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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 5)

"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."

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