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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)

The Bears won only five games in 1966, with Ditka catching just 32 passes. In 1967 he was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles for quarterback Jack Concannon. The Eagles won six games in 1967 and better things were expected the following year. But they lost their first 11 games on the way to a 2-12 record. "The whole year was a low point for me. I was a bum, I didn't take care of myself, I did all the wrong things. It was the low point of my life." In his autobiography, Ditka, he writes, "I'm sure if there is such a thing as purgatory on earth, I was in it there. Not that they served it on me; I served it on myself. Almost killed myself drinking."

One year later, in 1969, Ditka got a call from Tom Landry, coach of the Dallas Cowboys. "Landry said, 'We don't even know if you can play anymore, but we're going to bring you down and take a look at you and see if you can play a few more years.' I had wanted to retire," says Ditka. "I had no desire to play anymore. I had another year left on my contract with Philadelphia, but I made up my mind I was finished. I didn't know if I could even make the team, but I got in the best shape of my life down there. I really got into the weightlifting when I went to Dallas. I had played as high as 245; but I played 215 to 220 in Dallas and played well. Those were the best experiences I had. My Cowboys' experiences came at a time in my life when I needed it more than anything."

Ditka brought the same bloodlust to Dallas that he had when he began his career. He made headlines before the season began when he was involved in an early-morning traffic accident after a night on the town. Dallas running back Walt Garrison--who started calling Ditka "monk," short for "chipmunk" because of Ditka's jowls--recalls the aftermath of the accident in the book Cowboys Have Always Been My Heroes: "Ditka got his teeth knocked out in the accident. He went through the windshield and broke his jaw. The dentist told Ditka, 'We can wire your teeth shut but you can't play tomorrow. Or we can pull them.' Ditka says, 'Pull the sonofabitches.' As it turned out they had to wire his jaw shut anyhow because it was broke. But he played all the same. You could hear him out on the field breathing through his teeth. 'Hiss-haw, hiss-haw, hiss-haw.' Sounded like a rabid hound. And you could hear that mad dog Ditka cussin' even with his mouth wired shut."

Ditka and his mates reached the Super Bowl in 1971, losing a sloppy, mistake-filled game to the Baltimore Colts, 16-13. But the following season was a year of redemption: Roger Staubach became the Cowboys' regular quarterback and they thumped the Dolphins in Super Bowl VI. Ditka caught a seven-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter for Dallas's final score. Dallas completely dominated, winning 24-3.

After his 12th NFL season, Ditka retired in 1972. "I couldn't do it anymore," he recalls. "I was finished; all you had to do was look at the films and you knew I was done. I used to be physical, now I couldn't be physical. I lost a lot of weight and my back and my legs hurt. I had hurt my foot. That caused a lot of my problems. I used to be able to run decently. And I never said I was great running, but I could run, because a lot of guys couldn't catch me. But then I hurt my foot and changed the way I ran, and that's what caused my hips to go out and I had both hips replaced, so that was a mess. But no regrets."

Ditka, 33 when he retired, still vividly remembers some of the great defensive players of his era. "The guys that I had great respect for were Bill George [a multiposition defender who played 14 years for the Bears], Joe Schmidt [a Detroit linebacker], Ray Nitschke [Green Bay's legendary linebacker]--those are the guys I played against, those are the warriors. Willie Davis [defensive end from Green Bay], Gino Marchetti [defensive end and offensive tackle with Baltimore]--I had to block against these guys, you know. Deacon Jones [Los Angeles defensive end and all-time leader in quarterback sacks]--that was no fun.

"But that was to me the greatest challenge. You look at these guys and they're all in the Hall of Fame; I got to play against these guys! Now to me, that's pretty special. Not only are they in the Hall of Fame, but they really are the prototypes for those positions. Including Butkus; I played against him but I also played with Dick. Dick always took it easy on me; I think he liked me." Lucky for Ditka. This is the same Butkus whom Ahmad Rashad called "the meanest player I ever competed against." The same Butkus who, after seeing the Bette Davis movie Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, said, "I got a real charge when I saw that head come tumbling down the stairs."

