Ditka Not at Loss After 6-10 : Chicago Bear Coach Turns 50, Won't Turn Over a New Leaf

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Back east, they remember Mike Ditka as a compulsive, all-out football player who, at the University of Pittsburgh, sought to refine his blocking skills with hits on a padded steel blocking sled.

As an ambitious freshman, Ditka charged the sled ferociously, and knocked himself out. Twice.

So they restricted him to practicing against teammates--but that didn't work. He knocked out two or three of them.

As the story goes, his coach, Ernie Hefferle, confined Ditka to the bench until game day.

Talking about it later, Hefferle said: "When Mike walked on the field, . . . everybody was his enemy."

That still appears to be true. As Ditka enters his ninth year as coach of the Chicago Bears, he can look back on more disagreements with players, officials, owners, fans, coaches and blocking sleds than perhaps anyone else in the NFL.

But he hasn't seen anything yet. This, in Chicago, is a different kind of year. For the first time since turning the Bears around in the early 1980s, Ditka is coming off a losing season.

His 1989 club finished 6-10, descending from a league-best of 52-11 (.825) during 1985-88. And if the depression continues, anything could happen--to the emotionally driven leader or his enemies.

In particular, the 1990 question is whether Ditka makes friends or foes of his numerous new players, who are among the youngest in pro football.

Although the kids let him down last year, he seems sold on them as athletes.

"I'm picking us to win the division because I think we have the talent," Ditka said the other day. "But kids are so different now. They're paid so . . . much. They've had so much--they've had everything.

"Last year, I tried hard to reach them--I tried to hit a chord. I've never tried harder in my life, but they didn't hear me."

Will they hear him this year?

Critics doubt it. In 1990 predictions, many are placing Chicago behind one or more of the three NFC Central rivals the Bears used to consistently dominate: Minnesota, Detroit and Green Bay.

One reporter identified the Bears as a fourth-place team and then, expressing a prevalent thought, asked: "Can the (Chicago) players get along with Mike Ditka? There's a groundswell of dislike for (Ditka) in the locker room right now."

If that's true, the Bears' locker room could be the only such place in Chicago.

Elsewhere, Ditka remains the toast of the city--one of Chicago's most popular sports figures and one of its best-known celebrities in any field.

Sun-Times columnist Irv Kupcinet, mentioning Ditka's restaurant and the many television commercials starring the Bear coach, said: "Mike is Mr. Chicago."

The coach's midtown restaurant, one of the nation's few successful sports restaurants, was the first in Illinois to make the national top 25 in sales.

Author Pete Gent, after dinner there one night, observed: "(Ditka) is the perfect celebrity for Chicago, and Chicago is his kind of town. He combines, with an exceptional flair and ease, the panache of the Lake Forest swells and the pulsing drive of the (working class)."

But . . . disliked in his own locker room?

That's pretty strong.

Accordingly, perhaps nobody in the NFL this season faces a challenge like Ditka's: At 50, is he too set in his irascible ways to win the respect of new-generation players, and, in so doing, hold the respect of the city he loves?

HE'S BEEN THERE

That Ditka could be on the outs with football players remains inconceivable to many fans. For he's a man who has been there. In his playing days, he was an NFL star, a flinty tight end who played his way into the Hall of Fame.

Celebrated for selfless blocking, for toughness, for continuously hard-edged performances, Ditka was simultaneously a great, soft-handed receiver.

As a Bear rookie in 1961, he caught 56 passes, then improved every year through 1964, when he caught 75. That set an NFL tight-end record that lasted into the '80s.

Ditka could play.

He could also infuriate those he played with. At Pitt, they talk about the day that a teammate, Chuck Reinhold, missed a tackle on Herb Adderley as Michigan State scored to take a one-touchdown lead.

Entering the locker room, Reinhold said: "We're only down 7-0. It's only halftime."

Ditka, boiling, said: "That's bull. You had a chance to make the play, and you didn't."

And with that, Reinhold said later, Ditka bounced him off a locker.

"I was probably wrong," Ditka admitted after he thought it over.

But he didn't apologize to Reinhold for a week.

After Ditka moved his act to the NFL, fans were no safer than teammates or opponents. In a game against the Rams in Los Angeles one Saturday night in 1966, Ditka, as the Bears' tight end, was enraged when a misguided fan jumped onto the Coliseum field and ran around crazily, as if, perhaps, he was motivated by one too many beers.

The officials called time and then called for the police, but Ditka prefers direct action. Stepping suddenly out of the Bears' huddle, he floored the intruder with a punch to the jaw.

The crowd had been laughing. Now it booed Ditka--not that it bothered him.

