1985 Bears Coverage: McCaskey loves job and game

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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.

McCaskey loves job and game

Kevin Lamb

Originally published Sept. 8, 1985

Michael McCaskey doesn’t smoke or swear, but he uses a Fuzzbuster in his Eldorado. He is a businessman whose path to the straight and narrow world of corporate pinstripes included a two-year detour to Ethiopia for the Peace Corps.

He is an understated Ph.D. from the soft world of academia who draws a hard line at the negotiating table. He is an Ivy Leaguer with the brick ancestry of George Halas, his grandfather.

Most of all, as the Bears’ president since November 1983, McCaskey represents a new wave of ownership philosophy at the same time he’s unashamedly steeped in tradition. That is the paradox that explains him


He couldn’t have arrived at a better time. From the White House on down, far-sighted leaders are lifting their eyes to the past. Modern is pass.

In 1983, the rest of the country was scrambling back to John Wayne values while the NFL was spending money as if it were printed on yellow, pink and blue bills. The banner of budgetary restraint was lying around, waiting for an enthusiastic MBA populist to pick it up and carry it.

McCaskey did. He became the prime spokesman for fiscal responsibility when it was a hotter football issue than the one-back offense or the bump-and-run defense. Among owners, he is an outsider with an agenda that is very much in. He may not infiltrate their inner circle, but he’ll probably move it.

“I think he’s going to be a very positive force in the NFL,” says Bill Tobin, the Bears’ personnel director. “Tex Schramm can’t run the league forever. Al Davis won’t be around forever. They need young, enthusiastic leadership.

“He may be stepping on some toes of the old, established leadership that always railroaded through the things it wanted. I don’t know that, but I hear some things on the road. `Why is that young guy shaking things up like that?’ ”

McCaskey quickly became influential in the NFL’s Long-Range Planning Committee. He couldn’t believe there were teams that didn’t make three-year financial forecasts. Now it’s a league rule.

He helped lead the move to trim four bodies of fat from 49-man rosters. He speaks out frequently on the need to base players’ pay on performance rather than draft status. He eagerly is exploring the possibility of a safer artificial turf.

Not quick to act

If McCaskey’s strong suit is creative ideas, its complementary weakness is decisive action. That’s why his impact has been stronger on the league than on his team.

As an inexperienced club president, his refreshing willingness to change is matched by a frustrating naivet. He is both a kid with a toy and a man with a plan.

He is still learning to run a team. McCaskey admits that. But he already has reshaped the Bears.

He has veered their direction onward and backward to their historical roots. It is not necessarily a stodgy course. Two of their legacies from Halas’ heyday happen to be winning and innovating.

Three of the four Bear changes attributable strictly to McCaskey have been bows to tradition. The other was installation of an in-house computer, a catch-up move where the Bears had lagged behind.

He restored the road uniform worn by the Monsters of the Midway in the 1940s. He returned the radio contract to WGN. And he renewed appreciation for the people his grandfather had solicited on sidewalks – the fans.

Oh, yes. Them. NFL teams had come to take the fans for granted during 15 years of routine sellouts.

As a recent football outsider, McCaskey says, “Maybe I have a livelier sense of just how important it is to do everything possible to treat them so they’ll come back, of how much competition there is for the fan’s attention and entertainment dollar.”

He established a fan advisory panel. He inaugurated Fan Appreciation Night. He gave Soldier Field the NFL’s first family section with reduced prices and no alcoholic beverages. He set up meetings with ticketholders.

He also raised sideline ticket prices two straight years, not an obvious gesture toward fan interest. But he says, “the fans want a winner. They’ve got to pay for it.” He promises fans won’t be charged upper-level NFL prices.

“We place their well-being right at the top of the list,” McCaskey says. “That’s where the size of the whole game is based. If they’re not coming to the ballpark, if they’re not watching on TV, then you’re back to sandlot ball.”

After all, McCaskey is the only club executive whose grandfather told him stories about when pro football was a sandlot game.

Halas had been dead 12 days when his only living child, Virginia McCaskey, appointed her oldest son to succeed him as president. She controls close to two-thirds of the club.

McCaskey, one month from his 40th birthday, inherited an organization in good repair. Jim Finks, in nine years as general manager, had assembled a solid foundation of capable workers in clearly differentiated jobs. In the three months since Finks’ resignation, his successor, Jerry Vainisi, had restored order from the confusion over where Finks’ authority ended and Halas’ began. Before McCaskey’s uncle Muggs Halas died in 1979, Tobin says, “The lines of authority were pretty clear. Finks had them all.”