After Dallas, Ditka tried a life outside football. "I loved to play golf and I got into a couple of restaurants down there [in Dallas], had a couple of failures, but it was a good experience. Everything was a good experience that l've had in my life. Even the bad ones were good because I learned from them." Then he got another call out of the blue from Tom Landry. "Have you ever thought about coaching?" Landry asked. "Do you want to take a shot at working with our receivers?" Ditka accepted.

"The Dallas thing was such an amazing thing when you think about it," Ditka recalls. "That was the furthest thing from my mind and yet I did it immediately. My salary dropped from $44,000 as a player to $22,000 as a coach, but it was the best opportunity I ever had. Because I knew that's what I was supposed to do. I did it and I learned; it took me a while, but I learned and I got discipline and I got order and I got to pay attention to things I never thought I would. Landry really taught me football as a coach, and as a player, making me understand the aspect of playing as a team.

"That truly was America's team at that time. We were going to Super Bowls. We weren't winning 'em all, but we were going to 'em all, a lot of 'em anyway. We got beat by Pittsburgh. The great success that Pittsburgh had--if we had won those two Super Bowls against Pittsburgh [in 1976 and 1979]--we would be the greatest team ever."

After being an assistant for nine years with Dallas, Ditka applied for the Bears' head coaching job, dropping a simple letter to owner George Halas in 1981. "I just want you to know if you ever make a change in the coaching end of the organization," Ditka wrote, "I just wish you would give me some consideration." He didn't hear from Halas until after the season, when "Papa Bear" told him to come to Chicago. They worked out a deal right at Halas's kitchen table, with Ditka signing for $100,000. "The salary was the lowest in the league," Ditka recalls. "But I didn't care. In the beginning the toughest thing was proving myself. I was young and I was uncool and this and that. I think that's the hardest thing. In the beginning it didn't work."

The Bears finished 3-6 in 1982 (the season was reduced to nine games by a players' strike for free agency). But things turned around. They finished 8-8 in 1983 and 10-6 in 1984. "We had missing ingredients and little by little we filled in those ingredients with [Jim] McMahon, [Jim] Covert, [Wilber] Marshall, [William "Refrigerator"] Perry. And even some of our other draft picks--we got [Dave] Duerson and [Richard] Dent--guys who became great players. It seems like there were a couple of pieces to the puzzle that we put in, and when we got those in we got a heck of a lot better in a hurry.

"Our defense in '85 was interesting to watch," Ditka says. "Even now when I look at films, I've never seen any team play like they played." The Bears sailed through the season with a 15-1 record, averaging 28.5 points a game on offense and allowing just 12.3 on defense. They beat the Rams and the Giants in the playoffs by a combined score of 45-0 and then crushed the Patriots in Super Bowl XX, played at the Louisiana Superdome, 46-10.

The Bayou blowout gave the Bears a combined 91-10 tally in the postseason. "You wanted it, you worked for it, you earned it and then you went out and took it," Ditka said to his players in the locker room after the game. "God bless every one of you, you're the greatest thing I've ever seen and I'm happy for every one of you."

Their utter dominance earned the 1985 Bears a place in football history. "I just had a lot of tough guys," Ditka recalls, amazed even now. "They just needed direction more than anything else. They just needed to believe they had a right to win. I think that was the biggest thing. Then they went after it with an intensity I've never seen.

"I looked back on it as the best group of guys you could ever assemble. A lot of those things I told you about--attitude, character--I had a lot of guys like that. I look back at the leaders I had on that football team and I had so many of 'em--[Mike] Singletary, [Dan] Hampton, [Walter] Payton, [Gary] Fencik, [Jim] McMahon, [Matt] Suhey--in their own way everybody led. The linemen, [Jay] Hilgenberg. We had so many good guys, I just hate to single out one or two. Singletary, Marshall and Otis Wilson playing linebacker like a man possessed--I know how quick the Pittsburgh linemen were--but these three were pretty good. I'm not saying they were better than anybody, but they would line up and play with anybody.

