If you factor in everything James Martin Michael Hanifan has done—coached one of the greatest offensive lines in NFL history with the Big Red of the ‘70s, won 39 games and led the Cardinals to the playoffs as a head coach, and then returned to coach some great offensive lines with the St. Louis Rams during their Super Bowl days—if you factor it all in, Jim Hanifan is the most distinguished professional football coach in our town’s history.
Hanifan spent 30 years overall in the NFL. For most of his career, he was considered one of the best, if not the best offensive line coach. His 1975 Big Red line of Dierdorf, Dobler, Banks, Finnie and Young gave up a then-NFL record of eight sacks. He later coached a Redskins line (the Hogs) that won a Super Bowl. And Hanifan capped it by bringing along Orlando Pace in what will be a Hall-of-Fame career.
Hanifan was a character, too. Players loved him and sometimes played practical jokes on him, like the time they put Vaseline on a Krispy Kreme doughnut, microwaved it, and watched him eat it at team meeting. When Hanifan was through coaching them, he became their friend. He has spent the last 17 Thanksgivings at the Dierdorf house with some other former Cardinals.
Hanifan is now 80 years old and remains active. He owns two restaurants called It’s a Better Burger. He also does some radio work, and nobody tells better stories at a banquet than he does. I caught up with him at his restaurant in Maryland Heights, where we also pounded down some tasty burgers.
What is your role with the restaurant?
I am the official taste-tester. I am very good at that.
Describe your coaching philosophy.
I wasn’t soft. You have to look at each kid in a different way. You are his dad, minister, rabbi or priest—you encompass everything. Some kids need a kick in the pants, while others need a hug.
What about relationships with your former players?
Leonard Smith (a former Hanifan player with the Cardinals) called me the other day to tell me he’s been elected to the College Football Hall of Fame. He said I was most responsible for his success. He wanted me to be there. I almost came to tears. I will be there.
How would you like to be remembered?
I gave more than I took. I always wanted to help the player achieve whatever he could achieve- not only on the field but in life.
5 Statements that Should Never Be Made:
1. I really believe the NBA and NHL regular seasons and playoffs should go longer. Nothing speaks hockey better than playing in June.
2. ESPN needs to air more of those shows with the reporters yelling at each other for 30 minutes. There’s just not enough of them.
3. An athlete after he tests positive for PEDs saying, I had no idea what I was taking was illegal. Yes, you did, and now enjoy your suspension.
4. I think the price of jeans is not expensive enough. Are you kidding me? $300 dollars for a pair of freaking jeans. Gimme a break.
5. And, to steal a line from sportswriter Rick Reilly, Tiger, meet my sister.
Frank Cusumano is a 15-time Emmy Award winner on KSDK-TV, and also has been a radio commentator for 20 years. Follow Frank on Twitter @Frank_Cusumano.