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The Mettle of Iron Mike

Mike Ditka is coaching again, but can the steel will that drove da Bears raise the saints to glory?
Ken Shouler
From the Print Edition:
Denzel Washington, Jan/Feb 98

Mike Ditka is relaxing in the second-floor cigar lounge of his restaurant, Iron Mike's Grille, which is connected to the elegant Tremont Hotel in Chicago. He's describing his brand of give no quarter, take no quarter football. "One of Vince Lombardi's famous quotes is that football is not a contact sport," he says. "It's a collision sport. Dancing is a contact sport." He pauses to let that sink in and puffs on a Dunhill.

Around Ditka are murals of some of his personal heroes and legends of the Chicago sports scene--Stan Musial, George Halas, Vince Lombardi, Tom Landry, Gale Sayers, Dick Butkus, Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Ernie Banks. "They put a picture of me up, too," Ditka says, almost apologetically. "Which they shouldn't have done." There are old Packers and a new one--Brett Favre--and baseball players, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Enos Slaughter.

To fire up another Dunhill he pulls out a lighter that is is essentially a damned torch with a flame long and blue enough to weld pieces of alloyed steel. "I can light it under any conditions," he explains. "I play golf; you can light it in rain, snow, wind." And no doubt in a twister. "These Dunhills are great. It's probably the most consistent cigar you're going to get, in and out. The thing about cigars is, there's no bad cigars, unless you get one that offends you. That means immediately when you light it up you get that aftertaste--a sulfuric or acidic taste."

Ditka's cigar talk will be getting more authoritative.

In October he bought into the Little Havana Cigar Factory. Each of the four factories--with locations in Chicago at the Hyatt Hotel, The Navy Pier, 6 West Maple and 140 South Dearborn--will feature cigars made from long-leaf Dominican tobacco, rolled right out front on the premises. "There will be a Mike Ditka Signature line of cigars," says part-owner Richard Simon (the other owners are Ditka and Jim Limparis and the cigarmaker is Julio Ramirez). "Each shop will have six rollers," Limparis adds.

Hall of Fame tight end and coach of the 1986 championship Bears, restaurateur and cigar devotee, hard knocks philosopher and current coach of the latter day Saints, Mike Ditka is a larger than life personality in a game that desperately needs all the personalities it can get. Network cameras follow him, hoping he'll blow his stack at an assistant coach or player. It's a tried--if not true--television formula. Let's play "pigeonhole the personality." See Oprah as she brings her guests to tears, now watch Sally Jessy draw out the sleaze. "If you're going to put cameras on me, show the whole picture," he told ESPN in an "Up Close" interview. "When we were winning, [my actions] showed 'zest and fire and zeal,' when I did it when we were losing, you say 'he's being a bully.' I never understood that."

A fan comes over to Ditka's corner table to wish him well. "You're going to end up making me a Saints fan," the man says. "I've been a Bills fan all my life. But now I just got a feeling." Ditka thanks him. Best wishes notwithstanding, the Dictionary of Saints mentions none from New Orleans.

For most of their 31 years the New Orleans Saints have been--in the kindest of sports euphemisms--"rebuilding." This rebuilding has proceeded with all the speed of continental drift. A welcoming sign in the airport announces New Orleans as the birthplace of jazz. It has never been known as the birthplace of the gridiron. Since their arrival in 1967, the Saints have played a grand total of four playoff games and lost all four. In the past some of their fans referred to them as the New Orleans 'Aints and showed up at games with paper bags over their heads. The House of Blues was only rumored to be on Bourbon Street. It was really the Louisiana Superdome. The fleur-de-lis (flower of the lily) emblem on the Saints' helmets was apparently a big deal in the court of Louis XIV. But the difficult-to-pronounce flower hasn't exactly struck fear in the hearts of National Football League opponents. No wonder the front office sought a new coach to overhaul the team.

Ditka was one of 40 coaching candidates that Bill Kuharich, the Saints' chief operating officer, president and general manager, had researched. "I think the key to the whole thing was the winning factor," says Kuharich, explaining his choice of Ditka. "The fact that he's won as a player, won as an assistant coach, won as a head coach--that was really the deciding factor. To me the greatest indication of what someone might do is what they've done in the past."

That past includes 106 wins and 62 losses as a head coach. Before Ditka can repeat that success, however, a lot of ground work is necessary. Football is still a grind-it-out war, a game won by real talent chewing up real estate. The greatest players in football history ate up large chunks of it. Aside from his singular combination of speed and power, Jimmy Brown is the game's greatest back ever because he averaged 5.2 yards per run. Jerry Rice, the all-time leader with 154 touchdowns, has caught 1,050 balls for 16,377 yards--an average gain of 15.6 yards. Sid Luckman and Otto Graham, Johnny Unitas and Roger Staubach, Joe Montana and Dan Fouts, Dan Marino and Steve Young are in the pantheon of great quarterbacks because they could move the chains. Other teams--like the Packers and Steelers, Dolphins and Raiders, Redskins and Giants--won championships with defense, running and the occasional long ball.

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