"We led the league in time of possession, in fewest points given up. And our defense led in sacks, we led in interceptions. So when you look at what you gotta do, it's not too complicated to figure out. It hardly ever happens the way it happened there.

"I don't care if the Bulls win nine NBA titles, the 1986 Super Bowl is the greatest thing to happen to Chicago sports. The reason is this: the Bears hadn't won since 1963, I think the Blackhawks won in 1961 and White Sox in 1959" (they lost in the World Series to the Los Angeles Dodgers). On top of that, the Cubs haven't won a World Series since 1908 and the White Sox since 1917. So Chicago fans have suffered through a combined 169 years of ineptitude from their two baseball teams. "But it's still a Bears and a Cubs town," Ditka says. "People may not like that, but I don't care what they like."

The four-year evolution of the Bears into champions under Ditka provides a blueprint of hope for the long march of the Saints. The point isn't lost on general manager Bill Kuharich. "I think if you look at the landscape of the league now--the Patriots went from 6-10 in 1995 to 11-5 and the Super Bowl in 1996--you see teams going from mediocrity and getting to the Super Bowl quicker because of free agency."

The Bears finished 14-2 in the 1986-7 season but lost the National Football Conference's divisional playoffs to Washington. Still, the fans had a love affair with the team. A "Saturday Night Live" skit helped immortalize them. Fans in Bears jackets sat around talking sports and every question involving the world's greatest team had "Da Bears" for an answer. Questions about the greatest coach were answered "Dik-ka." Ditka laughs. "If you know George Wendt and those guys, those are the way the fans were. I talked to George a lot over the years. They were funny. Those fans believed that we walked on water. The more ridiculous it got, the funnier it got. They started saying that if I drove in the Indianapolis 500 and drove a bus, I could win it. We gave the fans something they could bite into, we gave them something real. And I told them when I went there : 'You'll never be embarrassed by the way we play the game. We might play stupid at times--like we did in the beginning --but we will play it with a zeal that you will like.' They were lunch bucket guys--they went to work banging it and the city bought into that. They loved it, loved it!

"I think our organization did it the right way; we ran it the right way for a while and then things kind of got out of whack, which they always do. It was very solid and everybody pulled together, did the right thing. Nobody was worried about who got credit and who got blamed. Everybody has to play a role and you understand your role in the concept of what a team is. Unfortunately those things don't stay that way."

From the January 1986 Super Bowl victory through the 1992 season, the Bears won 70 games and lost just 41. But they won only two playoff games over that span as the Giants, Redskins, 49ers and Cowboys split the next seven Super Bowl trophies among themselves. "By 1992, I knew it was time to go. It died on the sideline in Minnesota when I got mad at Harbaugh."

The incident, which helped convince Ditka that this would be his last year in Chicago, occurred in the season's fifth game. Quarterback Jim Harbaugh called an audible at the line of scrimmage, changing Ditka's play call. The result was an interception that was returned for a touchdown. Ditka got right in Harbaugh's face. The cameras didn't miss this Kodak moment and everyone watching the evening news or the morning ESPN highlights got an eyeful. "It was my fault, totally," Ditka admits. "I just blew up. I became so obsessed with winning and the goddamned image that I was the tough guy. So now I know; I'm not a tough guy, I'm just a guy."

Harbaugh finished the year and even played the 1993 season with Chicago. That hadn't been the case for Bob Avellini a decade earlier. Avellini quarterbacked the Bears after Jim McMahon got hurt in 1984. In Game 5, Payton was running and the Bears were moving. Ditka called for a slant with two guys leading Payton. That's when Avellini called an audible. A Seattle defender intercepted his pass and ran the ball in for a touchdown. Seattle won in a blowout. Ditka confronted Avellini on the sideline. "Don't you like your teammates? Do you think we're stupid, that we don't give you good plays? I mean, why would you do that?" The Bears cut Avellini a week later and the New York Jets picked him up. Total Football shows that Avellini never played another game. It was his 10th and last year. At least Harbaugh, now calling signals for the Indianapolis Colts, survived to see another day.

