Born: April 29, 1944; Evanston, Illinois
Played For: St. Louis Cardinals (1966-1983), Washington Redskins (1984)
Although Jim Hart put up impressive numbers at Southern Illinois University, passing for 3,779 yards and 34 touchdowns, he was ignored by NFL teams because he played at a small school that won only 8 games in his three seasons.
The St. Louis Cardinals signed him as a free agent in 1966 and he became the team’s starting quarterback the following season when Charlie Johnson was drafted into the Army. He was named the NFL Player of the Year after the 1974 season for guiding the Cardinals to the Eastern Division championship. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound Hart completed 200 of 388 passes for 2,411 yards and 20 touchdowns that season.
Hart played his last season with Washington before retiring. In his 19 pro seasons, he completed 2,593 of 5,076 passes for 34,665 yards and 209 touchdowns. He also ran for 16 TDs. It also 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.
Hart was an only child growing up in Evanston, Ill. His father had diabetes and was blind and died when Hart was seven. His mother remarried and that’s when the family moved to Morton Grove. Hart credits his stepfather for encouraging him to get into sports. “He saw something in me and instilled in me the drive to go after it,” he said. Hart remembers that his stepfather literally pushed him out of the car to take part in a punt, pass and kick competition. Hart won his age group.
He started playing football at age 13 as a freshman at Niles West High School in Morton Grove. It was the high school football coach who suggested that he play quarterback. He also played basketball and baseball in high school.
He eventually accepted a football scholarship to Southern Illinois. Playing baseball for the Salukis didn’t work out so he began honing his skills at QB. But he wasn’t surprised that he was not drafted in the 1966 NFL draft. Then SIU head coach, Don Shroyer, who had been an assistant coach with the St. Louis Cardinals, decided to return to the Cardinals. “He asked me if I wanted him to set up a tryout for me with the Cardinals. Of course, I said yes.” Hart impressed the coaches enough that they offered him a contract. Hart sat on the bench his first year, but when Johnson went into the Army, Hart became the team’s starting quarterback on and off for the next few years.
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. Hart played in six games and threw five touchdown passes.
In 1973, the Big Red hired Don Coryell as coach and he tapped Hart to be his starter. Hart 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.”
Hart played the 1984 season in Washington, then retired to the radio booth. In 1988 Southern Illinois University offered him the job as school’s Athletic Director. Hart took the job but continued to do the Chicago Bears games for WGN in 1988 and 1989.
Hart loved the job as A.D. 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.