Trying to come to grips with the McCaskeys’ hold on the Bears

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Bears chairman George McCaskey talks with reporters after an end-of-season news conference Wednesday. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

I’ve been trying to put myself in George McCaskey’s loafers. Actually, I’ve been trying to put myself in the entire McCaskey family’s shoes, heels included.

Ever since the Bears chairman told WSCR-AM on Thursday that the family has no intention of selling the team and that there’s no price that would change its mind, I’ve been pondering the fervent hold the institution has on a clan that doesn’t seem suited to running it. One imagines the von Trapps producing an Anthrax album.

This is more than a sports team to the McCaskeys. In fact, an argument can be made that it’s everything but a sports team to the McCaskeys. It’s a moneymaker, a charitable vehicle for all sorts of good causes and a deeply personal family business. Most of all, it’s a legacy, an heirloom, and copious amounts of McCaskey energy goes into keeping alive the memory of founder George Halas.

That means uniforms with the GSH patch in honor of Halas. That means not being able to take a step inside or outside Halas Hall without being reminded he helped form the NFL in 1920. Much of it is fine stuff, one hand from the present reaching out to grasp a hand from the past.

But at the professional level, the only thing that matters is winning. The rest of it is filler. Halas knew this. The man who won six NFL titles as Bears coach and lost in the championship game three other times surely would prefer victories over sentiment, were he still alive.

The last time the Bears won a Super Bowl was 1985, and that team had direct ties to Halas. General manager Jim Finks, hired in 1974 by Halas’ son, Mugs, built much of the roster, and Mike Ditka, whom Halas handpicked, was the head coach.

When Halas died in 1983, his daughter, Virginia, took over as majority owner, and since then, the team has been in McCaskey hands. George, one of her sons, is running the Bears now. In the past 25 years, they have been to the playoffs just five times. If that’s Halas’ legacy, he wouldn’t recognize it. In a 44-year span with him as owner or coach, his teams won eight titles.

What if you ran a corporation worth an estimated $2.45 billion that churned out a product, football, for which you had little aptitude? Would you have the self-awareness to ask yourself if you had any business owning a professional sports franchise? When you continued to hire the wrong people for the franchise’s most important jobs, would it occur to you that you need better help than the kind you’re getting?

I made fun of the McCaskeys when they hired a consultant in 2001 to help them find general manager Jerry Angelo, who worked for the Buccaneers, then in the same division as the Bears. Nice detective work, I thought. At the time, I had been under the misguided notion that growing up in a family business should lead to an expertise in it. The years went on, and it became more apparent the McCaskeys needed an intervention.

It’s one thing to be inept about the business of winning football games. It’s another to not be able to hire the right people to do what you yourself can’t do. I know to call someone when my refrigerator stops working. The McCaskeys? They can’t figure out why the milk has gone sour.

The Bears are sort of rebuilding because sort of rebuilding is what you do in the NFL. There’s no time or stomach for a five-year, Cubs-like rebuild. The Bears say the arrow is pointing up under general manager Ryan Pace and coach John Fox, who are 9-23 in two seasons. Who knows, maybe it is. But these are dark times. To find a historical comparison for what has happened under Fox and before him Marc Trestman, you’d have to go back to Jim Dooley and Abe Gibron. And nobody wants to do that, not even the history-steeped McCaskeys.

There are long-standing rumors that once Virginia McCaskey’s grandchildren have a say, the Bears will be for sale, but George McCaskey’s comments Thursday seemed to bury that possibility. It’s the McCaskey’s team to do with as they please. I just wish it would please them to build a winner.

These seem to be kind, decent people. They do good work in the community. But George Halas’ legacy says that the Bears should be a lot better than they are on the football field, the only place that matters.

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