Jim Finks was born in Saint Louis Missouri and attended the University of Tulsa. After being selected as a 12th-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1949 NFL draft, he played for several years as defensive back and quarterback, retiring after the 1955 season. He served as an assistant coach under Terry Brennan at the University of Notre Dame in 1956, after which he went on to the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League, where he served as a player, assistant coach, scout, and finally general manager. Finks brought the Stampeders a Grey Cup Title during his eight-year stay in Canada.
In 1964, Finks was named the general manager of the Minnesota Vikings In 1968, Minnesota won its first NFL Central Division Championship, marking the start of a dynasty that produced 11 division championship teams and four Super Bowl appearances in the following 14 years. In 1969, the Vikings won 12 of 14 games and claimed the NFL championship before losing to the American Football League's Kansas City Chiefs 23-7 in Super Bowl IV.
The Vikings team that Finks put together was powered by a dynamic defensive front four, popularly known as "The Purple People Eaters". The first member of the unit, defensive end Jim Marshall, came to the Vikings in a 1961 trade before Finks arrived. In 1964, the new general manager added two potential stars to the line: end Carl Eller as a first-round pick in the NFL draft, and tackle Gary Larsen in a trade. He completed "The Purple People Eaters" in 1967 by picking Alan Page in the draft.
In 1967, Norm Van Brocklin resigned as head coach and Finks immediately hired Bud Grant, who had been a successful coach of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the CFL for 10 seasons. That year, Finks also brought in a new quarterback, Joe Kapp, from the CFL. During the 1969 NFL championship season, Kapp passed for a record seven touchdowns against the Baltimore Colts and was a major contributor to his team's success.
In 1972, Finks made another daring trade with the New York Giants, this time to bring back Fran Tarkenton, the quarterback he had traded in 1967. In 1973, the Vikings defeated the Dallas Cowboys for the NFC championship but lost to the Miami Dolphins 24-7 in Super Bowl VIII. It turned out to be the last game with the Vikings for Finks, who that season was named the NFL Executive of the Year. Finks, who had been named a club vice-president in 1972 as a reward for his brilliant work, resigned in May, 1974.
Finks joined the Chicago Bears, as general manager and executive vice-president. He spent the remainder of the 1974 season studying the Bears player talent as well as opposition players from all around the NFL. The next year, he began employing the same formula he used so well in Minnesota to improve the Bears' talent pool.
The Bears under Finks improved. By 1977, they reached the playoffs for the first time since 1963. They were a playoff team again in 1979 with a 10-6 record, best-ever for the Finks-led Bears. But Finks' tenure in Chicago ended suddenly in 1982 when he resigned because George Halas did not consult him in the hiring of Mike Ditka as head coach.
Finks left behind one of the most dominant NFL teams of the 1980's. Nineteen of the 22 players who started in Chicago's 46-10 win over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX were drafted during the Finks regime. That 1985 team went over 15-1 in regular season and shut out both the New York Giants and Los Angeles Rams in playoff games leading to the Super Bowl.
After leaving the Bears, Finks joined the Chicago Cubs as president and chief executive officer in September 1983. He remained through the 1984season when the Cubs captured the 1984 National League's Eastern Division crown.
On January 14, 1986, Finks took charge of a New Orleans Saints team that never had experienced a winning season in its 19-year history. His first move was to hire a new coach, Jim Mora. Success came more quickly for Finks in New Orleans than it had in either Minnesota or Chicago. In just his second season, the Saints won 12 games for their first winning season ever. Finks was named NFL Executive of the Year for the second time.
When NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle retired in 1989, Finks was at odds-on-choice to replace him. He was unanimously endorsed by the first committee of owners, but eventually another ownership group prevailed with their choice of Paul Tagliabue.