"I don't think a fan has any right on a football field," he said then, and still contends, still thoroughly satisfied with his role as policeman, judge and jury.

As a coach, Ditka throws tantrums or clipboards more often than punches, most notably on Sunday afternoons.

One time after his team punted to Detroit, Ditka, in a typical act of exasperation, ran up to Bear tight end Tim Wrightman and screamed: "You took a wrong split."

Quietly, Wrightman, one of his brightest players, replied: "I have no idea what you're talking about."

And with that, as Ditka ranted on, Wrightman walked away.

The next morning, it turned out that Wrightman was right and Ditka wrong. After inspecting the films, Ditka apologized.

As he often is, he was full of remorse--the morning after.

That's Ditka.

In any competitive situation, Chicago Tribune writer Don Pierson said, "Mike fights fire with gasoline, and says he's sorry later."

THE TOP SERGEANT

Extreme competitiveness makes Ditka what he is, and after years of battling and berating and erupting, he looks the part.

In a war movie, he would be the tough old top sergeant that even colonels defer to.

With a face like a clenched fist, Ditka is one the most recognizable coaches.

Moreover, as the NFL's most domineering coach since Vince Lombardi, he comes across as the authority figure some football fans want. That accounts for much of his national popularity.

Like any other old player, Ditka limps from a collection of old injuries but ignores the pain.

Even a 1988 heart attack failed to change him.

That fall, on his first day back, Ditka promised: "You will never hear me yelling or screaming again."

Shortly after another tirade, he said: "I lie a lot."

Actually, Ditka is more candid than most. He is also sharper and more considerate than many, taking a personal interest, for one thing, in the Bears' organization employees.

Walking down the hall one morning early in his coaching career, he turned a corner and bumped into one of the dozens of employees, a club secretary, Barbara Allen.

"Hi, Coach," she said.

"Hi, Barb," Ditka said. "How's things in Kenosha?"

Later, she told a friend: "Amazingly, he already knows us all. He even knows I'm from Wisconsin."

After years of observation, Allen defines Ditka in terms of two traits.

"He believes in himself," she said. "And he believes that everyone else should believe in him, too."

If the younger Chicago players can't quite go along with that, the explanation, possibly, is that they don't relate to Ditka the player. They're too young to have seen him illustrate, personally, the all-out, reckless-abandon style he recommends.

Anther explanation is that he apparently wields player pain and discomfort deliberately, as a motivational weapon.

"Ditka keeps the (Bear team) on edge," Sun-Times football columnist Kevin Lamb said. "He makes the players turn to each other for emotional support, just as they must do to win on the field."

If they don't like it, they aren't supposed to like it.

TROUBLE-SHOOTER

Almost perversely, Chicago's losing season a year ago has heightened the public interest in Ditka. As a winner, he was a big man in the Midwest, particularly after his 1985 team won the Super Bowl. As a loser, he seems to attract even more attention.

"Everybody wants to know what he's going to do next," Bear spokesman Bryan Harlan said.

If his first 50 years provide a guide, Ditka isn't about to recede into the background.

As early as his Little League days--the year he turned 11--adversity only spurred him to more action.

There was, for instance, the time that the Ditka brothers' battery was losing its grip on a Little League game. On the mound, Mike's brother, Ashton, the team's ace pitcher, walked a couple of batters as catcher Mike stewed.

Finally, Mike called time, put Ashton behind the plate, and took the mound himself, pitching out of the jam.

An inning later when the team's shortstop made an error, Mike called time again, and switched positions with him.

"I didn't have many friends in Little League," he said, recalling his behavior in those formative years. "But I loved the (competition)."

A native of Carnegie, Pa., Ditka grew up in nearby Aliquippa with a younger sister and two younger brothers in the family of a steel-mill welder for the railroad.

"My grandparents came over from the Ukraine, and my grandfather went into the mill," he said. "So did my dad.

"And the mill was waiting for me, too--although I'd never be there now. By now, I'd be laid off.

"Most of the guys I played sports with as a kid have been laid off."

He said his earliest memory was the sight of his father coming home from the mill. There were burns on the senior Ditka's arms, and burn holes in all his clothes.

When in later years there were more rather than fewer burns, Mike was driven to consider a different vocation.

"I got interested in dentistry, and went to school to be a dentist," he said. "However, the opportunity to play pro ball came up."

THE RICH MAN

Today, he lives the life of a rich man in a big new house in suburban Bannockburn, 15 minutes west of the Bears' practice field in upscale Lake Forest.

His wife is the former Diana Tratham, and their friends say that she is as outgoing in social settings and as straightforward as Mike is. They were married 14 years ago. There are four grown children from his first marriage.

