Every day of the 2015 Chicago Bears season, Chicago Sun-Times Sports will revisit its coverage 30 years ago during the 1985 Bears’ run to a Super Bowl title.
Landry, Ditka odd couple in close rapport
Originally published Nov. 15, 1985
DALLAS – Tom Landry doesn’t curse or punch inanimate objects or get arrested for drunk driving or throw clipboards or shout or, except under extreme provocation, smile.
Mike Ditka has been known to do all of the above and therein lies a tale.
Landry brought Ditka to the Dallas Cowboys when his playing career was all but over and sent him to the Super Bowl.
He hired Ditka as an assistant coach at a time when few people ever considered the possibility of putting the words “Ditka” and “coach” together in the same sentence.
He sent him on to become head coach of the Bears at a time when the Chicago franchise was in disarray and there was a lot of money to be made in a wager that Ditka’s tenure would not be difficult, noisy and short.
Everywhere Ditka has turned at key moments after he stopped playing for the Bears, it seems, he has bumped into the imposing, impassive figure of Landry. He will do it again on Sunday.
What is fascinating about the long relationship between Landry and Ditka – and about the affection the mentor expresses for his former pupil – is that outwardly they are so different. Inwardly, too.
Where Landry has become a legend for his ability to maintain a stoic calm in the midst of chaos, Ditka draws all eyes to him in expectation of the next explosion.
Where football fans wait in vain for Landry, just once, to lose his temper in public, they wonder how long Ditka will be able to make good on his professed vow to keep his emotions from boiling over.
Ditka has come a long way in this regard, Landry says. But then, he had a long way to come.
“His lifestyle and his basic personality were probably in conflict with me,” Landry said yesterday as he sat in his office during a break in the Cowboys’ preparations for their game with the Bears.
“He wasn’t averse to voicing four-letter words when he wanted to. He was out of touch with me at that time. We weren’t on the same wave length at certain times.”
Yet Landry saw in Ditka something that he respected and needed.
As a player, it was a veteran willing to punish himself to get into shape and provide one of the missing links the Cowboys needed to win their Super Bowl.
Landry veils toughness
As a coach, it was this same quality of toughness, something that Landry has always kept under wraps in himself.
“Mike was at the end of his career,” Landry said of the moment in 1969 when the Cowboys acquired him as a player. “He really had lost his legs. The question was whether he would be able to play any more. He was so slow. There was a question of whether his legs would be able to respond.
“But we put him on a strong weight-lifting program – that was a new thing then – and he remade his legs. He worked hard. It reaffirms that the older you get, the harder you have to work.”
If Landry had questions about taking on Ditka as a player, he also had to wonder about the wisdom of adding him to his coaching staff.
“I had reservations,” he said. “But we had an opening and he’d learned our system and learned it well. I’m looking at it right now, in fact. The philosophy the Bears use offensively is basically our philosophy. He’s made some changes, but the multiple set formations are ours.”
It would be going too far to say Ditka’s mellowing began as soon as he traded in his shoulder pads for a swivel chair. It was as a member of Landry’s staff that he perfected his clipboard throwing for distance technique and where he laid waste to more than one balky copying machine.
“It was always interesting playing tennis with him,” Landry said. “At least it was as long as his racket lasted.”
But in Landry’s scheme of things, the Ditka temperament was of no great importance.
“I get along with most everybody,” Landry said. “I had no trouble getting along with Mike. The problem was minor. If it was big, he wouldn’t have coached for me.”
And once again, the relationship was a fruitful one, lasting nine years as Ditka moved from coaching special teams to wide receivers to running the offense.
“He complemented my personality and style,” Landry said. “He was so hard-nosed, so tough. It was a toughness of style. I can be tough, too, but I was more concerned with the details of what needed to be done. But he showed it. He showed the toughness. That’s what impresses you about Mike. He wouldn’t give up.”
The only time Landry did not have any doubts about Ditka was when he returned to Chicago. By then, Ditka had rediscovered his religious faith and Landry could see he had learned the hardest lesson of all – how to master himself.
“I really didn’t have any reservations,” Landry said. “I knew he had to make a change if he wanted to be a head coach and he did change. Mike would have to tell you about this himself, but only Christ can change somebody as radically as Mike changed.
“I was glad to see him make the transition he made when he was with us. I knew he had acquired the knowledge and had corrected the personality part of it. He had the experience and the wisdom. He just needed the players.”
Fortunately for Ditka, they were waiting for him in Chicago.
“The Bears were a very strong defensive team at the time he took over,” Landry said. “And of course they had Walter Payton. He’s almost a football team in himself. But they didn’t have the people to complement him and Mike went out and got them – the Gaults, the Suheys, the McMahons.”
Come Sunday, Landry and Ditka will get together again and let’s not be too surprised if a few similarities remain.
“He’s still a tough competitor,” said the teacher of the student who so desperately wants to beat him, “and it will blow up once in a while.”