As he hobbled around the practice field last Friday in his new
role as coach of the New Orleans Saints, Mike Ditka obviously
hadn't changed a bit, though he'd been out of the game for four
years. Jaw jutting out, teeth gnawing furiously on a wad of gum,
quick with a knifing comment, Ditka walked with overweight
tackle Louis Age from one drill to another, growling, "Jeez,
Louis, what are you, 380?" Grabbing backup tight end Tony
Johnson during a blocking drill, Ditka thrust his own right
forearm forward. "Use it like an offensive weapon," he said.
After watching his linemen break the huddle and saunter to the
line, Ditka shouted, "Get up there! Act like you want to hit
Near the end of practice he sidled up to offensive coordinator
Danny Abramowicz and talked about how impressed he was with wide
receiver Daryl Hobbs, acquired four days earlier in a trade with
the Oakland Raiders. "I like the look in his eye," Ditka said.
Abramowicz related how Hobbs had thanked receivers coach Harold
Jackson for bringing him to New Orleans.
"Life is funny," Ditka said, still going 100 mph on that gum.
"You never know when you're going to get an opportunity like
He could have been speaking of himself. Until he was introduced
as the Saints' coach on Jan. 28, Ditka seemed to be out of the
NFL coaching picture for good. During 11 years with the Chicago
Bears the 57-year-old Ditka had a 112-68 record, a heart attack
and a notoriously explosive temper. Friends say he made an
estimated $3 million last year from TV, radio and
motivational-speaking gigs. He hates the salary cap and huge
signing bonuses for unproven players, both of which are the way
of the NFL world these days. His business calendar was full
through this August, after which he planned a golf trip to
Scotland and another season as an analyst on NBC's NFL Live. A
week before he took the New Orleans job, he told Abramowicz,
"I'm still 99.9 percent sure I'll never coach again." And the
day before his interview with Saints owner Tom Benson, he says,
he told business associates, "Don't worry. I'm not going to take
So what happened? Picking at some licorice as he sat in his
office last Friday, Ditka smiled while recalling what changed
his mind. "I kept denying to myself I wanted to coach again," he
said. "I went [into the interview] with kind of a chip on my
shoulder, thinking it wasn't going to happen. But then Tom
Benson said a lot of things I agree with. He said he didn't like
the direction the NFL is going. I don't either. I firmly believe
everything happens for a reason, and as I sat in that room, I
began to think this was where I was meant to be. And I got
So here he is. For the moment he is calm. He's also surprisingly
blunt about his past and the parallels you can draw with another
hothead, Jim Mora, who quit in the midst of his 11th season in
New Orleans after a profanity-laced tirade in the wake of a 19-7
loss to the Carolina Panthers last Oct. 20. "Jim's a great
coach," Ditka says. "What broke him down is what broke me down
in Chicago. He lost it after that game at Carolina. I lost it at
that game in Minnesota."
Flash back to Oct. 4, 1992. The Bears were leading the Minnesota
Vikings 20-0 in the fourth quarter. Chicago quarterback Jim
Harbaugh audibled to a pass play, and defensive back Todd Scott
intercepted the throw and returned it for a touchdown. Ditka,
neck veins popping as he lambasted Harbaugh, looked as if he
were about to explode. The Bears lost 21-20. As Chicago slid to
a 5-11 record, critics called for Ditka's head. After 31-plus
seasons as a player and a coach, he had lost his love for the
game, they said. Ditka always denied it, until now. "All those
guys who said those things about me--they spoke the truth," he
says. " I totally lost my desire. The best thing for me was to
do something else, and it was best for the Bears, too."
For the better part of four years Ditka lived the good life,
golfing at home and abroad, making speeches for as much as
$40,000 a pop, visiting casinos. "I was a private citizen," he
says of his propensity to gamble. "Give me a break. And I'd
never gamble on sports. Never."
He was doing what he wanted to do, but it wasn't enough.
Abramowicz isn't joking when he says Ditka, who has a three-year
contract with an annual base salary of about $1.3 million, took
a pay cut to coach the Saints. "Money is not my god," Ditka
says. "I make it, I spend it, I enjoy it. I won't die with it. I
just decided I wanted to climb the mountain once more. Getting
up every day and going to the golf course is not life."