On a clear day, after getting up at 5:15 for a vigorous exercise program, Ditka heads for the office in a 1936 Auburn roadster, or perhaps a 1948 Packard convertible. He collects old cars.

He also has a taste for spirits. Once during the Bears' Super Bowl season--after celebrating, on an airplane, a victory over San Francisco--he was arrested on the way home for drunk driving.

They calculate in Chicago that Ditka's income is about $3 million annually--counting revenue from television commercials, speeches, restaurants and the Bears, who pay him $700,000 on a contract that ends after this season.

Twice in the '80s, club president Michael B. McCaskey waited until near the end of Ditka's final contract year before making it definite that the coach would return.

"He's our coach, and we want him," the employer said again this week.

Said the employee: "I'll coach some more, but not forever. It's a young man's game."

Ditka knows he can always make a living on the lecture circuit.

On a warm night last month, he delivered his last speech of 1990--except for the quiet little talks he is reserving for his football team--at a small city in Indiana, where they said with their applause that he earned his $10,000.

His message was carefully aimed at those who wished to sell more insurance or real estate.

Ditka ended the speech, as he almost always does, with a few words from a former citizen of Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, who never suspected that he would someday be stirring an NFL coach.

"I did the best I could, and I did the best I know how," said the 10th coach of the Bears, quoting the 16th president of the United States. "And I'll keep right on doing it up to the end. If the end brings me out all right, then what is said against me will not matter. If the end brings me out all wrong, then 10 angels swearing I was right will make no difference."

THE PARADOXES

Mike Ditka's future is what concerns him. If there is a 6-10 season in his past, there is also a Super Bowl, but that's all water over the dam.

What can he do for Chicago this season?

If no one can say, one reason is that Ditka's career is a study in contradictions.

To begin with, he was brought into coaching by one of the NFL's most successful leaders of the last 30 years, Tom Landry. The Dallas Cowboys were a winner in their Ditka days, and Landry, apparently, saw the makings of a coach in the tight end he imported from Chicago.

Despite Landry's view, Ditka was not endorsed by the rest of the Dallas staff.

In a staff poll one night at the Cowboys' Thousand Oaks camp, when there were nine or 10 names on the ballot, Ditka was voted the least likely Landry assistant to succeed as a head coach.

One of the few he impressed favorably was Dan Reeves, now of the Denver Broncos, who admires Ditka's intensity.

Reeves recalls playing cards with Ditka and several others one time at Thousand Oaks when Ditka, between deals, got so mad at himself or the cards or somebody that he stood up and threw his chair across the room.

"All four legs stuck in the wall," Reeves said, marveling at Ditka's power. "I told myself, 'Man, this guy hates to lose.' "

At about the time that Dallas assistants were voting against Ditka, the late George Halas was voting for him.

That was at the outset of the '80s, when Halas was going over all the people he knew and had worked with and against--in a career that spanned 60 NFL years. Of all these, he selected his old tight end to run the Bears.

Thus Ditka, the prince of contradictions, is a link through Halas to the league's beginnings--almost the only remaining link.

Ditka is at his most paradoxical in player relations. His sideline outbursts--and, perhaps more damaging, his falling-out with his younger players late last season--are the stuff of legends.

Chicago writer Lamb, who keeps track of the coach's outbursts, calls him Mt. Ditka.

Yet, Ditka has been one of the most successful motivators of his era. When Bill Walsh was winning in San Francisco with a superior understanding of modern football, Ditka was winning with a superior knowledge of how to make athletes play to their potential.

"He's the only NFL coach who has his players ready for every game," said Chicago reporter Pierson, president of the Pro Football Writers Assn.

Someday, Pierson predicted, the Bear coach will have a four-word epitaph that sums it all up: "His teams played hard."

The truth is that Ditka would break an arm, if necessary, to inspire his players. Indeed, he once did. Lecturing the Bears on a performance that displeased him, he banged a table so hard that he broke a bone in his fist.

A week later, with his right arm in a cast, he stood up at a team meeting and implored: "Win this one for Lefty."

Ditka also concedes that in the NFL, playing smart football helps. Talking the other day about his 1990 plans, he said the Bears will use some no-huddle plays on offense, and adjust from run-oriented to pass-oriented defense.

Still, when asked to put his football philosophy into a sentence, he said: "Hit 'em again harder."

He confessed that he's sorry if his temper tantrums have offended the Bears, or anyone else, in his nine years as Chicago's coach.

How sorry?

"Along with Frank Sinatra, I have some regrets about a few things," Ditka said. "But they're too few to remember."

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