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Peter King
July 30, 1990
Can Chicago icon Mike Ditka calmly return the Bears to prominence and win a new contract as coach?
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July 30, 1990

The Ditka Dilemma

Can Chicago icon Mike Ditka calmly return the Bears to prominence and win a new contract as coach?

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Think of a Pro Football marriage more famous today than that of the Chicago Bears and Mike Ditka. Montana-49ers? Not as enduring. Shula-Dolphins? Too low-key. Davis-Raiders? Now that's close. It has the same mystique, the airtight connection. But Al Davis, with his address changes and his court battles and his quarterbacking woes, has gone Garbo on us. Just hide, baby. Ditka opened his second Chicago restaurant in January, jumped on defensive end Richard Dent in March for being fat, portrayed himself on L.A. Law in May and hawked Iron Mike cologne as a Father's Day gift at Marshall Field's in June.

Now in July, he steps out onto the patio of his office at the Bears' Lake Forest, Ill., practice facility to cast a lordly eye over a dozen veterans running wind sprints on the field below. They run as a group, going hard but not killing themselves. When they line up and start again, all but one player, center Jay Hilgenberg, turns it up a notch. Hilgenberg finishes last, by about 15 yards. "I guess I was the only guy who didn't see him," says Hilgenberg. What the other 11 players had seen was the aura of Ditka and his eight-inch Royal Jamaican cigar reigning over them.

Now that we have established Ditka's hugeness in the minds of his players and NFL fans, there remains the question of his place in his own mind and in that of Bears management as he enters the final season of his three-year contract: Does Ditka, a personal favorite of Chicago's late owner, George Halas, want to continue coaching the Bears? And does Halas's grandson, club president Mike McCaskey, want Ditka to continue coaching the Bears? The answers are yes and probably.

McCaskey would turn the Chicago sports scene on its ear if he axed Ditka, who not only made five consecutive Pro Bowl appearances as a Bears tight end but also has an 84-45 record—including one Super Bowl championship and five NFC Central titles—in his eight years as the Bears coach. Still, there might be grounds for a divorce. Last fall America watched as Ditka, a year after having suffered a heart attack, went batty on the sideline. One Sunday he wrestled a game plan from offensive coordinator Greg Landry and called the plays himself. On others he mercilessly criticized young players in the locker room and in his postgame comments, although he later apologized. With four games left he publicly lambasted all the Bears, saying they probably wouldn't win another game—and they didn't. Ditka kept dropping hints that perhaps McCaskey should get somebody else to coach Chicago, which, after a 4-0 start, lost 10 of its last 12 games.

So McCaskey wonders, as the Bears officially open training camp this week in Platteville, Wis., whether he should commit to Ditka for 1991 and perhaps beyond. McCaskey makes it clear that he wants Ditka, 50, to continue coaching the Bears, that he thinks Ditka is "the right coach for the Bears of the '90s" and that he doesn't want the question of Ditka's status in '91 to hang over what is a very young Chicago team. But then McCaskey is not making a move to sign Ditka to a new contract, either. He watched Ditka, who generally has had a positive attitude around his team, become overly negative last year. The boss seems to be saying to himself, There shouldn't be a problem, but let's wait and see if the guy goes nuts again if we get off to a bad start.

"I'm looking forward to this year more than any year I've coached," says Ditka, rolling the cigar around in his mouth, "because it could be my last."

Ditka and McCaskey are saying all the right things now, and they believe them. But it is July, and the defense hasn't been shredded yet, the Jim Harbaugh-Mike Tomczak quarterback muddle hasn't exasperated anyone yet, the rookies haven't made rookie mistakes yet, and the Fridge hasn't hit 350 pounds yet. If recent Bears history teaches us anything, it is that all of these things will happen, and that Ditka will not react calmly to them. So McCaskey watches and waits.

This is not a Ditka vs. McCaskey conflict; it's more Ditka vs. Ditka. McCaskey was just another spectator when Ditka unraveled last season. As early as August, Ditka had said that the Bears "stunk." In October, after the Bears had lost to the Tampa Bay Bucs and the Houston Oilers in consecutive weeks, Ditka said the Bears were in "disarray." Two weeks later, almost a year to the day after the heart attack that had evoked from him a promise to be more mellow, Ditka blew up four times during a game against the L.A. Rams and in the second quarter stripped Landry of his play-calling duties for the remainder of the day. The topper came in Washington on Thanksgiving weekend. Chicago, which had never allowed more than 30 first downs in a game in its 70-year history, gave up 35 in the RFK Stadium muck as the Redskins won 38-14. Ditka said that the Bears' performance was "absolutely the worst exhibition of football I've ever seen," that Chicago was "an atrocious football team," that it would be "fortunate to win one game" the rest of the season and that rookie cornerback Donnell Woolford, a first-round draft pick, "evidently can't cover anybody."

For months it wasn't clear if McCaskey would have to make the tough decision on whether to renew Ditka's contract. Ditka's open concern about possibly being fired, his inability to remain mellow, and an impressive stint as a TV analyst during the playoffs made it appear that he was considering a career outside coaching. For months, Ditka didn't tell anyone if he even wanted to continue coaching after his contract ran out this season. Now he has. In a July 11 interview with SI, Ditka said he wants the job beyond this season. He also intimated that he would return only if the Bears made a commitment to building an indoor practice facility.

"I want to coach after this year," said Ditka. "I want to stay with the Bears. But I want the conditions to be right. I want to have a fighting chance to win. Sometimes you feel like things aren't all there that would give you that fighting chance. I feel when you put all the cards on the table here, we're not playing with a full deck."

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