After only three months on the job he sounds as if he's in
midseason form. "Lombardi said there's a craving for discipline
among young people, a craving for the grind," Ditka says. "And
that's what we'll have here. If the game's about giving in to
the whims of the '90s, count me out. Get somebody else to coach
'em. It has become a money game, but I won't change. I'm going
to tell these players, 'You don't want to be here, fine; don't
waste my time.' And I guarantee you, we will have players who
bust their ass on every play."
That old fire is what attracted the Saints, who haven't had a
winning season since 1992, to Ditka in the first place. Of
course, they also thought he would have an impact at the box
office. Average home attendance in New Orleans last year was
37,750, the worst in the 30-year history of the franchise. (At
week's end 5,000 new season-ticket orders had been placed since
Ditka's hiring.) Not that there was much to show up and cheer
about during a 3-13 season, in which the Saints were 29th in the
league in total offense and 20th in scoring defense. Ditka has
major rebuilding plans, as 26-year-old cornerback Mark McMillian
was among the first to find out. Last Thursday, McMillian was
informed that he was being demoted in favor of Alex Molden, the
11th overall pick in the '96 draft. "You usually have a chance
to win or lose your job on the field," McMillian says. "I guess
Ditka has a different way."
Last week, in an effort to stockpile picks for the April 19-20
draft, the Saints traded down in the first round, dealing the
No. 2 overall pick and their sixth-round pick to Oakland for
Hobbs and the Raiders' first-, second- and fourth-round picks.
New Orleans figures the only surefire star of this draft is Ohio
State tackle Orlando Pace, and the Saints expect him to be the
first player chosen. If the Saints had retained the second pick,
they would have had to ante up a huge bonus to sign a guy they
wouldn't have been sold on. President and general manager Billy
Kuharich, in fact, hopes to trade down again before draft day.
"My goal is to get eight of the top 107 picks," he says. "We've
got six now."
The Saints would be wise to deal one of those selections to the
Washington Redskins for quarterback Heath Shuler, a restricted
free agent. He has already agreed in principle to a four-year,
$7.6 million contract, pending an agreement on compensation
between the Redskins and the Saints. When the Green Bay Packers
offered their third-round pick to New Orleans last month to make
Shuler a backup to Brett Favre, the market was set in the
Redskins' eyes. "There's no way we'll trade Heath to New Orleans
for a fourth or anything lower," Washington coach Norv Turner
The Saints have offered their fifth-round pick, and Ditka and
Kuharich say they won't give up their third-rounder. Odd. Ditka
thinks Shuler can be the Saints' quarterback of the future and
says that if Shuler were in this draft, he'd be the first
quarterback selected. What's more, Shuler's salary-cap number
would be a below-market $450,000 in '97 and '98. Yet he's not
worth the 62nd pick?
"We'd like to have Heath Shuler," Kuharich says. "But we got Jim
Everett for a seventh-round pick three years ago. And Heath was
beaten out in Washington by a seventh-rounder [Gus Frerotte]. I
shouldn't be punished for Washington's making Shuler such a high
pick three years ago."
Be that as it may, will the Saints lose the quarterback they
really want over a marginal draft choice? Consider that the last
four players to be taken with the 62nd pick were cornerback Ray
Mickens (New York Jets), guard Jesse James (St. Louis Rams),
cornerback Tyronne Drakeford (San Francisco 49ers) and
linebacker Antonio London (Detroit Lions)--none of whom have
made a significant impact.
Where does all this leave Everett, an 11-year veteran who holds
the club's single-season records for touchdown passes, passing
yardage, attempts and quarterback rating? Ditka says he assured
Everett last Thursday that he will be given every opportunity to
win the starting job. However, Everett is coming off a season in
which he threw four more interceptions (16) than touchdown
passes. He ranked only 26th in the league, with a 69.4
quarterback rating, and Ditka gives him no vote of confidence
when he bluntly says, "The problem with this team is the
offensive skill positions."
The quarterback situation notwithstanding, Ditka was the talk of
the Saints' camp last week. Marketing vice president Greg Suit
plotted a ticket campaign with the slogan "Now we're made of
iron" and talked about how much Saints fans like Ditka's
message. "It's 180 degrees from the 'Show me the money' attitude
in sports today," Suit says. Defensive tackle Wayne Martin
speaks of the new coach almost reverently. "It's hard to explain
what he has--an air, a mystique, I don't know," Martin says.
"It's something that exudes from him. I just know it's something
we all want."
Says Abramowicz, "Football's not a hard game under Mike Ditka.
We'll block. We'll tackle. He'll motivate."
For a downtrodden franchise, that's a step up.