Whether Finks can
establish his authority in an arena dominated for so long by such tough
outspoken personalities as Halas and his estranged star Butkus is a question.
Butkus is monumentally remembered in Chicago—and monumentally furious with
George Halas. He is no longer playing, but he is suing Halas and the Bears for
the balance of his contract—four years at $105,000 a year—plus $1.6 million for
what he considers medical neglect.
"I've got the
knee of a 70-year-old man," Butkus says. "I'll never run again. It even
hurts to walk. Halas knew all about my knee before we signed the contract in
the spring of 1973. I asked for a player-coach contract, and he turned it down.
He claims the contract calls for passing a yearly physical exam. I claim it
doesn't—it was no cut, no trade, no penalty for injury. I guess the lawyers
will settle that question. At training camp in '73 my knee was so bad I was
icing it down every night. I missed nine games last year.
proposed that the Bears send me to the Mayo Clinic, and Mugs Halas wrote back
something like this: 'We think Butkus' condition is related directly to whether
we win or lose, and we are not certain about his willingness to tolerate pain.'
George Halas snubbed me all year, and then when it was clear I couldn't play
this season, he had his lawyer tell my lawyer to tell me the Bears would try to
use me as a goodwill ambassador. Why didn't Halas call me himself? I wasn't
trying to rip off the club. I would have been willing to do something useful.
But that did it.
when he was coach I really liked playing for him. But since then...." Thus,
Butkus. But what about Halas? What was he, a doddering old king who was finally
forced to abdicate? He doesn't fit the picture. Going to see him at the Bears'
longtime headquarters on West Madison Street is a little like going to George
Washington's Mount Vernon and finding the original proprietor not only in
residence but enthusiastically planning and directing the nation's
bicentennial. Enroute one wondered why Dick Butkus was fighting with a
79-year-old man. How could so many people be angry with an elderly has-been who
must be bordering on senility? Why wasn't Halas in Florida or Palm Springs
under a sun that would warm those old bones, soothe those old hips that have
been rebuilt, according to the stories, with steel and plastic joints? Why has
he hung on so long, clinging to the past, to the apparent disadvantage of a
team that he led to eight world championships?
In one moment
Halas provided a strong answer to all, or almost all, these questions. He
turned out to be a mighty young 79-year-old. He burst out of his executive
office on firm, fast-striding legs, his bald head gleaming (it has gleamed for
40 years), his granular voice barking cheerfully. He was wearing a flashy blue
sports jacket with angled stripes that enclosed a remarkably flat belly. A
polka-dot silk tie emerged from the collar of a patterned shirt and a
fashionable silk handkerchief bloomed from his breast pocket. One infirmity was
apparent—he wore glasses.
felt better," Halas said, instantly dismissing pity or compassion, leaving
room only for admiration or criticism. "I felt good about winning a few,
although we've lost several since. We've made a lot of mistakes. Mistakes can
be corrected. Most of all, I feel good about having Jim Finks, one of the most
versatile and experienced executives in pro sports. I feel good about the
editorials." Halas shuffled through a stack of papers on the crowded desk
and produced a Photostat: "Finks: He's a real bear" (Sun-Times),
"New Papa Bear" (Tribune) and "The Bears Bear Down" (Daily
News). All were congratulatory.
"Those were on
the editorial pages, not the sports pages," Halas exulted. "That gives
you an idea of how important the Bears are to Chicago. I think getting Finks is
evidence we—my son Mugs and I—feel losing has gone far enough. I'm as big a fan
as anybody who pays his way into Soldier Field, and I feel so full of
enthusiasm and optimism right now that I can honestly tell you the Bears are on
their way up again."
Then Halas offered
an explanation for the Bears' long wallow in the NFL depths, an explanation to
boggle, if not blow, the minds of his critics. In his own clear mind neither he
nor Mugs has ever mismanaged the Bears. He has not been too old, or too tired
or too sick. He has just been too busy.
"An NFL team
needs one man's attention to the exclusion of all else," he said. "But
several years ago, after I had retired again as head coach, I was named
president of the National Conference of the NFL. Now that's a time-consuming
position because I never believed a title should be honorary. And I have taken
on another project. I think Chicago needs a new, modern stadium, and I've been
devoting much of my time and effort to bringing it about.
occupied with league matters. He's been a member of the NFL Management Council,
which conducted the negotiations with the Players Association. In the last year
he's had to make at least 20 trips to Washington or New York. So you can see
that neither of us has been able to get our honest-to-God true interest on the
agenda—the Chicago Bears. That's why, after running this club for 55 years as a
family enterprise, we brought in Jim Finks. You ask, does he have full
authority? Yes! He is chief of operations, executive vice-president and general
manager. He has the final decision, the final authority on any issue relating
to the Bears. I can't make it more emphatic than that."