McCaskey has them now, but he relies more heavily on the expertise of Vainisi, Tobin and coach Mike Ditka. Finks’ subordinates became McCaskey’s advisers.

When he moved into his office, McCaskey found recommendations to expand the scouting department, move training camp away from Lake Forest and build an indoor practice facility. Within a few months, he approved two extra scouts and a Wisconsin training camp. He also gave Tobin the title of personnel director, matching the duties Vainisi had given him.

Details. These were important decisions, thoroughly considered decisions, but as proprietor of the family business, McCaskey looked first to the big picture. After assuring the employes he wielded no hatchet, McCaskey says his first concern was “to begin to define and redefine who the Bears are.”

That project sounded like the inspiration of a philosophy major, as McCaskey was. But in practice, the players welcomed top management’s reinforcement of Ditka’s ongoing sermon that the Bears should be champions simply because they are the Bears.

“I think this organization is finally committed to winning from the top down,” Gary Fencik said.

McCaskey’s size-up

Aside from once and future champions, though, how does McCaskey define the Bears?

“As far as the football we play, being a tough, aggressive and smart team,” he says. “All three of those qualities have been a part of the proud tradition of the Bears and I think it’s the way in which we’re going to get to the Super Bowl.”

Fiscal responsibility, or in McCaskey’s words, “a prudent and businesslike management of resources.”

“Being opportunistic, taking calculated risks.” While the Bears may not have other teams’ financial resources, McCaskey says, “Our distinctive edge must be capable people working together to find new and better ways to do things.”

“Concern for the growth and strength of the league as a whole,” which always was Halas’ priority even as he worked to dominate the league.

McCaskey would not be running a pro football team if his family didn’t own one. He acknowledges that, but says it is beside the point. “It had to be someone from the family,” he says.

Although he lacks experience in running the team, McCaskey has lived with it all his life. He was 1 when he went to his first game. He started going to training camps when he was 8.

McCaskey also brought management training to the job. After going to Yale, where he was a varsity wide receiver, and Ethiopia, where he was a teacher, he did graduate work in business at Chicago, Harvard and Case Western Reserve. He taught business at UCLA and Harvard, where his work as a consultant developed into a full-time business in 1982.

Consulting can be dangerous training, McCaskey acknowledges, if the consultant doesn’t “have to deal with the consequences.” But he preferred long-term relationships. If his advice helped bring the roof down, he was going to be under it, too.

Still, he wasn’t responsible. He didn’t have to put ideas into practice. As a CEO himself now, he says, “The biggest difference is like diving into Lake Michigan. It’s a refreshing snap. It’s cold and invigorating.”

Intellectual approach

He remains a philosopher, a brainstormer, a planner. The book he published in 1982 was subtitled “Managing Change and Ambiguity,” an appreciation of the gray areas so many managers eagerly reduce to black and white.

“He’s made people who’ve been in football for years step back and look at it a little bit,” Tobin says.

“He has a keen interest in establishing a program which will serve the Bears well over the long haul,” says Vainisi, “and principles which will have the Bears a perennial contending team while also run on a sound fiscal basis.”

Say what? Pro football’s two bottom lines, the standings and the ledger book, usually are considered to be at odds with each other.

Not necessarily, says Vainisi. First, he says, squandering money on unimportant things won’t leave enough for the things that help teams win. The trick is knowing which is which.

“If you have the long-term interest as the basis for making decisions, that makes conflicting interests easier to justify,” Vainisi says. Reducing the roster, for example, will help in the ledger book more than hurt in the standings, so McCaskey is for it.

McCaskey has a teacher’s respect for research. It is what makes him stronger on long-range planning than on occasions demanding quick decisions.

Contract negotiations, for example. A willing agent at 2 p.m. can be intractable by 3. For a while in training camp, when McCaskey was closely involved in two of the eight holdouts’ negotiations, he was unreachable at a seminar.

Collective bargaining preparations, on the other hand, require careful thought. McCaskey has given a lot of it to what he calls “a better way of dividing up the economic pie.”

He wants 30 percent of the Bears’ payroll to be contingent on individual and team performance. The league average is closer to 15 percent, so he’ll have to buttonhole other owners to keep the Bears’ unconditional payroll from lagging.

He calls the current system “out of whack,” allowing rookies to make more money than veterans because they were drafted high.

