SI Vault
Richard W. Johnston
December 09, 1974
Memories swirl through the city and the old stadium where the Bears are fighting a holding action for their loyal fans, glorying in the heroic George Halas past and putting hope in a future that was no longer his
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December 09, 1974

Chicago: The Once And Future Bears

Memories swirl through the city and the old stadium where the Bears are fighting a holding action for their loyal fans, glorying in the heroic George Halas past and putting hope in a future that was no longer his

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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.

"My agent 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.

"You know, 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.

"I've never 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.

"Mugs is 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."

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