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THE DITKA DILEMMA

July 30, 1990
July 30, 1990

Table of Contents
July 30, 1990

Spotlight
Design
Pete Rose
George Steinbrenner
Goodwill Games
Mike Ditka
Dog Racing
Gut
Point After
Departments

THE DITKA DILEMMA

Can Chicago icon Mike Ditka calmly return the Bears to prominence and win a new contract as coach?

Think of a Pro Football marriage more famous today than that of the Chicago Bears and Mike Ditka. Montana-49ers? Not as enduring. Shula-Dolphins? Too low-key. Davis-Raiders? Now that's close. It has the same mystique, the airtight connection. But Al Davis, with his address changes and his court battles and his quarterbacking woes, has gone Garbo on us. Just hide, baby. Ditka opened his second Chicago restaurant in January, jumped on defensive end Richard Dent in March for being fat, portrayed himself on L.A. Law in May and hawked Iron Mike cologne as a Father's Day gift at Marshall Field's in June.

This is an article from the July 30, 1990 issue Original Layout

Now in July, he steps out onto the patio of his office at the Bears' Lake Forest, Ill., practice facility to cast a lordly eye over a dozen veterans running wind sprints on the field below. They run as a group, going hard but not killing themselves. When they line up and start again, all but one player, center Jay Hilgenberg, turns it up a notch. Hilgenberg finishes last, by about 15 yards. "I guess I was the only guy who didn't see him," says Hilgenberg. What the other 11 players had seen was the aura of Ditka and his eight-inch Royal Jamaican cigar reigning over them.

Now that we have established Ditka's hugeness in the minds of his players and NFL fans, there remains the question of his place in his own mind and in that of Bears management as he enters the final season of his three-year contract: Does Ditka, a personal favorite of Chicago's late owner, George Halas, want to continue coaching the Bears? And does Halas's grandson, club president Mike McCaskey, want Ditka to continue coaching the Bears? The answers are yes and probably.

McCaskey would turn the Chicago sports scene on its ear if he axed Ditka, who not only made five consecutive Pro Bowl appearances as a Bears tight end but also has an 84-45 record—including one Super Bowl championship and five NFC Central titles—in his eight years as the Bears coach. Still, there might be grounds for a divorce. Last fall America watched as Ditka, a year after having suffered a heart attack, went batty on the sideline. One Sunday he wrestled a game plan from offensive coordinator Greg Landry and called the plays himself. On others he mercilessly criticized young players in the locker room and in his postgame comments, although he later apologized. With four games left he publicly lambasted all the Bears, saying they probably wouldn't win another game—and they didn't. Ditka kept dropping hints that perhaps McCaskey should get somebody else to coach Chicago, which, after a 4-0 start, lost 10 of its last 12 games.

So McCaskey wonders, as the Bears officially open training camp this week in Platteville, Wis., whether he should commit to Ditka for 1991 and perhaps beyond. McCaskey makes it clear that he wants Ditka, 50, to continue coaching the Bears, that he thinks Ditka is "the right coach for the Bears of the '90s" and that he doesn't want the question of Ditka's status in '91 to hang over what is a very young Chicago team. But then McCaskey is not making a move to sign Ditka to a new contract, either. He watched Ditka, who generally has had a positive attitude around his team, become overly negative last year. The boss seems to be saying to himself, There shouldn't be a problem, but let's wait and see if the guy goes nuts again if we get off to a bad start.

"I'm looking forward to this year more than any year I've coached," says Ditka, rolling the cigar around in his mouth, "because it could be my last."

Ditka and McCaskey are saying all the right things now, and they believe them. But it is July, and the defense hasn't been shredded yet, the Jim Harbaugh-Mike Tomczak quarterback muddle hasn't exasperated anyone yet, the rookies haven't made rookie mistakes yet, and the Fridge hasn't hit 350 pounds yet. If recent Bears history teaches us anything, it is that all of these things will happen, and that Ditka will not react calmly to them. So McCaskey watches and waits.