Unlike most new CEOs, the president of an NFL team has to take his icy plunge and do his shivering in public. The glare in the fishbowl has been as big a problem for McCaskey as the occasional urgency, and the two together have embarrassed the Bears.

They were caught in lies last year when they left their mascot home from the NFC championship game; when they shielded Jim McMahon’s doctor from reporters, and when they signed Greg Landry.

McCaskey himself appeared hopelessly naive when he suggested the Bears’ scouting department would outfox the league now that it had grown from two people to four, still very low by NFL standards.

He miscalculated the sincerity of Mike Singletary’s unhappiness with his contract. Instead of satisfying him quietly before training camp, the Bears let him hold out. That way, they had to respond to his demands, not his good play.

The team miscalculated the seriousness of Jim McMahon’s injury, believing its own propaganda that he would return in December even though it had a medical report to the contrary.

McCaskey’s most serious miscalculation, involving both urgency and the public glare, was letting the question of Ditka’s expiring contract linger all season. That created an avoidable distraction. At worst, if the Bears had started slowly, it could have undermined the coach’s authority at the time he needed it most.

McCaskey sincerely believed he could hold off questions about Ditka’s future simply by tabling the matter until the season ended. It surprised him that media, fans and even Ditka naturally interpreted his inaction as a lack of confidence.

“I was surprised,” he says, “that the media in general – having heard that by mutual agreement Ditka and I weren’t going to do anything until the season was over – now thought it was a week-to-week open

question, and that surely I must be deciding yes or no and why wouldn’t I tell them? Week to week was precisely the wrong way to decide such an important issue, and having said we’ll wait till the end of the season, it made the most sense just to stick with it.”

For all McCaskey’s sensitivity to fans, he forgot they were the people who put NFL teams under more scrutiny than other businesses. It was a fan’s question, not a reporter’s, that brought Ditka’s frustration to the surface.

Ditka bears no obvious resentment, but he and McCaskey never will be fast friends. They don’t have to be, they both say. In fact, McCaskey says their differences in background and temperament are “terrifically good for the Bears.”

McCaskey welcomes differences. Within the Bears’ coaching staff, he says, “There ought to be disagreements. There ought to be strong feelings. Because that shows people really care about having the best team we possibly can.

“If we’re going to be opportunistic and take that calculated risk of choosing William Perry – and we had some disagreements in that draft room – then I become terribly unhappy if there aren’t disagreements.”

McCaskey and Vainisi, in fact, favored passing on Perry. McCaskey made the final decision. But he listened to the case Tobin and Ditka made for Perry, weighed its merits and their conviction, and drafted

Perry in the first round.

“I think my demeanor and my way of doing things includes a very large chunk of: `Hey, I’ve got a lot to learn,’ ” McCaskey says. He’s an eager student.

Before appointing Tobin, McCaskey asked him for reports on scouting philosophy, how he would structure the scouting department, how he would prepare for the draft and how other NFL teams scout and

draft. He goes to scouting combine meetings to learn the personnel ropes. He sits in on assistant coaches’ meetings to see how they’re teaching.

“He’s not interfering with the way we do things,” Tobin says. “He may ask questions. He may make suggestions. But he doesn’t interfere.”

McCaskey’s interest can become overbearing. Suggestions from the boss aren’t always easy to interpret as suggestions. Sometimes they’re outrageous. Sometimes they leave department heads shaking their heads.

That’s going to happen when the boss is learning a technical and peculiar business. It’s going to happen when the boss won’t tolerate doing things because they were always done that way. And it’s going to happen when the boss’ new business is a game he always loved.

“He has a good time,” Fencik says. “He likes to stand on the sideline in the first quarter. I think he really enjoys feeling the mood of the game.”

Games are payoff

It is easy, in the boardrooms of 1980s teams, to forget the games are the reward for putting up with a gents, medical reports, lawsuits and TV numbers. Although pe ripheral issues command most of his time, McCaskey can’t see why the public would care about them. To him, the game’s the thing.

Among his most vivid memories of Halas is the Wiffle Ball or football games he would join in the McCaskey side yard. “That was the thing that really animated him,” McCaskey says. It animates his grandson as well. McCaskey is tireless in espousing the values and excitement of pro football.

“I think part of why my grandfather loved sports,” McCaskey says, “was that sense of everybody’s playing on the same field and it’s equal. It came to be his way of looking at life and living. To play very aggressively. Don’t play dirty, but play as hard as possible.”

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