Examining Jim McMahon’s claim that Mike Ditka bet on William Perry Super Bowl TD

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During a recent radio interview, Jim McMahon said coach Mike Ditka “probably” made a prop bet on William Perry scoring in the Super Bowl. | Chicago Sun-Times

Whether it’s the golf course or the card table, Mike Ditka has always enjoyed a friendly wager. But would the former Bears coach have risked money on a prop bet in Super Bowl XX? That’s what his old quarterback Jim McMahon claimed.

McMahon recently appeared on ESPN Las Vegas radio and was asked about a longtime gambling rumor that Ditka drove the odds up on the prop bet of William Perry scoring a Super Bowl touchdown, then went ahead and cashed in on it by inserting the Fridge into the game late in the third quarter for a score.

McMahon chuckled and said: “I think he made a bet. I’m not positive, but I know he likes to gamble. I’m sure he probably put some money down.”

Of course, the internet pounced.

The story fits nicely into a conspiracy theorist narrative as to why Ditka denied Walter Payton from getting a touchdown in his only Super Bowl.

It also goes with Ditka’s penchant for gambling. Heck, this wouldn’t be the only time Ditka bet during a game. Check out this story from 1997 when Ditka coached the Saints:

New Orleans Saints coach Mike Ditka will not be disciplined for a sideline bet he made with defensive coordinator Zaven Yaralian. Ditka was questioned by NFL headquarters last week after he and Yaralian were shown on television exchanging money on the sideline in the closing minutes of the Saints’ 13-10 victory at Oakland Nov. 9. Ditka also wrote a letter of apology to NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

The part of the rumor that doesn’t square, though, is how Ditka increased the odds on the prop bet. Legend has it Da Coach told the media before the Super Bowl that Fridge’s offensive exploits would be put on ice.

From an SB Nation story in 2013:

In the buildup to the game, Las Vegas sportsbooks looking to capitalize on the country’s fascination with the massive gap-toothed rookie had posted odds on whether Perry would score a touchdown. As Ditka publicly down-played Perry’s role, the odds soared to as high as 75 to 1, potentially earning bettors $750 in winnings for every ten dollars bet on Perry to score. Then the national media picked up the story, relishing another colorful hook associated with a team that had created their own music video mid-season. As the publicity flowed into Las Vegas, so did money. By kick-off the odds dropped to 2 to 1. Now a 10 dollar bet on Perry would only earn back 20 bucks.

William Perry spikes the ball after scoring in Super Bowl XX. | AP

William Perry spikes the ball after scoring in Super Bowl XX. | AP

As for Ditka downplaying the use of Perry to drive up the odds, we’re still searching the Chicago Sun-Times archives to find where he said that. And, why would he? No coach is going to reveal his offensive game plan prior to any game much less the Super Bowl. Regarding the odds, we found wildly disparate numbers. The ESPN radio host quoted 50-1. SB Nation says they went as high as 75-1 and fell to 2-1. In a story from Dan Pompei of the Chicago Sun-Times on the day after the Super Bowl, he quoted the odds at 12-1.

It seems McMahon’s Da Bet story has a few holes.

The most interesting part of the Perry prop bet, though, is how that one play changed the gambling industry. Until then, prop bets were an afterthought. Most people bet the spread and the over-under and that was it.

Vegas did take a bath on the Fridge touchdown, but the novelty of the bet spurred an interest that quickly took root and turned proposition wagers into an unimaginable revenue stream today.

From a 2016 Washington Post story:

Perry’s unlikely touchdown gave rise to a phenomenon that changed the way millions of Americans watch the Super Bowl. Americans will wager $4.2 billion on Super Bowl 50, according to the American Gaming Association’s projection, and it would be a conservative estimate that $1 billion will be risked on props — bets pertaining to specific outcomes within and surrounding the game other than the actual score or total number of points.

A few days after the game, Ditka defended the play-calling that kept Payton from scoring. “The only plays designed at the goal line were plays we thought would be best designed to score touchdowns,” he said. “We didn`t care who had the football.”

Perry said Ditka told him: “I made you a Super Bowl hero.”

In later years, Ditka expressed regret over not getting Payton a touchdown, even though the Hall of Famer had five chances from inside the 5-yard-line, two in the fourth quarter.

When Ditka received the Spirit of Sweetness Award from the Payton family in 2001, he said: “I can stand up here now and tell you the greatest regret I ever had was when Walter didn’t score a touchdown in the Super Bowl.”

As for McMahon, people seem to forget that he rushed for two touchdowns — both from inside the 2 — and one was an option-play that could have been pitched to Payton.

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