Mike Ditka, the noted humorist, pitchman, restaurateur, actor, golfer, artificial-hip recipient, heart-attack survivor, Harley rider, product of the Pennsylvania steel-country up-by-the-bootstraps crucible, Hall of Fame tight end, and, oh yes, fired Chicago Bear football coach, takes a break from the gin game at his kitchen table to talk about life. "What are we really loyal to, we coaches?" he asks, tilting his great head like a bear peering into the forest. "To that eagle crapping twice a month."
Philosophy. It's what we have come to expect of this man who broke his right hand punching a file cabinet after a Bear defeat in 1983 and then inspired his team before the next game by saying, "Win one for Lefty." Who said in '86 that he couldn't yell at Chicago quarterback Doug Flutie because "it's like hollering at Bambi." Who said in '88 that Washington Redskin defensive end Dexter Manley had "the IQ of a grapefruit." Who said in '91, "I'm going to control my temper. You'll be so amazed, you'll think I'm Friar Tuck." Who said only a few minutes ago, "My next coaching job will be at the sandlot level. No money, just cigars."
The aforementioned eagle droppings, of course, are the paychecks Ditka and his coaching brethren covet. Ditka's view of his profession is cynical, even for a man who loves money so much that he has endorsed nearly every product from soup to antifreeze—but, in fact, for Ditka himself that view doesn't hold. Ditka, 53, is loyal to the Bears—whom he coached for 11 seasons and for whom he also played from 1961 to '66—the way a cow is loyal to hay. And he's loyal to his friends, to a fault. "He's so loyal," says a Bear insider, "he didn't even fire assistant coaches who were stabbing him in the back."
Indeed, that naive, bighearted loyalty, combined with an odd mix of toughness, simplicity, honesty, humor, unpredictability and plain nuttiness, turned Ditka last week into the most beloved victim in the history of Chicago sports beheadings. When Bear president and CEO Mike McCaskey tearfully told the public on Jan. 5 that he was letting Ditka go because there was "going to be a premium on fresh ideas and a new start," and when Ditka then tearfully bade Chicago fans adieu, saying, "I worry about how this organization is perceived," it seemed the city might melt with despair.
So what if the Bears had staggered to a 5-11 record this year, losing eight of their last nine games? Ditka's record with Chicago was a stellar 112-68, and in January 1986 he led the Bears to their only Super Bowl championship. Sure, the guy was a buffoon at times, but he was Chicago's buffoon. The city perceives McCaskey as a Yale-educated, bean-counting weasel who wouldn't know a goal line from a chorus line. Who had hired Ditka, anyway? George Halas, that's who. Papa Bear himself, a founder of the NFL. Yes, Halas was McCaskey's grandfather, but so what? Halas never anointed McCaskey the way he did Ditka by flying Ditka, then a young Dallas Cowboy special teams coach, to Chicago, sitting him down at the Halas kitchen table and asking him what his offensive and defensive philosophies were. "Coach, I don't know and you don't care," Ditka replied. "I just want to win." They inked the contract right there.
McCaskey didn't become CEO until Halas died nearly two years later, in 1983, and Chicagoans have always regarded McCaskey as an Ivy League starched shirt who lucked into this jewel of a franchise. The crudest media barb last week came from Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Verdi, who wrote, "On his deathbed, the old man whispered, please, not Michael."
The outpouring of grief and anger over Ditka's axing was such that McCaskey promptly hired bodyguards and stopped talking to the press. At Halas Hall, the Bears' headquarters in the suburb of Lake Forest, reporters sniffed out stories, coaches pointed fingers and lobbied for new jobs, and Chicago players came to pay their final respects to the man who recently said, "If you think this is going to be a——soap opera, you're full of——."
Of course, he was wrong. This was soap nearly strong enough to push Amy Fisher out of the newscasts. The day after the firing, Bear defensive coordinator Vince Tobin, upon being told that the NFL could only benefit from such giddy, gossipy entertainment, snapped, "I thought that's what the playoffs were for."
By last Thursday the contents of Ditka's office were boxed and ready to go. Ditka's 50th-birthday rocking chair sat in a corner, simmering under the inscription BEST WISHES FOR MANY MORE HAPPY SUCCESSFUL YEARS—MIKE MCCASKEY.
On Friday, Ditka sat placidly at his empty desk and puffed on a cigar. "I feel good," he said. "I'm not going to get into criticizing. Someday the story will come out. Someday, but not from me." He then reached into his pocket and pulled out a roll of cash. Fishing inside it, he produced a folded-up strip of newspaper. Then he said, "There's only one person I owe a debt to. This guy." The newsprint was unfolded to reveal a column in which the Tribune's Mike Royko referred to McCaskey nine times as a "weenie," twice as a "Twinkie" and once each as a "cupcake" and a "glorified bookkeeper."