This is not a Ditka vs. McCaskey conflict; it's more Ditka vs. Ditka. McCaskey was just another spectator when Ditka unraveled last season. As early as August, Ditka had said that the Bears "stunk." In October, after the Bears had lost to the Tampa Bay Bucs and the Houston Oilers in consecutive weeks, Ditka said the Bears were in "disarray." Two weeks later, almost a year to the day after the heart attack that had evoked from him a promise to be more mellow, Ditka blew up four times during a game against the L.A. Rams and in the second quarter stripped Landry of his play-calling duties for the remainder of the day. The topper came in Washington on Thanksgiving weekend. Chicago, which had never allowed more than 30 first downs in a game in its 70-year history, gave up 35 in the RFK Stadium muck as the Redskins won 38-14. Ditka said that the Bears' performance was "absolutely the worst exhibition of football I've ever seen," that Chicago was "an atrocious football team," that it would be "fortunate to win one game" the rest of the season and that rookie cornerback Donnell Woolford, a first-round draft pick, "evidently can't cover anybody."

For months it wasn't clear if McCaskey would have to make the tough decision on whether to renew Ditka's contract. Ditka's open concern about possibly being fired, his inability to remain mellow, and an impressive stint as a TV analyst during the playoffs made it appear that he was considering a career outside coaching. For months, Ditka didn't tell anyone if he even wanted to continue coaching after his contract ran out this season. Now he has. In a July 11 interview with SI, Ditka said he wants the job beyond this season. He also intimated that he would return only if the Bears made a commitment to building an indoor practice facility.

"I want to coach after this year," said Ditka. "I want to stay with the Bears. But I want the conditions to be right. I want to have a fighting chance to win. Sometimes you feel like things aren't all there that would give you that fighting chance. I feel when you put all the cards on the table here, we're not playing with a full deck."

Sources close to the Bears say Ditka and vice-president of personnel Bill Tobin, who signed a four-year contract last year, have repeatedly urged McCaskey to build a year-round practice facility. Ditka and Tobin believe the Bears, one of the few northern NFL teams without such a facility, are at a competitive disadvantage from mid-November on because the grass practice fields in Lake Forest are frozen for most of the last month of the season. Working out on frozen ground throws off the players' timing and makes it difficult for them to maintain their concentration and conditioning.

When the harsh weather sets in, the Bears often don sneakers and bus 40 minutes to the Morton East High gym in Cicero or go to the nearby Lake Forest College gym. Last season, during the week before the game against Washington, Chicago had to use the college gym for what the coaches thought would be the Bears' best chance all week for an effective practice. But a power outage forced Chicago to practice in semidarkness, with the gym illuminated only by a skylight.

"Practice late in the season is very important, and a lot of times we get nothing out of our practices," said Ditka. "Players have so many clothes on, they look like the Michelin Man. You've got to put your team in the best possible position to win. I firmly believe that's why the 49ers have been so successful. They've created the best possible atmosphere to win."

After those remarks, Ditka opened discussions with McCaskey about Ditka's future with the Bears. When SI returned on July 18 to interview McCaskey, Ditka asked to sit in, saying he did not want a conflict to arise because of his desire for the practice facility. Ditka also said that his return would not be contingent on the Bears' building a new facility.

Ditka now seems to understand that McCaskey's driving ambition is to build a publicly financed 74,000-seat domed stadium on the Chicago lakefront. The initial proposal for the funding of a new stadium died in an Illinois legislative committee in June, but another financial plan will be submitted when the legislature returns for its fall session. McCaskey says the Bears eventually will have an all-weather facility, just as they will have an improved weight room and practice fields. He just doesn't know how soon. "Other teams have been improving their facilities, and we need to keep pace," said McCaskey. "We will. This is not going to be a bone of contention between Mike and me."

Until McCaskey decides whether to re-sign Ditka, speculation about the coach's future will grow with each eruption of Mount Ditka. Chicago is an unsettled team. It doesn't have a clear-cut No. 1 quarterback. Its defense, the league's second-ranked unit in 1988, tumbled to No. 25 last season. All the assistant coaches are in the last year of their contracts, which may be distracting.

"I want to see how we respond to the challenges," said McCaskey. "The Bears have always and will continue to stand for things. It's a tough team that never quits. I think Mike is a big part of that. We want to continue to be a championship team, and who can help us accomplish that? For my head coach, I think it's Mike Ditka. I wouldn't want to have anyone else."

