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Holy Smoke!: An Inside Look

Posted: Wed July 15, 1998

Sports Illustrated

July 20, 1998 cover Sports Illustrated kicks off the NFL preseason this week with a profile of New Orleans Saints coach Mike Ditka. SI special contributor John Ed Bradley examines Ditka's legend and his new outlook on life. The story reaches subscribers and newsstands beginning today.

In an exclusive interview, CNN/SI chatted with Ditka about the story and the upcoming season.

CNN/SI: How do you feel about being promoted as the savior of the Saints?

Mike Ditka: I think that's an overdone thing. I can't help that; I am who I am. Part of our promotion program and the marketing program and the merchandising program has been based on me, and I wish that would all change, and I think it will change. It's understandable why it happened last year; does if have to continue to happen? No. I think we can build on our people, on our players, on the organization, on the draft, on the people we brought in through free agency, on what we're trying to do and how we're doing it. And I think that will stand on its own two feet, I really do. I'd really like to get away from the marketing of me.

CNN/SI: Do you regret at all the image of you that's been created?

Ditka: I don't really regret it, it's just something that happened—it's a tough-guy image, it's an image of this and that. I think if you really sat down and talked to players—and I'm not saying to a man, but almost to a man—they'd tell you, you're not going to deal with anybody that's more fair than me. But you have to have requirements. People have to do what they're supposed to do; that's why we bring them in here and pay them substantial salaries. They have obligations just like I have obligations. I think my obligation is to treat them as men, fairly; give them a shot at furthering their careers. And I think most of them understand that—I've been very up-front with our people. But I was very up-front with the people in Chicago, too, and that's something that nobody can ever deny. If they deny it, they're lying, because I'm the fairest guy you could ever deal with.

People may not always like my methods, but I think my motives are aboveboard. My methods at times, they become archaic or prehistoric or whatever you want to call them. Is that good or bad? I don't know. I think there's a time probably where it's good, but most of the time it's not so good. I think you have to be able to communicate a lot more and bend and be flexible, things that I'm just learning to do, that I never did, really. I didn't bend very much; I was pretty rigid. If you stay rigid long enough, you're going to break; if you're flexible you can go with the good and the bad times.

CNN/SI: In the story you say that one of your main tasks is to change attitudes. How do you go about doing that?

Ditka: I think people have got to believe; before anything can happen, people have got to believe. First of all, you've got to believe you have a right to it; I think that's the hardest thing. A lot of people in life fear success more than they do failure because with success comes responsibility. If you're successful, you have to wear that mantle constantly, you have to do it all the time; that especially goes for a football team. You have to be willing to step up and know you're going to have to be good not part of the time but all the time, if you're going to be successful.

And I think that's part of the problem, to get people convinced that, Hey, we have a right to this. If not now, when? What are we saying, what kind of program are we on—a one-year, a three-year, a five-year, a 10-year? That's bullcrap. We're on a program to get better immediately, as quick as we can with the people we have. And we've changed enough people over one year that these are our people, basically. It's not a hundred percent, but these are basically the people we're going to go to war with, and they're the people we hand-picked to do this. Are we right? We're going to find out how right we are. Are we better than we were when I came here? I feel we are, I really do.

CNN/SI: The story refers to your "self-improvement campaign." What prompted this change?

Ditka: I don't think you ever stop learning. I'm learning a lot more not only about myself but about what's important in life. I'm refusing to get wrapped up in things that aren't important anymore. I know I'm here for a reason, I really believe that, and I'm going to do the best I can at it but I'm not going to let it tear me apart anymore. If you think about it, there's a billion people in China that don't care what we're doing down here.

CNN/SI: How have the fans in New Orleans treated you?

Ditka: I think for the most part they've been supportive. I mean, it's like anything else, if you're going to sit around in life and fool yourself then you say, "Everybody likes me," or, "Everybody doesn't like me." Some like you and some don't, let's face it. I have people who support me strongly all over the country because they believe in the way I do things; I have people who say, "Time's gone past him; he can't do things that way anymore." Well, I happen to disagree with them but I understand their point. So I think you have a little of everything.

People here more than anything are just frustrated that the organization hasn't been able to give them what they want, and that's a winner. I tell people, very simply, you can get mad at me all you want, you get get mad at our staff all you want, but you can't blame us for the last 35 years, you have to blame the other people. We'll take the responsibility for last year and for this year, and as long as we're here we'll take the responsibility for that and you can blame us for those things. But don't live in the past.

CNN/SI: What do you see as the main challenges for the upcoming season?

Ditka: Our biggest challenge right now is very simple: to become good you've got to beat the good teams. The good teams in our division—and they're all good, Atlanta, St. Louis and Carolina—but we have got to beat the 49ers. That's become our goal, that's my obsession, and that's the way it has to be: until you can beat the best you can't be the best. That's the way we built in Chicago, that's the way we have to build here. You're not going to get better beating the lower-echelon teams because those are the teams you should beat. You've got to step up and beat the Green Bays and the Denvers and the 49ers and the teams that are at the top of their division, whether it be Dallas, whether it be the Giants, or whoever. Those are the teams you have to find a way to step up, match up with and play equal and be able to beat them, where you're not getting turned around sideways or beat up by these people.

And I think again it goes back to: you become what you perceive yourself to be. If you perceive yourself to be an also-ran, that's what you'll be, you'll be an also-ran. And that's what we're trying to do is to change the perception of who we are with these players, and that comes through attitude and believing in not only themselves but what we're doing and how we're doing it, and believing in their teammates.

CNN/SI: Personnel-wise you feel you're on the right track?

Ditka: We're better. I know we have better personnel than we did a year ago at this time. The biggest question with us, and everybody keeps bringing it up is the quarterback thing. We're going to start with Billy Joe Hobert, but we still have Heath Shuler, we still have Danny Wuerffel. I think we have a quarterback that's good enough to get us where we want to go. I'm one of these guys, of course, who doesn't think you have to have a 4,000-yard passer to go to the Super Bowl, but it's nice to have one. I didn't have it in Chicago—I had a good quarterback who was a great leader, and he was respected by his teammates, and that's what I want to get here. I want to be able to be balanced, where I can run, throw the ball, keep people off-balance, and not be predictable. So I think the kids we have are good enough. But that's going to be the big question. Because our defense played pretty well last year; if we can approach that again, if we can improve our offense in the area where we turned the ball over—we turned the ball over 55 times last year—if we can cut that in half, then we'll be a team that's capable of winning nine or 10 games and making the playoffs.

CNN/SI: You've been through a heart attack and two hip replacements. How's your health?

Ditka: The hips are great, I feel great right now, it's the best I've ever felt. I ran this morning, I run every morning I'm here. I work out, I'm in better shape now than I've been in probably the last five or six years, I've taken off some weight. I feel good, I really do—I feel good about life, I feel good about everything.

CNN/SI: Can you see yourself coaching beyond your current contract, which expires after the '99 season?

Ditka: I'll do this—and I've only made up my mind recently—I'll do this as long as the ownership and the management want me; then I have no problem. I'll do this for a long time. I feel like I'm young at heart and young in mind.

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