"Honestly, I was very grateful that he [Bears CEO and president Michael McCaskey) fired me," Ditka says. "I had no desire, I had lost my enthusiasm for the job and being there, and it all died."

After 11 years in Chicago, and 32 years in the NFL, Ditka had an enviable list of distinctions. In 1988 he had been elected to the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, the first tight end to receive that honor. He was a historic precursor to rugged, indomitable tight ends like John Mackey, Jackie Smith and Mark Bavarro, guys who often seemed impossible to tackle. He had played on an NFL champion (1963) and a Super Bowl winner (1972), as well as being an assistant coach and a head coach, respectively, on two other Super Bowl winners (1978 and 1986). He was twice selected Coach of the Year (1985 and 1988).

All this was followed by four years of broadcasting with NBC. If you like your sports commentary direct, then you liked Da Coach. "I know it's a job, but I really think everybody had fun showing up to do it, I really do," Ditka recalls. "The first couple of years I was kind of timid about saying things, I didn't want to say too much because I thought I was getting back into coaching. The last two years I knew I wasn't, so I just said what I felt."

One criticism was leveled against Giants quarterback Dave Brown. The 1997 Street and Smith's Guide to Pro Football described Brown's performance as "going from mediocre to awful over the last three years." Ditka criticized Brown's performance during one broadcast in 1996, a season in which Brown was the lowest-rated passer in the NFC. Brown's career has something in common with another New York quarterback: Joe Namath. Both have thrown more interceptions than touchdowns.

When Brown threw for two touchdowns and the Giants beat the Saints earlier this year, Brown knocked Ditka, calling him another "has-been coach." The implication was that the other has-been coach was Dan Reeves, coach of the Atlanta Falcons and coach of the Giants from 1993 through 1996. "I guess I'll see him in the Hall of Fame" was Ditka's parting shot to Brown last October. "We'll leave it at that," said Iron Mike, in an ESPN interview.

The NBC studio job satisfied his love of competition only part of the time. Much of his remaining time was spent golfing. "I had a lot of friendships in golf and a lot of competition that way and I loved it." He had more time to be with his wife, Diana, who also possesses the attribute of directness. When New Orleans signed Ditka to a three-year deal in 1997, she was asked what she thought by WBBM-TV, the CBS affiliate in Chicago. "Frankly, I'm surprised anyone had the balls to hire my husband," she said. With those 11 words she made the evening news in Chicago and New Orleans and then CNN the next day. Ditka laughs. "You don't know her, but she'll say some of the damnedest things you've ever heard."

Mike met Diana in 1972 at his Sports Page restaurant in Dallas. He had married his first wife, Marge, while he was still in college. Mike and Marge had four children together: Mike, born in 1961; Mark, 1962; Megan, 1964; and Matt, 1966. Mike and Diana married in 1977. They now live near a golf course in English Turn, a town outside New Orleans.

Ditka likes to give motivational talks to companies and organizations like Boys Town. His charities include the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Sports Teams Organized for the Prevention of Drug Abuse, Misericordia, a residential facility for developmentally disabled youth, and the Pediatric Aids Program at Children's Memorial Hospital.

When he isn't golfing, he likes the veal with crawfish at K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen in the French Quarter. He calls his partners Joe Carlucci and Joe Priola to check on things at Iron Mike's. Or he might have cigars at Spanky's cigar restaurant in suburban New Orleans.

He's also wrapped up in talking Saints football with the local media. After the Saints got a win after three losses, the fans calling WWL sports radio in New Orleans were ready to elect Ditka mayor. "There's a lot of support for the team in New Orleans," says Spec McClendon of Washington (cable) TV in Washington Parish, near the city. If they win a few more games, they'll be commissioning statues for Ditka."

"I think this city deserves a winner," was Ditka's comment. "I want this team to be respected by the National Football League, by everybody that sees it, watches it, hears about it. When they say 'the Saints,' I want 'em to say 'they'll kick your ass if you're not careful.' That's what I'm trying to create."


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