The Mettle of Iron Mike
Mike Ditka is coaching again, but can the steel will that drove da Bears raise the saints to glory?
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.
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."
The youthful Ditka was a hypercompetitive kid who poured his energy into sports. "I played basketball and baseball in high school and college," he says. "My dad told me my opportunity was going to come through sports. He said I had to get good grades so I could get a scholarship for sports. One time he said, 'The mill is not for you. You don't want it.'
"I was a really good baseball player as a kid. I just wanted to be a football player and kind of grew into being a football player. I played whatever sport the season was. When people say 'Why didn't you run track?' 'Didn't you play golf?'--no, because there were only three seasons--football, baseball and basketball. It's all we knew; we were limited in what we knew. Stan Musial [the Hall of Fame St. Louis Cardinal outfielder] was my hero. He was Polish, from Donora, Pa. I thought he was the greatest baseball player that ever lived. I still do. No, I'm not going to argue; they can have their opinion. I loved Williams and DiMaggio and Mays and Mantle and Aaron, but if I had to pick one I'd want to get a hit, I'd pick Musial.
"College came down to the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State and Notre Dame. Notre Dame was the first school to contact me. I never went to visit until the summer, so I made up my mind I was going to go to Pitt or Penn State." Ditka's hatchet man basketball tactics at Pitt earned him the name "The Hammer" and later "Iron Mike." He laughs. "When I see Jerry West [the Hall of Fame guard from the Lakers who played college ball at West Virginia], I always remind him I was the guy who guarded him for six points and three fouls in a period of 51 seconds--his six points, my three fouls. He says, 'I thought you were going to kill me.' I say, 'I was trying but I couldn't get close enough.'
"I really wanted to be a dentist--that's why I went to Pitt, to get into dentistry." Fixing teeth would soon give way to bashing teeth, however. With his '50s burr cut and number 89, Ditka entered college a hale 6-foot-2, 215-pounder. "You played defense and offense then; we played 55 minutes a game," Ditka says proudly. "Those were the old days."
He didn't graduate, because he was missing a few credits in chemistry. "I played well enough that I made a lot of the All-American teams and I was drafted number one by the Chicago Bears [fifth overall in the first round in 1961]. Even then I wasn't sure [about it in the NFL].
Ditka found a substantial difference between college and pro players; being a college All-American didn't guarantee a successful pro career. "Pros were just better," he says. "I played against [Bob] Lilly and all the guys that were All-Pro in college and they were better in pro ball than they were in college ball. They had better coaching, they got bigger, they learned more, had better techniques."
The beginning of his pro career was also the beginning of his cigar smoking. "I smoked the Tiparillos, the
Roi-Tans, Phillies, White Owls," he says with a broad smile. "You get better and better and you change, you get more sophisticated. First of all, you smoke what you can afford to buy. In those days I was not making enough to smoke what I do now."
In 1961, he signed his first contract for $12,000 plus a $6,000 bonus. He asked his dad what he thought. "That's a lot of money," came his father's quick reply. "You work a long time to get that kind of money."
What made Ditka succeed is no secret to him. "I think a lot of it has to do with passion for the game, I really do. People approach it differently, you know. It was my goal [to succeed], that's all. I don't know how many people make it their goal. I worked my ass off; I became the toughest guy I could be on the field. A lot of people didn't like me playing the game but that's their problem. This wasn't a popularity contest."
The NFL was chock-full of stars when Ditka arrived. "I got to know people like Unitas and [Bart] Starr, who were truly great people as well as great quarterbacks. Gale [Sayers] came--I had already been with Chicago when he and Butkus came [in 1965]--and that was something to see, Gale's emergence. If he wouldn't have been hurt, I don't know that anybody would ever have been better. In his six-touchdown game in 1965, the ironic thing is the best catch I ever made in my life [a diving grab where he tipped the ball to himself] was in that game and nobody ever remembered, and they shouldn't because what he did was so much more spectacular. He was a thoroughbred and the best cutback runner of all time. Hugh McElhenny was good and I later played in Dallas when Duane Thomas was there, but nobody in my opinion could do what Gale did; he could start and stop on a dime."
