SAY GOODBYE, JOE
The television camera gives us a tight shot of Joe Bugel. The Phoenix Cardinals coach stands on the sidelines with his hands shoved into the pockets of his Windbreaker. He watches soulfully as the football sails toward the goal post 54 yards away.
If the end-over-end kick by Brad Daluiso of the New York Giants clears the uprights, the field goal will beat the Cardinals, 19 to 17.
More important, it will mathematically eliminate Bugel as the Cardinals' coach. This is so because Bill Bidwill, that great dunce of an owner, long ago issued a pronunciamento that Bugel would be fired if the team did not win at least nine games this season.
So far, they have won only three, and a loss to New York will make it impossible for them to win more than eight.
No one actually expects the kick to clear the uprights. The kicker has no reputation for accuracy or performance under pressure. Besides, he hasn't made a field goal in two years.
The television announcers don't think Daluiso will make it. Neither does Tom Dillon, KTAR-AM's play-by-play man. A big upset by the Cardinals is in the making. Be positive, that's the guiding philosophy of KTAR. This impending victory over the Giants might just light the fire under Bugel's team that will save his job.
So Bugel needed this field-goal attempt to miss more than he's ever needed anything in his long coaching career. All season long, he has operated under Bidwill's threat.
Now you hear the announcer's voice:
"There are 32 seconds left to play. The kick is up . . . and . . . it's good! The kick is . . . good! . . . The New York Giants lead, 19 to 17!"
The camera switches back to Bugel, who has turned into a shrunken, forlorn figure. Bugel removes his white cap and swings it in the air like a man throwing a sidearm pitch. He swings the cap but does not toss it away. He puts it back on his head. Now Bugel shakes his head from side to side like a man at a funeral. But the ceremony is for himself. He is finished.
Bugel's mouth forms the words: "Damn, damn, goddamnit!"
Back up in the television booth, the color man says, "If there is any justice, that man keeps his job."
This was the start of a "Save Bugel's Job" campaign which began moments later, even as the Cardinals trudged into their dressing room.
"This was the most disappointing loss ever," Bugel says about the loss.
"Our guys laid it on the line. So, hey, give them credit."
Bugel spoke of his "love" for Larry Centers, a second-string back who performed well in the almost victory against the Giants, one of the strongest teams in the league.
"I truly love a player like that," Bugel said. "When he comes over to the sideline after running the ball, he thanks you for calling his number and giving him the opportunity."
What Bugel admires in the player is a subservient personality which is quite similar to his own. No one can say that Joe Bugel is not a good loser. But why shouldn't he be? During his time here in Phoenix, he has had so much practice.
Terry Bradshaw, once a strong-armed quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, suggested before the game that Bidwill get rid of his bow tie and rehire Bugel for five more years.
That's a nice gesture. But Bradshaw doesn't have to live in Phoenix. He doesn't have to watch the Cardinals every Sunday as we do.
John Mistler, one of the announcers for KTAR, talked to Cards defensive lineman Keith Rucker in the dressing room after the game. The behemoth Rucker was in tears. He was virtually unable to speak, he was so overcome with grief.
"The guys gave it everything they had," Rucker mumbled, his voice choking. "We should have won."
KTAR's editorial judgment became so choked up over this big scoop that the station played the tearful Rucker's comments over and over again through Sunday night. It was almost as though Rucker had been a witness to the assassination of JFK rather than a highly paid participant in a professional sports contest.
But something remarkable happened. All the telephone callers, who for months have been demanding Bugel's head on a platter, now wanted to save his job.
But the fans did not get a chance to make their pleas right away. First, the announcer for KTAR's postgame call-in show felt it necessary to tell them about an upcoming golf tournament. Then he told them at length how a local jeweler was donating $100 for the tournament to his expert guest, who happened to be the retired president of the Phoenix chapter of the National Football League Players' Association.
The ex-player, now a used-car salesman, had been a member of the Baltimore Colts in 1970. And it turned out there was much for him to tell the audience about how his old team had pulled itself together after a similarly disappointing defeat.
"And I want all you fans to come out to our golf tournament," he said, "just to show that we're not as bad as we appear to be in the newspapers."
The first thing Bidwill should do this week after buying a "real" tie is to find another radio station to broadcast the Cardinals games next season.
Once the calls began to roll in, it was plain they were all going to support Bugel's retention.
"This team's got guts," one caller said. "I will never miss another Cardinals game at home. Don't fire Bugel. Let's all get out and support the Cardinals."
"You know what I think should be done?" another man shouted into the phone. "I think those referees in today's game should be fired."
Loyalty to Bugel is understandable. In an era when sports figures seem motivated only by greed, he is a throwback to the days when linemen played for less than $10,000 a season.
But quaintness is not sufficient reason to keep the franchise mired in last place.
And none of the callers put their finger on the real reason the Cardinals keep losing game after game.
Bugel is a nice guy who is a very bad head coach.
Leo Durocher was right. "Nice guys finish last.
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