1985 Bears Coverage: No end to Ditka’s being Bear at heart

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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.

No end to Ditka’s being Bear at heart

Kevin Lamb

Originally published Nov. 15, 1985

Mike Ditka can’t understand all the fuss over his going back to Dallas for the Bears’ game Sunday. “It’s silly,” he says. “More is being made of that than when I came here.”

That was four years ago, when Ditka became the Bears’ coach. That was when Ditka came home.

He’s a Bear. Always was, always will be. He played and coached 13 years under Tom Landry at Dallas, but even then, Ditka says, Landry often told him he really was a Bear.

“He was tough,” Landry says. “He was one of the great tight ends I’ve ever seen because he was tough. His toughness brought a lot to our coaching staff, too.”

When Ditka came out of the University of Pittsburgh in 1961, the only places he wanted to play were Pittsburgh and Chicago. Tough places. Dallas hasn’t been that kind of place since the last cattle rustler dangled from a tree limb.

Ditka identified with people who had dirty fingernails and calloused fingertips. Even now, he says those are the people who best identify with the Bears. He mentions several steel towns. “Good work areas, where people know what it’s all about,” he says.

They’re people who know hard work means moving something heavier than sheets of paper and cups of coffee from one place to another. They’re people more comfortable with grime than glitter, with hard hitting than high tech.

“That’s the kind of player I was,” Ditka says. “I wasn’t too fancy.”

The word Ditka uses, instead of tough, is “basic.” He uses it in a self-deprecating but not apologetic way. You work hard, you make money, you eat. That’s basic.

You knock over the man in front of you, you move the ball, you win. That’s basic, too. If you can trick the man in front of you instead of knocking him over, that’s OK, too.

Basic doesn’t mean unimaginative. Basic means respect for what’s important. It’s the mark of a smart man to reduce a complex game to its basics, to the bottom line of beating the guys in front of you.

“There are coaches that sometimes make the game harder than it is,” Ditka says. “It’s not that hard. If you’ve got good people and you believe in what you’re doing, give them a chance to do it.

“If I didn’t believe in that totally, I’m believing it more and more. It’s what they’re doing on the field, not what you’re doing on the sideline.”

It’s the players who win. That’s basic, too, but coaches do forget it. Landry forgets it. As he often says, it was Ditka who reminded him a coach has to “rely on the player to get the job done.”

Ditka wasn’t in great demand four years ago, when he was Landry’s top assistant in the passing game. “As I vaguely remember, I wasn’t getting Christmas presents from the other 27 teams,” he says with a smile.

The only team that wanted him was the Bears. It was George Halas’ last chance to put his team in the hands of a real Bear. That was enough for Ditka. Coming back to coach the Bears, he said, was “the fulfillment of a dream.”

“That’s all I wanted to do,” he says now. “I always thought it was important when I played with the Bears. The first time I ever put the jersey on, I felt pretty good, and the last time, I felt pretty bad.”

The Bears weren’t the first team to bring back an old playing hero to lift the franchise from the ashheap. The Packers have tried it with Bart Starr and Forrest Gregg, the Lions with Joe Schmidt, the Giants with Alex Webster. It rarely works.

“I think there was a lot of wishful thinking,” Ditka says of the fans’ response to his return.

“It takes time to build a good team,” Landry says. “Being a head coach is a little different than being an assistant. They mature in that position, or they have to get out of it.”

It was the first time Ditka couldn’t do his job better just by doing it harder. As a player, he had taken every game personally. He considered it an insult to be beaten by the guy across from him, and he wasn’t insulted often.

As a coach, he couldn’t do that. It was the players who won or lost. Ditka’s players lost 13 of his first 19 games.

“My expectations were too high early,” he says. He was impatient. In his second year, he made some bad changes at quarterback and broke his hand hitting a locker in defeat. He was frustrated, and there was no guy across from him to beat up.

Ditka says he learned not to take games personally late in his second season, when the Bears won five of their last six. But he may not have learned it entirely until his first game against Dallas, which the Bears lost 23-14 at home last year.

“I think he would love to beat us,” Landry says. “He’s got a lot of pride. He came out of our organization and he wants to show us he learned something here.”

He wanted it too much last year. “I got uptight,” Ditka says. “I choked.”

In showing off his passing game, he neglected the running game that gained ground with the ease of a marching band.

He says it’s different now.

“They know what color our uniforms are now. I don’t imagine that we’ll try to impress any of their people with any trick plays. We may not even have William Perry in the backfield. We’ll probably go with basic football and try to get out of there alive.”

Ditka jokes at the line that some coaches think too much. “I could never be accused of that,” he says. He’s too basic.

His offense is similar to Dallas’, with men in motion, multiple formations and trick plays. But it differs in two ways. Ditka is more inclined to run the ball down a team’s throat, and to keep repeating

the same play.

“If I find something working like I did in San Francisco, we used it about nine times in the fourth quarter. You have to do those things.

“First of all, our guys get a lot of confidence. They get excited when they run the ball and it works. They want to keep coming back to it.”

Ditka says he used to argue with Landry, “Why do you always assume that the defense always knows what we’re going to do? Why do we assume they can stop anything before they stop it? So what if they’re ready for it? They’ve still got to stop it.

“That’s like if we put a reverse pass to Walter Payton in one week, we usually won’t carry it the next week. It’s foolish. The next week you should open the game with it.

“Sameness isn’t good unless it’s working. But when it’s working, it’s real good. Even in ’63, we did the same things over and over.”

The references to 1963, the Bears’ last championship season, don’t come so often now. Finally, the Bears’ future looks as bright as the past.

But when Ditka returned, it was important to remind the players their team hadn’t always been a doormat. “We needed pride in this organization,” safety Gary Fencik says.

Ditka gave it to them. He told them how 28 teams issued paychecks, but only one issued the Bear uniform. It was special, he said. They began believing him.

They began winning. If Ditka has mellowed, that’s the main reason.

“I think he’s really come to trust the players,” Fencik says. “They’ve come to accept the responsibility to do what it takes to go to the Super Bowl.”

Ditka has stocked the Bears with his kind of player. “Any guy that’s tough, aggressive, is not going to give up,” he says. “I don’t mind bitching. That’s life. Everybody bitches. I just don’t like guys that are taking shortcuts.

“I just want a guy who’s a stand-up guy, who’ll play as hard as he can. He doesn’t have to be fancy or cute.”

The coach who is proud of Chicago has seen Chicago return the compliment, itching to carry him on its big shoulders. Ditka could be the city’s first Republican mayor in eons if he wanted. He would rather be the Bears’ only five-year head coach besides Halas.

“I want to win,” he says. “It’s the only thing I want to do.”

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