McCaskey is not the only person in the Bears family who is willing to forgive and—at least temporarily—forget the nightmare of last November and December. The resolutions of the other lingering disagreements:

•The Greg Landry Incident. Ditka is impulsive, capable of jumping down your throat one minute and asking you about your golf game the next. This was one of those instances. Ditka says he "sincerely regrets" stripping Landry of his play-calling responsibilities in that game with the Rams. Landry, who was in his first full season as the Bears offensive coordinator, says the matter is forgotten. "I was upset," he says. "Two years ago [when Landry coached quarterbacks and receivers] Mike and I got along great. Last year we never seemed to be on the same page. But we sat down this off-season, and I think we're in agreement about the direction of the offense."

•The Donnell Woolford Bashing. In the debacle at RFK Stadium, Woolford was the target of Redskins quarterback Mark Rypien's self-proclaimed best game ever. Actually, Woolford covered well that day, something Ditka realized after he watched the films. Ditka says he regrets saying that Woolford "evidently can't cover anyone." The public dressing-down of a rookie who needs to be stroked is one example of what McCaskey wants Ditka to avoid this fall. "I've got it out of my mind now," says Woolford. "The things he said were untrue. I know it, he knows it. I feel if I do something wrong, just tell me and I'll work on it. When you talk about it publicly, it puts a player down. I really think that had something to do with our season." Woolford says he respects Ditka and will have no trouble playing for him.

•The Attitude Adjusting. Ditka did perhaps his best coaching job in 1988, when he coaxed a 12-4 season out of an aging team, despite missing 11 days following his heart attack. In '89, he ranted and raved first and asked questions later. Last week, while sitting in his golf cart at a rookie practice in Lake Forest, he was getting revved up to teach again. "They're good kids," he said. "I really like what I see." What Ditka must realize is this: It's not 1985. From '85 through '88, Chicago went 23-0 against Tampa Bay, the Green Bay Packers and the Detroit Lions. In '89, the Bears were 1-5 against those teams. Until it proves otherwise, Chicago is just another member of the NFL pack. Ditka can still scream and yank jerseys, but he needs to be a teacher more than ever this season. The Bears may start as many as nine players age 26 or younger against the Seattle Seahawks in the season opener. "No question he can still motivate this team," says Hilgenberg. "I think he'll be good for us this year."

"I don't care how people look at what happened last year," says Ditka. "I know Mike Ditka. I kind of like myself. I am what I am, and I got to where I am by being the way I am."

At five o'clock each morning the alarm goes off in Ditka's bedroom. By 5:15 he is in his outdoor hot tub, kicking his legs 2,000 times to loosen them up, and then he does 25 laps in his pool. (Because of degenerative arthritis, Ditka has an artificial right hip and soon will have an artificial left one. He does this exercising to have as much flexibility in his legs as possible.) Finally he takes a steam bath and does stretching exercises. By 6:30 he's shaving and dressing for work. By 7:30 he's in his office, with the Lombardi and Halas memorabilia, the inspirational quotes on the walls—YOU NEVER FAIL UNTIL YOU STOP TRYING, says one—and the cigars.

His office has a feeling of history, of football being passed down from Grange to Luckman to Sayers to Payton. "I love this game so much," Ditka says, his eyes sweeping the room. In a league of increasingly vanilla personalities who measure every syllable for its p.r. value, Ditka is oxygen. He doesn't want to be a full-time TV personality, restaurateur or pitchman. Not yet, anyway.

"We're in a good situation," he says. "Everyone's written us off, but I think we're going to win our division. I've never said that before—and I've been quiet about our chances this off-season—but I'm saying it now. I want those other teams to know it, because I truly believe it. I'm not worried about reputations or Super Bowl memories. There's an old saying: You're as good as you play today. That's going to be us this year. There's going to be some griping, I can tell you that right now. But reputations mean nothing now. The best players play."

And the best coaches coach. That's why Ditka needs to hang around this game a few more years.

PHOTOBILL SMITHDitka must be more of a teacher and less of a bully to the young players who will surround him in '90.PHOTOBILL SMITHWhile Ditka fumed, the Bears folded, losing 10 of their last 12 games of the 1989 season.PHOTOJOHN BIEVERWoolford (21) and Landry (right) say they have forgiven Ditka for last year's tirades against them.PHOTOANDY HAYT[See caption above.]