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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 6)

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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