Mike Ditka, the noted humorist, pitchman, restaurateur, actor, golfer, artificial-hip recipient, heart-attack survivor, Harley rider, product of the Pennsylvania steel-country up-by-the-bootstraps crucible, Hall of Fame tight end, and, oh yes, fired Chicago Bear football coach, takes a break from the gin game at his kitchen table to talk about life. "What are we really loyal to, we coaches?" he asks, tilting his great head like a bear peering into the forest. "To that eagle crapping twice a month."
Philosophy. It's what we have come to expect of this man who broke his right hand punching a file cabinet after a Bear defeat in 1983 and then inspired his team before the next game by saying, "Win one for Lefty." Who said in '86 that he couldn't yell at Chicago quarterback Doug Flutie because "it's like hollering at Bambi." Who said in '88 that Washington Redskin defensive end Dexter Manley had "the IQ of a grapefruit." Who said in '91, "I'm going to control my temper. You'll be so amazed, you'll think I'm Friar Tuck." Who said only a few minutes ago, "My next coaching job will be at the sandlot level. No money, just cigars."
The aforementioned eagle droppings, of course, are the paychecks Ditka and his coaching brethren covet. Ditka's view of his profession is cynical, even for a man who loves money so much that he has endorsed nearly every product from soup to antifreeze—but, in fact, for Ditka himself that view doesn't hold. Ditka, 53, is loyal to the Bears—whom he coached for 11 seasons and for whom he also played from 1961 to '66—the way a cow is loyal to hay. And he's loyal to his friends, to a fault. "He's so loyal," says a Bear insider, "he didn't even fire assistant coaches who were stabbing him in the back."
Indeed, that naive, bighearted loyalty, combined with an odd mix of toughness, simplicity, honesty, humor, unpredictability and plain nuttiness, turned Ditka last week into the most beloved victim in the history of Chicago sports beheadings. When Bear president and CEO Mike McCaskey tearfully told the public on Jan. 5 that he was letting Ditka go because there was "going to be a premium on fresh ideas and a new start," and when Ditka then tearfully bade Chicago fans adieu, saying, "I worry about how this organization is perceived," it seemed the city might melt with despair.
So what if the Bears had staggered to a 5-11 record this year, losing eight of their last nine games? Ditka's record with Chicago was a stellar 112-68, and in January 1986 he led the Bears to their only Super Bowl championship. Sure, the guy was a buffoon at times, but he was Chicago's buffoon. The city perceives McCaskey as a Yale-educated, bean-counting weasel who wouldn't know a goal line from a chorus line. Who had hired Ditka, anyway? George Halas, that's who. Papa Bear himself, a founder of the NFL. Yes, Halas was McCaskey's grandfather, but so what? Halas never anointed McCaskey the way he did Ditka by flying Ditka, then a young Dallas Cowboy special teams coach, to Chicago, sitting him down at the Halas kitchen table and asking him what his offensive and defensive philosophies were. "Coach, I don't know and you don't care," Ditka replied. "I just want to win." They inked the contract right there.
McCaskey didn't become CEO until Halas died nearly two years later, in 1983, and Chicagoans have always regarded McCaskey as an Ivy League starched shirt who lucked into this jewel of a franchise. The crudest media barb last week came from Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Verdi, who wrote, "On his deathbed, the old man whispered, please, not Michael."
The outpouring of grief and anger over Ditka's axing was such that McCaskey promptly hired bodyguards and stopped talking to the press. At Halas Hall, the Bears' headquarters in the suburb of Lake Forest, reporters sniffed out stories, coaches pointed fingers and lobbied for new jobs, and Chicago players came to pay their final respects to the man who recently said, "If you think this is going to be a——soap opera, you're full of——."
Of course, he was wrong. This was soap nearly strong enough to push Amy Fisher out of the newscasts. The day after the firing, Bear defensive coordinator Vince Tobin, upon being told that the NFL could only benefit from such giddy, gossipy entertainment, snapped, "I thought that's what the playoffs were for."
By last Thursday the contents of Ditka's office were boxed and ready to go. Ditka's 50th-birthday rocking chair sat in a corner, simmering under the inscription BEST WISHES FOR MANY MORE HAPPY SUCCESSFUL YEARS—MIKE MCCASKEY.
