A Real Bear of a Coach : Love Ditka or Hate Him, There’s No Denying the Impact He Made on Team


Some coaches are nice people, some make you laugh, others bore you, most are just trying to do the best job they can. Mike Ditka was one of the very, very few in all of sports who made you tingle. Every time he entered a room you knew there was a very good chance he’d do or say something that would leave you in wonderment.

Did you see Ditka snatch the play list from his offensive coordinator on the sideline? Did you see Ditka throw gum at a lady at Candlestick Park? Did you hear quarterback Mike Tomczak is going to a therapist because of Ditka’s tirades? Did you hear Ditka say about The Fridge: “We called him the other day. Supposedly he weighs 325. Hey, who knows? He’s running twice a day -- from the refrigerator to the bathroom.” Did you hear Ditka’s coming back 10 days after having a heart attack? Did you see Ditka was, well, lit when he was doing his TV show last night? Did you see Ditka nearly kill Jim Harbaugh on the sideline? Did you hear what Ditka said, when asked what was wrong with cornerback Donnell Woolford: “What’s wrong with him? He can’t cover anybody, that’s what’s wrong with him!” Did you hear Ditka threaten a caller on his radio talk show? Did you see him go after a fan in Tampa?

My favorite was that Monday night in 1985 in the Orange Bowl when the Bears were trying to remain undefeated, en route to winning the Super Bowl. Buddy Ryan, then the Bears defensive coordinator, kept assigning linebacker Wilber Marshall to cover Dolphins wide receiver Nat Moore. Ditka asked Ryan nicely the first time to find another, more sensible matchup. Ryan ignored him. Ditka told Ryan right there in front of the whole team: “Buddy, we can do it any way you want. We can go right out back and get it on right now.”


That’s Mike Ditka, a guy with two replaced hips who walks like the Tin Man telling his defensive coordinator to take a step outside, during the game. John Madden and Mike Ditka, they are football. Not these dim, flat, monotonous, pedestrian, colorless men who inhabit three-quarters of the NFL sidelines.

Mike Ditka probably has been the most exciting person in sports I’ve ever been around, and it was my pleasure. He was volatile and unpredictable and captivating. Is he a complete lunatic? Absolutely. But who would you rather hoist a few with, another one of those professorial self-righteous X’s and O’s drones wearing a headset, or the guy who once said before a trip to the Metrodome: “They could convert it into a National Armory and it would be more useful than what it is used for now. I know, they could grow grass on it and use it for livestock.”

Okay, an admission is in order. I grew up in Chicago, a rabid Bears fan then and now. And nobody embodied the Bears more than Ditka, not Sayers or Butkus or Payton. Halas founded the Bears, Ditka revived them. Of course, firing the franchise’s most valuable resource is ludicrous, but more on that later. The NFL will miss Ditka more than he’ll miss coaching. The NFL once had characters, all the Artie Donovans and Dick The Bruisers you could muster. But they’re virtually extinct now. Ditka was the tyrannosaurus rex, smoking his cigar, wearing his wide-brimmed hats and pin-striped suits, cussing and threatening, winking and charming. Who’s left now? Who’s worth watching on the sideline on the off chance that he’ll kill somebody during the game? Contrived Jerry Glanville? Wacky Sam Wyche? Well, they’re better than nothing. But they’re not Ditka, not by a long shot.

The best characterization ever offered on the Bears and Ditka came from Ditka himself, back in ’85. Other people were the “Smiths,” he said, he and the Bears were the “Grabowskis.” Perfect. Grabowskis. Tough guys, probably from the South Side, chips on both shoulders. I might not have a hip left and I might walk like George Burns, but on Sunday I’ll kick your little Smith butt. Ditka was a little bit Richard J. Daley, a little Al Capone, a little of the guy who worked the early shift at the stockyards and refused to wash his hands before dinner.

You think Joe Gibbs is beloved? Don’t fool yourself. Joe Gibbs is unanimously respected for doing a fine job, for being probably the best coach in all of football. Ditka, until recently, held a firm grip on a city of 8 million. Ever since that December playoff game at RFK when the Bears beat the defending NFC champion Redskins, the game that told Chicago something special was coming, Ditka has been an obsession in Chicago. For years if Ditka called an important news conference, the Chicago TV stations went live to Halas Hall. News from the White House? Bump it. Ditka’s on. TV shows, radio gigs, commercials out the wazoo. He’d walk out of Halas Hall in a $1,000 Italian suit, with silk braces, his hair slicked back, and step into a white Rolls-Royce and people would honk their horns and flash their headlights in the night as if they’d just spotted the heavyweight champion of the world.

When you arrived at O’Hare, you could feel his presence, hard and loud and passionate like the city. Would the Bears win this week? Maybe not, but they’d knock the snot out of somebody because Ditka wouldn’t stand for anything less. NFL Films has this clip of Ditka in 1963 catching a pass from Billy Wade in Forbes Field, then running past or through half the Steelers before being tackled at the end of a long gain. Ditka tried to get up but collapsed. Perfect. Ditka wasn’t the best coach in the league, not by a long shot. But he expected his players to give as much of themselves as he gave. Die trying, or we’ll settle it out back. Who can’t understand that?

The problem in recent years was that Ditka’s own club betrayed him. Michael McCaskey, that tight-fisted, vision-lacking, CEO who basically inherited the club from Granddaddy Halas, didn’t see fit to sign any significant Plan B free agents or make a major trade. Payton and Wilber and Hampton and My Man Otis and McMahon and Hilgenberg left and were never adequately replaced. Talent and competence were lacking on the field and in the front office, not the sideline. Ditka didn’t lose it, he never had it to begin with.

But it was probably time to go anyway because 11 years is a long, long time when you do your job with that kind of rage and passion, when you’ve had a heart attack and two hip replacements.

All this debate over who should replace Ditka is silly to me. McCaskey, if he has half the sense he thinks he has, will pick up the phone and dial Redskin Park in Ashburn, Va., ask to speak to Richie Petitbon and hire him without an interview. Petitbon is the best defensive coach in the NFL. Like Ditka, he was a favorite of Papa Bear, the former defensive back whose interception in the end zone saved the ’63 NFL championship game victory over the Giants. He’s got fresh ideas of his own, but he also brings the brawling, chip- on-the-shoulder style we Bears fans find absolutely necessary. Da Bears don’t want no professors. We’d like Butkus, but he isn’t a coach. So give us Petitbon. And maybe, if we’re lucky, Ditka won’t go to the Cardinals or one of those godawful expansion teams, but to the TV booth, where we can all share and enjoy him, where we can tune in on Sundays or Monday nights and once again be left in wonderment.