Mike Ditka is known for being a tough, no-nonsense coach. During his 11 years directing the Chicago Bears, Ditka reinforced his “Iron Mike” image with the way he put up with a rebellious quarterback (Jim McMahon), a headstrong defensive coordinator (Buddy Ryan) and how he led his team into the playoffs even after suffering a midseason heart attack.
But those days are long gone. Ditka no longer is leader of the “Monsters of the Midway.” He is in his second year coaching the New Orleans Saints and acknowledges that none of his 12 previous seasons coaching in the NFL have been as difficult as this one.
“Not even close,” Ditka said, pointing to his eyes. “You see these bags?”
Ditka is not overly stressed by New Orleans’ performance on the field. With a 4-5 record, the Saints have been more competitive than most NFL experts predicted and remain in the hunt for an NFC wild-card berth.
It’s the Saints’ off-the-field activity that is wearing on Ditka. Since training camp, he has had to deal with one non-football-related headache after another:
* Despite a team ban on hazing, two rookies were injured during a hazing incident in late August. One has sued the team for $650,000.
* Linebacker Andre Royal was signed as a free agent from Carolina during the off-season, but once he joined the Saints, he became their most controversial player.
* Recently acquired quarterback Kerry Collins was arrested early this month for driving while impaired after Ditka had given him permission to skip the team flight home following a game at Carolina.
* Strong safety Chris Hewitt spent a night in jail last week for assaulting an officer and resisting arrest after police stopped him walking near his apartment and thought he was a “suspicious looking black male.”
“This stuff is definitely [having an effect on me] and on the organization,” said Ditka, who turned 59 last month and has a 122-83 coaching record. “I don’t like seeing articles referring to the Saints like this. Some of the choices we’ve made, we should be questioned about it. We’ve made some mistakes. . . . We’re not always right with what we do.”
The hazing incident happened Aug. 20, the team’s final day of training camp in La Crosse, Wis. About 20 veteran players formed a gantlet in a darkened dormitory hallway and beat the rookies, who had pillowcases over their heads. Tight end Cam Cleeland suffered blurred vision after allegedly being struck in the face with a sock full of coins, and free-agent defensive tackle Jeff Danish crashed through a window.
Cleeland’s father charged that racism was involved because his son and Danish are white and most of the veteran players involved reportedly were African American.
Then on Oct. 21, nearly two months after he had been released, Danish filed a suit in Madison, Wis., against the Saints, defensive line coach Walt Corey and six players, claiming that the incident was planned.
Because the case is still pending, Ditka has not said much about the incident except that team officials had no idea the hazing was going to take place and could not have prevented it. But it was clear his frustration stemmed from such an incident taking place despite what he had told the team, and that frustration intensified when most players refused to identify afterward who was involved.
“I spoke about it that night and said, ‘Don’t let anything happen. Don’t do anything stupid. Don’t tear up the dorm,’ ” Ditka said about the hazing. “I went through the whole thing twice at camp.”
Royal became a problem for Ditka and the Saints not long after they signed him to a four-year, $3.8-million contract. Ditka said he was unaware of problems in Royal’s background that included a run-in with a Bourbon Street dancer and four suspensions in four years at Alabama.
Royal sat out 22 days in training camp because of a strained calf and was fined $3,500 for a profanity-laced exchange on the practice field with Ditka. He later acknowledged participating in the hazing incident and was traded to Indianapolis before the start of the season, but only after the Saints had paid him $850,000.
Ditka said the decision to sign Royal had been made by Bill Kuharich, president and general manager.
“When Andre Royal came here, I knew nothing about his background,” Ditka said. “I agreed with [the signing] because he was a better athlete than some of the people we had.”
Ditka did play a key role in the Saints’ claiming Collins off waivers after he had been cut by the Panthers, who claimed he had quit on them. Ditka said that everyone needs a second chance and that Collins needed to only find the Lord and a good woman.
“We’re not trying to be the Salvation Army here,” Ditka said. “I don’t know if I have all the answers. I’m just trying to do the right thing.”
Ditka had given permission to Collins, along with former Panthers Chad Cota and Eric Guliford, to stay an extra day in Charlotte for personal reasons after the game Nov. 1.
“It was my call. I didn’t use good sense to let him go,” Ditka said about Collins, who was viciously booed by Carolina fans. “I shouldn’t have let him do it. Just blame me.”
Collins still hasn’t played a down for the Saints, although he is scheduled to start today at home against the St. Louis Rams.
In Hewitt’s situation, Ditka immediately sided with his player because he questions the police officers’ motive.
“I believe the kid,” Ditka said. “Why would he be stopped for walking in his own neighborhood? Because he is black. That stinks. That’s the trouble with the world today.
“What was he arrested for? They initially accused him of stealing. That’s what they accused him of. They made him out to be a criminal. And that’s wrong.”
Despite everything off the field and the team’s current slump--they have lost five of six--Ditka’s popularity around New Orleans is stronger than ever.
“The fans still think the team is headed in the right direction and this city loves Ditka,” said Kenny Trahan, a veteran broadcaster who has covered the Saints for eight years. “People here even forgave him for ripping their city in a Sports Illustrated article during the summer.”
In that article, Ditka called the city “filthy” and said he had avoided going downtown to shop or to the French Quarter.
“This is a city where natives of New Orleans love New Orleans.” Trahan said. “They don’t like anybody criticizing their city. But he’s Ditka. He criticized them and people said, ‘Yeah, he’s right. So what, let him say what he wants to say. Go win, Ditka.’ ”
And that’s what the Saints did. They started 3-0, despite having lost starting quarterback Billy Joe Hobert because of a ruptured Achilles’ tendon in their season opener.
"[Ditka] just wants us to be disciplined and to play physical,” said second-year safety Sammy Knight, a free-agent signee from USC who is making a strong case for Pro Bowl status this season. “He’s a straight-up kind of guy who tells you what is on his mind.”
Last season, the Saints were 4-3 over their final seven games and finished 6-10. They relied on defense most of the season.
This season, New Orleans’ offense is not much better, but the Saints have gotten by with Danny Wuerffel at quarterback and now rely on Billy Joe Tolliver, who was home in Shreveport, La., at the start of the season. He was signed after Hobert was injured.
Lamar Smith, a free-agent signee from Seattle, has played well at running back, but the Saints still average only 3.5 yards a rush. Cleeland’s 28 catches lead the team, but the Saints’ top two wide receivers--Sean Dawkins and Andre Hastings--have combined for only 44 receptions and 637 yards.
Defensively, the Saints have struggled to return to last season’s form. In five of its last six games, New Orleans has given up 30 or more points.
With road games remaining at San Francisco and Miami, along with home games against Dallas and Buffalo, the Saints have an uphill battle to make the playoffs. But that has not discouraged the optimism of New Orleans fans.
Former Saint Jack Del Rio, who coaches New Orleans’ linebackers, says that Ditka is the reason why.
“When I was here as a player, Bum Phillips was in his last years and the attitude around the city was kind of the same,” said Del Rio, selected in the third round by the Saints from USC in 1985.
“We had a high-profile coach and a team that was hoping to turn the corner. The thing with this community is that if you put a couple of wins together, it really gets behind you. They love their football down here. They are very supportive. This is the only show in town.”
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Turn for Better
Mike Ditka replaced Neill Armstrong as coach of the Bears in 1982 and turned the club around, including the franchise’s only Super Bowl victory. In less than two seasons, he already has improved the Saints compared to the previous two campaigns. The winning percentages:
Before Ditka: .462
With Ditka: .621
New Orleans Saints
Before Ditka: .313
With Ditka: .400