On Friday, Ditka sat placidly at his empty desk and puffed on a cigar. "I feel good," he said. "I'm not going to get into criticizing. Someday the story will come out. Someday, but not from me." He then reached into his pocket and pulled out a roll of cash. Fishing inside it, he produced a folded-up strip of newspaper. Then he said, "There's only one person I owe a debt to. This guy." The newsprint was unfolded to reveal a column in which the Tribune's Mike Royko referred to McCaskey nine times as a "weenie," twice as a "Twinkie" and once each as a "cupcake" and a "glorified bookkeeper."
Later that day Tobin distributed a press release to reporters gathered at Halas Hall, announcing that he had withdrawn his name as a candidate "for the club's vacant head-coaching position." His reason, he explained, was that those same writers had portrayed him as a McCaskeyite and a Ditka-undercutter who was unfit for the job. He was pulling his name to avoid further public condemnation of both himself and his brother Bill, the Bears' vice-president of player personnel, who had been accused by USA Today of chopping Ditka "low" while McCaskey got him "high."
Did Ditka's firing have only to do with losing? Tobin was asked. "I don't know what it has to do with," he replied testily. "You're trying to get into something deep and philosophical, which is out of my realm of expertise."
Was this not better than General Hospital'? Mostly what folks around Chicago objected to was the way in which Ditka had been fired—being forced to twist in the wind for nine days after the Bears' final game while McCaskey fiddled about, saying nothing. In truth, there was a point during the season when Ditka probably could have been canned without much uproar. It was on Oct. 4, when he screamed at quarterback Jim Harbaugh on the sideline after Harbaugh had thrown an interception that was returned for a touchdown by the Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings would come from 20 points down to win 21-20, and Ditka was seen as the bad guy, the one whose short fuse was scary, destructive and uncontrollable. When Ditka's former Bear teammate Ed O'Bradovich (whose daughter is married to Ditka's son) criticized Ditka for his behavior and Ditka responded by saying that having O'Bradovich introduce him at his Hall of Fame induction was "the biggest mistake I ever made," Chicagoans were stunned. Chicagoans believe in roots and friendship. This was Ditka's nadir.
But then, slowly, perceptions changed. The Bears kept losing; people saw that the talent closet was empty; and folks realized that maybe there are worse things than screaming at a quarterback who had audibled after being told not to, or than arguing with your best friend. Ditka, the regular guy, had come back to his place.
Nobody likes owners; that feeling is intensified in McCaskey's case because he is thought to be cheap. Still, he has managed the Bears well on limited funds—Chicago has had only two losing seasons since he took over—and he knows that times are changing in the NFL. Ditka wanted more control over player acquisition; McCaskey wants only to survive the coming free-agent tumult. With the firing, McCaskey has finally swept clean the last vestiges of the Halas era. Now the Bears are truly his, for good or ill. The merciless criticism has genuinely hurt McCaskey, but as he says, "It's too early for me to explain to fans everything I'm doing. Talking now is like shouting in the wind. There's a natural grieving period that must go on."
And so Chicagoans mourn a man who does not need it, a wealthy man who has become a symbol of something he has not been for a very long time: a common working stiff. Says Ditka, "That's bull. I'm no symbol. I'm just me. Just a guy going through life."
Precisely. Which is why the more he fumbles about, gets upset, makes mistakes, lashes out, contradicts himself, the more people love him. Two days after United Airlines, which is based in Chicago, announced that it would lay off 2,800 employees, fans at the last Mike Ditka Show on WBBM-TV openly wept over this one man's fate.
It's true, as they say, that life occurs first as tragedy, then as a skit on Saturday Night Live. Several hours before his gin game, Ditka had taped, down in his basement, his bit for that night's SNL, and now he is explaining the premise of the skit. "I call NASA to become an astronaut," he says. "Because I'm out of this world, I guess. Hope it's funny." He smiles, shrugs and limps back into the kitchen to rejoin his gin buddies.
The show comes on later, and Ditka, on tape, is the star of the opening segment.
"Ditka is like the sun," says Saturday Night Live-Super Fan George Wendt. "Only smarter."
Long may he shine.