Sources close to the Bears say Ditka and vice-president of personnel Bill Tobin, who signed a four-year contract last year, have repeatedly urged McCaskey to build a year-round practice facility. Ditka and Tobin believe the Bears, one of the few northern NFL teams without such a facility, are at a competitive disadvantage from mid-November on because the grass practice fields in Lake Forest are frozen for most of the last month of the season. Working out on frozen ground throws off the players' timing and makes it difficult for them to maintain their concentration and conditioning.
When the harsh weather sets in, the Bears often don sneakers and bus 40 minutes to the Morton East High gym in Cicero or go to the nearby Lake Forest College gym. Last season, during the week before the game against Washington, Chicago had to use the college gym for what the coaches thought would be the Bears' best chance all week for an effective practice. But a power outage forced Chicago to practice in semidarkness, with the gym illuminated only by a skylight.
"Practice late in the season is very important, and a lot of times we get nothing out of our practices," said Ditka. "Players have so many clothes on, they look like the Michelin Man. You've got to put your team in the best possible position to win. I firmly believe that's why the 49ers have been so successful. They've created the best possible atmosphere to win."
After those remarks, Ditka opened discussions with McCaskey about Ditka's future with the Bears. When SI returned on July 18 to interview McCaskey, Ditka asked to sit in, saying he did not want a conflict to arise because of his desire for the practice facility. Ditka also said that his return would not be contingent on the Bears' building a new facility.
Ditka now seems to understand that McCaskey's driving ambition is to build a publicly financed 74,000-seat domed stadium on the Chicago lakefront. The initial proposal for the funding of a new stadium died in an Illinois legislative committee in June, but another financial plan will be submitted when the legislature returns for its fall session. McCaskey says the Bears eventually will have an all-weather facility, just as they will have an improved weight room and practice fields. He just doesn't know how soon. "Other teams have been improving their facilities, and we need to keep pace," said McCaskey. "We will. This is not going to be a bone of contention between Mike and me."
Until McCaskey decides whether to re-sign Ditka, speculation about the coach's future will grow with each eruption of Mount Ditka. Chicago is an unsettled team. It doesn't have a clear-cut No. 1 quarterback. Its defense, the league's second-ranked unit in 1988, tumbled to No. 25 last season. All the assistant coaches are in the last year of their contracts, which may be distracting.
"I want to see how we respond to the challenges," said McCaskey. "The Bears have always and will continue to stand for things. It's a tough team that never quits. I think Mike is a big part of that. We want to continue to be a championship team, and who can help us accomplish that? For my head coach, I think it's Mike Ditka. I wouldn't want to have anyone else."
McCaskey is not the only person in the Bears family who is willing to forgive and—at least temporarily—forget the nightmare of last November and December. The resolutions of the other lingering disagreements:
•The Greg Landry Incident. Ditka is impulsive, capable of jumping down your throat one minute and asking you about your golf game the next. This was one of those instances. Ditka says he "sincerely regrets" stripping Landry of his play-calling responsibilities in that game with the Rams. Landry, who was in his first full season as the Bears offensive coordinator, says the matter is forgotten. "I was upset," he says. "Two years ago [when Landry coached quarterbacks and receivers] Mike and I got along great. Last year we never seemed to be on the same page. But we sat down this off-season, and I think we're in agreement about the direction of the offense."
•The Donnell Woolford Bashing. In the debacle at RFK Stadium, Woolford was the target of Redskins quarterback Mark Rypien's self-proclaimed best game ever. Actually, Woolford covered well that day, something Ditka realized after he watched the films. Ditka says he regrets saying that Woolford "evidently can't cover anyone." The public dressing-down of a rookie who needs to be stroked is one example of what McCaskey wants Ditka to avoid this fall. "I've got it out of my mind now," says Woolford. "The things he said were untrue. I know it, he knows it. I feel if I do something wrong, just tell me and I'll work on it. When you talk about it publicly, it puts a player down. I really think that had something to do with our season." Woolford says he respects Ditka and will have no trouble playing for him.