Cuozzo to start over me,” said Hart. “That night Halloway was fired.”
The next coach of the Cardinals was Don Coryell. He was considered an offensive genius. And Coryell tapped Hart to be the starter for the 1973 season. He remained the Cardinal’s starting quarterback through the 1983 season.
“Coryell was a good guy, a good coach and a good organizer,” said Hart. “He was innovative and fun to play for. He knew the game, he knew how to coach it, and he was good to his players. You wanted to play for him.”
One of the assistant coaches under Coryell was Joe Gibbs. Gibbs would go on to become head coach of the Washington Redskins and win three Super Bowls. And he would have a hand in extending Hart’s career.
Hart’s best seasons were in 1974, 1975, and 1976. The Cardinals played in the Eastern Division of the NFC along with the Dallas Cowboys, the Washington Redskins, the Philadelphia Eagles, and the New York Giants. He remembers a great rivalry between the Cardinals and Redskins and Cardinals and Cowboys during his best years with the Cardinals. Games that come to mind include a Monday Night encounter with the Cowboys in which the Cardinals won 38 - 0. And there was a game against the Redskins in which Cardinal wide receiver Mel Gray “caught” a touchdown pass that extended the game into overtime. Many who watched that game still say to this day that Gray did not hold on to the ball long enough for it to count as a reception. But the referee called it a touchdown. The Cardinals won the game on a Jim Bakken field goal. In another controversial game in 1979 the Cardinals lost to the Chicago Bears in the last game of the season by more than 30 points and the Bears beat out the Redskins for a playoff spot because of a tie breaker (the Bears had scored more combined points during the season than the Redskins putting them into the playoffs).
After the 1977 season Don Coryell left the Cardinals to become head coach of the San Diego Chargers. Bud Wilkinson was brought in to coach the team in 1978 and part of 1979. Former Cardinal player Larry Wilson coached the team during the last half of the ‘79 season and Jim Hanifin was brought in to coach the team in 1980. Obviously, the Cardinals were a dysfunctional team from 1978 to 1980. Hanifin gave it some stability and remained as coach of the Cardinals through the rest of Hart’s career with that team.
By the end of the 1983 season it became obvious to Hart that Neil Lomax would start at quarterback in 1984. Hart was willing to stay with the Cardinals and back up Lomax. But it was not what Jim Hanifin had in mind and Hart was released.
One More Year with the Redskins
Immediately after being released by the Cardinals Hart joined a local television station as a sports analyst and was assigned to cover the Super Bowl in Tampa, Florida. “The Redskins were playing the Los Angeles Raiders and I went down to Tampa with the local TV crew to do some human interest stuff the week before the game. So there I was with a TV crew standing in a hotel ball room listening to the coaches talking about the upcoming game. I knew Gibbs who was the head coach of the Redskins because he had been an assistant coach under Coryell in St. Louis. So I told the crew that we should go out in the hall and see if we could catch Gibbs before he came into the ball room. We did and we caught Gibbs and we were able to do a segment with Gibbs on camera. When the session was over and Gibbs started to walk away I yelled at him, ‘Hey, Joe, don’t forget this old rag arm is out of a job.’ Gibbs stopped in his tracks, turned to me and said, ‘We were just talking about you the other night.’ I said with some sarcasm in my voice, ‘Yeah, sure.’ And Gibbs said, ‘No really. We’re looking for an experienced guy to back up Theismann. We have two young guys who aren’t ready to play yet. So we need someone with experience.’ So Gibbs told me to call him. It was Super Bowl week so I didn’t call. The next week me and my wife went to Hawaii to participate in a golf tournament and on Thursday night at 4:30 a.m. the phone in our hotel rings. Neither I or my wife wanted to answer it because we thought it was probably something bad. But my wife finally answered the phone and it was Joe Gibbs. I got on the line and Gibbs said that he wasn’t kidding about what he had said in Tampa. He really did need an experienced quarterback to back up Theismann. So I said okay.”
When Hart showed up at the Redskins pre-season camp several players told him that they had a bone to pick with him. “I thought they were going to complain about the Mel Gray catch. But actually they were upset over the Cardinals loss to the Bears in ‘79 by more than 30 points which knocked the Redskins out of the playoffs that year. They thought we threw the game.”
The 1984 season spent with the Redskins was Hart’s last year in the NFL. He wanted to play one more year with the Skins but he was told that he would have to play himself onto the team during the preseason. “I was 41 years old and the Redskins had two young quarterbacks, Jay Schroeder and Babe Laufenberg. I didn’t want to compete against two 25 year olds so I parted ways with the Redskins.”
