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Later that day Tobin distributed a press release to reporters gathered at Halas Hall, announcing that he had withdrawn his name as a candidate "for the club's vacant head-coaching position." His reason, he explained, was that those same writers had portrayed him as a McCaskeyite and a Ditka-undercutter who was unfit for the job. He was pulling his name to avoid further public condemnation of both himself and his brother Bill, the Bears' vice-president of player personnel, who had been accused by USA Today of chopping Ditka "low" while McCaskey got him "high."
Did Ditka's firing have only to do with losing? Tobin was asked. "I don't know what it has to do with," he replied testily. "You're trying to get into something deep and philosophical, which is out of my realm of expertise."
Was this not better than General Hospital'? Mostly what folks around Chicago objected to was the way in which Ditka had been fired—being forced to twist in the wind for nine days after the Bears' final game while McCaskey fiddled about, saying nothing. In truth, there was a point during the season when Ditka probably could have been canned without much uproar. It was on Oct. 4, when he screamed at quarterback Jim Harbaugh on the sideline after Harbaugh had thrown an interception that was returned for a touchdown by the Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings would come from 20 points down to win 21-20, and Ditka was seen as the bad guy, the one whose short fuse was scary, destructive and uncontrollable. When Ditka's former Bear teammate Ed O'Bradovich (whose daughter is married to Ditka's son) criticized Ditka for his behavior and Ditka responded by saying that having O'Bradovich introduce him at his Hall of Fame induction was "the biggest mistake I ever made," Chicagoans were stunned. Chicagoans believe in roots and friendship. This was Ditka's nadir.
But then, slowly, perceptions changed. The Bears kept losing; people saw that the talent closet was empty; and folks realized that maybe there are worse things than screaming at a quarterback who had audibled after being told not to, or than arguing with your best friend. Ditka, the regular guy, had come back to his place.
Nobody likes owners; that feeling is intensified in McCaskey's case because he is thought to be cheap. Still, he has managed the Bears well on limited funds—Chicago has had only two losing seasons since he took over—and he knows that times are changing in the NFL. Ditka wanted more control over player acquisition; McCaskey wants only to survive the coming free-agent tumult. With the firing, McCaskey has finally swept clean the last vestiges of the Halas era. Now the Bears are truly his, for good or ill. The merciless criticism has genuinely hurt McCaskey, but as he says, "It's too early for me to explain to fans everything I'm doing. Talking now is like shouting in the wind. There's a natural grieving period that must go on."
And so Chicagoans mourn a man who does not need it, a wealthy man who has become a symbol of something he has not been for a very long time: a common working stiff. Says Ditka, "That's bull. I'm no symbol. I'm just me. Just a guy going through life."
Precisely. Which is why the more he fumbles about, gets upset, makes mistakes, lashes out, contradicts himself, the more people love him. Two days after United Airlines, which is based in Chicago, announced that it would lay off 2,800 employees, fans at the last Mike Ditka Show on WBBM-TV openly wept over this one man's fate.
It's true, as they say, that life occurs first as tragedy, then as a skit on Saturday Night Live. Several hours before his gin game, Ditka had taped, down in his basement, his bit for that night's SNL, and now he is explaining the premise of the skit. "I call NASA to become an astronaut," he says. "Because I'm out of this world, I guess. Hope it's funny." He smiles, shrugs and limps back into the kitchen to rejoin his gin buddies.
The show comes on later, and Ditka, on tape, is the star of the opening segment.
"Ditka is like the sun," says Saturday Night Live-Super Fan George Wendt. "Only smarter."