The record shows Ditka was not intimidated by the galaxy of stars around him. In his rookie season he caught 56 passes for 1,076 yards and 12 touchdowns. Most surprising were the 19.2 yards per catch; rarely do tight ends average that many. In the early '60s the tight end position was viewed primarily as a blocking position. Ditka was one of the first tight ends to grab a large number of passes. Winning the Rookie of the Year Award and being selected All-Pro led to a raise. After much haggling with Bears owner George Halas, Ditka settled on $18,000 for 1962.
By 1964 Ditka had earned a permanent place in the annals of Total Football, grabbing 74 passes in 14 games--many of them while wearing a harness for a dislocated shoulder--a record for tight ends that lasted until 1980 and the onset of the 16-game season. He was All-Pro six consecutive years, from 1961 to 1966.
But his most memorable seasons were not those stocked with individual achievements. "Nineteen-sixty-three was great with the Bears, we won the championship. Whether we were the best team or not, we beat the Giants when we had to beat them. We beat them because we had a great defense." The game was played on a frozen Soldier Field in Chicago. A haunting black-and-white still of this titanic defensive struggle shows New York quarterback Y.A. Tittle kneeling, bloody and bruised after five interceptions. "That might have been the best defense," Ditka says. "Our 1985 defense was on a par with it, but those two defenses--and I know people will line up and say, 'What about Miami's?' 'What about Minnesota's?' 'What about L.A.'s?' 'What about Pittsburgh's?'--but those two in '63 and '85 were pretty good defenses."
In 1965, the Bears were knocking on the championship door again. They rode Sayers' 22 touchdowns and a stingy defense to a 9-5 record. "We should have won but we didn't," Ditka relates. "I thought we were a better team in '65 because we still had the guys from '63 plus we had Butkus and Sayers. But actually Baltimore [then in the Western Conference with the Bears and Green Bay] was better, a lot of teams were better, and that's why we didn't win. We were pretty darned good, but actually we lost a couple of people on defense and we weren't as strong on defense. And we really won in '63 because of our defense." Green Bay won the 1965 title game, beating Cleveland, 23-12.
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."
And when the losses pile up and the media start running him down? "Thomas Jefferson said years ago, 'I don't care what people say or write about me, but I do care what I think about myself and character.' I think about that a lot. Not that I'm perfect, but I know who I am at this point in my life. And I think I understand at this point in my life more than ever. I took the four years off and put things in perspective in a lot of ways that I needed, I really did. You get put up on that pedestal, you better realize that they have one ambition, to knock you off of it."
He has grown into his coaching job and accepted New Orleans to a degree that he had not thought possible. "I really believe that I'm supposed to be here," he says. "God has put me in places for his own reasons. I'm here for a reason. I'll finish my career in this city and this organization. I've become very attached to the people here in this organization, to this football team and to this city. Let's just say I'm having a love affair with the people of Louisiana and let's try to make it happen."
The people of New Orleans have responded. Within 10 days of his signing, season-ticket sales were 3,000 greater than in the previous year. Ditka's no-nonsense approach has fans excited about the team's prospects.
That approach hasn't been lost on his troops, either. "He's a very motivating coach," says four-year linebacker Winifred Tubbs. "If you don't get the job done, it's your ass," agrees linebacker Mark Fields. "He'll let you know." "Yeah," Tubbs adds, "you'll be outta here. If that's not motivation enough, then no one in the world is gonna make you play any better. If you don't get the job done, then you're gonna go. He's not gonna put up with players who don't do the job."
Safety Anthony Newman likes the mood of the team. "There's no joking around; if you don't make plays you won't be playing. He's trying to create a winning program here." That's the impact Ditka has had.
"The wins will come," Ditka said. "Bill Parcells said it well: 'Before you can win, you gotta figure out why you're losing.' Then you'll have a chance to win." *
Ken Shouler, of White Plains, N.Y. is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado as well as the author of the forthcoming book The Hundred Best Baseball Players of All-Time--And Why (Addax Publishing; Lenexa, Kansas).
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