Soon after retiring from the Redskins, Hart was offered a job as an analyst for the Chicago Bears games which would be broadcasted by Chicago radio station WGN. He took the job and joined Butkus in the booth.
In 1988 Southern Illinois University offered him the job as the Athletic Director for the school. Hart took the job but also continued to do the Bears games for WGN in 1988 and 1989. He left WGN after the 1989 football season. “WGN had asked me if I wanted to do something for them full time. But that meant that I would have to leave the job at SIU. I didn’t want to do that because I saw the SIU job as more long lasting. So I dropped my job with WGN after the 1989 season. I needed to spend more time on my full time job with SIU.”
A.D. for SIU
Southern Illinois University had 18 sports for male and female students when Hart served as the school’s Athletic Director. The sports included Basketball, Football, Baseball, Softball, Volleyball, indoor and outdoor track and field, Swimming and Diving, Golf, and Tennis. Most sports were available to both male and female athletes.
In the early years of the job, Hart had to confront a transition into Title IX. This mandated the creation of women’s sports. And, in order to do that in compliance with the law, some men’s sports had to be discontinued. One sport that Hart had to cut was men’s gymnastics. “I wasn’t happy about that,” he said. “The coach was my academic advisor when I was a student. It was not fun to cut that sport but it had to be done.” Compliance to Title IX also caused Hart to eliminate the women’s field hockey team. “People didn’t know that Title IX was a federal law and called for the elimination of sports as a federal mandate in order to fairly balance women with men athletics,” Hart said.
Another part of the job that caused a lot of pressure for Hart was fund raising. In the early 1990s the Illinois State Legislature stopped the allocation of state funds for college athletics. “At the time that was one-third of our revenue,” said Hart. So he had to figure out ways to replace the shortfall. One method that he used was tapping revenue from casinos in the state. Boats that traveled down the Mississippi River were allowed to have casinos on board and Hart got the University’s athletic department involved in that. But the school administration stepped forward and stopped it. Other ways had to be found to raise funds for the sports. “We didn’t have money for teams to charter airplanes for team travel. And the coaches didn’t like that.” Moreover, Hart was required to justify what he did before the school’s board of trustees every month. “It was a constant battle. I talked to other A.D.s and asked them if they had to go before their board of trustees monthly or even quarterly and they all said no.”
Yet, despite the difficulties, Hart loved the job. And the school experienced some successes during his tenure. The school’s men’s basketball team did well in the NCAA tournaments and many of the school’s sports won the conference President’s Trophy.
In 1999 in the mist of a change in the position of Chancellor of Southern Illinois University, Hart was asked to leave the job of Athletic Director to help the school in full time fund raising.
Soon after he left Southern Illinois University and returned to St. Louis, Missouri. Hart and Dan Dierdorf, a fellow player with the St. Louis Cardinals, had opened up a steak house called Dierdorf and Hart Steak House in 1983 while they were both still playing football. Hart returned to St. Louis to assist in running the restaurants.
The two football players were involved with partners when they opened the restaurant. And during the years the number of restaurants expanded from one to two and then to three and then to five. The business had expanded too quickly and the partners tried to oust Hart and Dierdorf from ownership. But Hart and Dierdorf were able to fight off the partners and took full control of the restaurant. They reduced the number of restaurants down to two and now the business is doing fine.
The Family and Today
Hart is married and will be celebrated his 41th wedding anniversary in June. He met his wife Mary while they were both students at Southern Illinois University. After graduation, Hart went on to the St. Louis Cardinals and Mary was a flight attendant for Northwest Orient Airlines. After they were married, Mary quit her job with Northwest. “The airlines had a rule that flight attendants could not be married,” said Hart. “So she had to quit. But just two months after we were married, they changed the rule. So she could have gone back if she wanted to. But she would have had to re-qualify. So she didn’t go back.”
The Harts have three children — the twins, Suzanne and Brad, and Katie. Brad has a 5 year old daughter and a 3 year old son and Katie has two boys, one 8 and the other is 3. Brad and his two kids and Suzanne live in Dallas, Texas. Brad works for a medical technology company that sells medical software to hospitals and Suzanne is the general manager of Marriott Suite Hotel in Dallas. Katie lives in Kentucky with her two sons.
Hart and his wife now live in Naples, Florida. Hart plays in a lot of charity golf tournaments organized by former NFL players.
Hart concluded that he doesn’t miss football. In fact, he doesn’t even watch it much on television. “I enjoy watching the Monday Night Games,” he said. “But I would rather play golf on Sundays.”