- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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"It was always the offense and the defense around here, never the team, never a commitment by the organization to get anywhere," says Fencik, the Yale yuppie who was among the loudest complainers. Halas had seen enough. These malingerers and no-accounts might have been football players, but they weren't Bears. He needed a Bear.
Subsequently, Ditka the new coach needed all of whatever marvelous powers coalesce from a combination of Christianity and Bearistics to survive his first week, much less his first season—the strike year, 1982, in which the Bears finished 3-6. Chicago columnists took Ditka apart. A Halas-Ditka tandem was like Orville and Wilbur Wright returning to run the FAA. The Bears were eliminating the termites by burning down the house. Aggression, determination, delivering pain—yeah, you want Ditka. Smarts? You might as well hire a lamppost on Rush Street. That sort of thing. HIRING DITKA WOULD BE MADNESS read one headline even before the fact.
Ditka—Landry's analysis about the changes in Mike's character notwithstanding—didn't disappoint. Temper tantrums. Screaming jags. Dueling headphones. "I'm sure some of the players thought I was nuts," Ditka says of those days. What they did fear was that the coach would put somebody on waivers right there on third-and-12. In 1983, after two straight overtime defeats on the road, Ditka smashed a locker and broke his right hand. "Do me a favor," Ditka announced to the team the following week. "Go out and win one for Lefty."
Wait a minute, guys. Maybe we got a funny dude here, a human being rather than a werewolf.
At about this same time Ditka took to wearing a tie on the sidelines, "to calm myself down," he said. Oh. Now he was, as Fencik points out, "the wild man in the tie." Outraged fans held up signs proclaiming Soldier Field DITKA'S HAUNTED HOUSE. On Halloween day '83, Halas died, leaving the Bear power structure to the 39-year-old McCaskey, a former college professor and management consultant. Trick or treat. Ditka was not observed doing handstands. Yet, by sheer will, motivational persuasion and the force of his personality, Ditka pressed on, changing things. "I think I'm going to learn the names of the offensive players," veteran safety Doug Plank said. "We might even cheer each other."
Oh, yes, and Ditka got rid of a whole lot of people—deadweights to whom picking up a paycheck meant more than being a Bear. "Did he sweep the house?" says Hampton. "Let's just say if Mike had used a vacuum cleaner he would have needed an extra bag."
Moreover, Ditka finally settled on McMahon as his quarterback. McMahon had started the 1983 season being flattened 16 times in 13 quarters while Bear supporters hardly noticed which color Ray Bans he showed up in each week. But maybe it was because he had started that way and kept getting back up that Ditka gave McMahon the ultimate promotion. Whatever, he was the ninth quarterback the Bears had used in their last 57 games; Chicago finished 1983 winning five of its last six, including a thoroughly convincing 13-3 victory over the high-tech offensive genies from San Francisco.
There have been a couple of huge Bear wins in the '80s, but that one might have been the most significant. "That and the Raiders last year," says Ditka. "They showed us we could play with these good, traditional playoff contenders and beat them."
And beat them up. Ah, the Raiders. Those clowns. On a cold November afternoon last year in Chicago, the L.A. Oaklanders came slashing after McMahon and knocked him out for the season with a lacerated kidney. In response, the enraged Bears sacked Raider quarterbacks nine times, smashed Marc Wilson out of the game, smashed David Humm out, smashed Wilson out once more. So brutal was the Bear onslaught that Al Davis was seen covering his face with his hands. Just breathe, baby. The Bears won 17-6. All those mastodons of good cheer must hope against hope for a rematch next month in New Orleans, maniac-on-maniac.
Last season the Bears kept gnawing away at the division championship. And stalling about a new contract for Ditka. When McCaskey kept him dangling too long, Ditka sincerely wondered aloud if he was wanted. A three-year deal wasn't negotiated until Jan. 2. "When things get turbulent, I ask, 'What is the continuum, what is my compass?' " says McCaskey, who speaks as he authors (The Executive Challenge: Managing Change and Ambiguity, Pitman, 1982). "Mike was my grandfather's choice as coach," McCaskey adds. "I wanted the future coach to be my choice. I needed time."