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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

(continued from page 1)

On such talent victory depends. Right now none of the best offensive players in the game--Barry Sanders, Steve Young, Brett Favre and several others--wear Saints uniforms. Most of the league's 30 teams would be hard pressed to find one all-world talent on their rosters. Absent game-breaking talent, Ditka has tried to model a team in his own image. The word Ditka used for his type of player is a "Grabowski." What is a Grabowski exactly? Many analysts have taken a crack at it. Essentially it is a player like Ditka himself was--a guy with abundant professional skill coupled with undying will. In Ditka's words, it's a guy with a work ethic.

For Ditka, character counts. The temptation will be to evaluate his performance based on wins and losses. But this is too narrow and premature a barometer of success with a Saints team that went 3-13 in 1996. Ditka will earn the lion's share of his reported $7 million over three years by just finding the right mix of players and preparing them to win. If players don't want to be in New Orleans, he will oblige them. If they don't have the right attitude, he doesn't want them. He won't suffer fools gladly. He set the tone early, cutting quarterback Jim Everett ($3.2 million) and eight other starters from the 1996 squad well before the season began.

Ditka picks up his point about collisions. When Ditka emphasizes a point, his blue eyes widen and stare. He isn't going through the motions: he explains things with freshness, reaching deep as if making the point for the first time. "I know we're not supposed to say this in our society--you don't want to teach young kids wrong things; you want to teach them to play the game inside the rules, not outside the rules. But there's one thing that holds true. You hit the guy you're playing against harder than he hits you, more often than he hits you, you'll win every battle, and every battle has to be won before the war gets won. It's not a complicated thing and let's not make it out to be."

No, it isn't. Hall of Fame defensive end Deacon Jones once said, "Hard hits will make cowards of us all." But the Saints must hear his talk and then walk the walk.

Five weeks into the season, Mike Ditka is pacing the sidelines at Giants Stadium in the New Jersey Meadowlands. He bends, hands on knees, and peers at the action but pops up again before a play is run. He resumes pacing, applauds his players, pats their pads, reprimands them as they come off the field. Then he paces some more. He can't be busy enough. The time between plays seems too long. He goes to the Gatorade table, takes a sip and, like a guest in someone's dining room, puts the cup back down gently. Then he's back on the sidelines, pacing again. Maybe he wants to pop the enemy, bust them hard for short yardage as he did as a tight end in the '60s. He roams like a beat cop on caffeine overload.

Ultimately the Saints lose a close, "what if..." kind of game. Their record is 1-4. "We have to win some of these games," he mutters after the game, dressing quickly. He puts a handful of cigars in a gym bag and rushes to board the team bus.

Ditka and everyone in the New Orleans organization had to know it would be like this. Getting the Saints to march forward is a Sisyphean task. You roll the boulder up the hill and it rolls down even farther and you forget where the starting point was. Has progress been made? For a team that was 3-13 in 1996, what does progress even mean? Six wins and 10 losses? He won't accept it. Eight and eight? "That's mediocrity," he blares. The answer does not lie in any two numbers with a hyphen between them. "Fifty-three guys make up a team," he says. "One guy is not going to make the Saints win or lose. Many are."

Ditka coached the Bears for four years before they won the Super Bowl in 1986. The comparison is clear: if the Saints under Ditka are ever going to turn their luck around, they are going to turn it slowly. It's not terribly complicated.

Ditka doesn't overcomplicate very much in life. He was brought up in Pennsylvania in the 1940s and '50s, and life wasn't very complicated then, either. The oldest of four children, Ditka was born on Oct. 18, 1939, in Carnegie, Pennsylvania, and grew up in a housing project in Aliquippa. His father, Michael Sr., worked in the steel industry, which was booming at the time. "Without my father's main influence--which was creating the discipline and the order that had to happen--all the other stuff wouldn't have happened," Ditka recalls. "From him I learned a work ethic: you get out of life what you put into it. If you're willing to work, then you get something; if not, you probably won't get very much. Discipline. My dad was a great disciplinarian. There was only one way and that was the right way and there were no excuses and no getting out of it. If you did wrong you got your ass whipped, that was simple. In my family we never had anything but we never needed anything. We had clothes, we had meals and we went to good schools. What else did you need at that time? We didn't need anything. My father had a car; it wasn't a new car but he drove it. We had enough.

"Growing up I was very close to my mom, there's no question about it. Because my dad was tough; he was just tough. And then I think as we got older and we got out of college, we understood why he did what he did; he raised us tough because he didn't want us to go into the steel mill and work like he worked. So he did the things he thought he had to do. Our relationship became much greater and we sit around and talk now. From my mother [Charlotte] I got caring, love. I'm a very caring person, regardless of what people think--I don't care what people think, by the way. I went to church with her and she got me involved in the Catholic religion and that's the way I grew up and I'm very grateful for that. They've slowed down now; he's 79, Mom is 75. They're hanging in, they love to go to Vegas."

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