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Ex-Bears GM Jerry Vainisi says team has been in worse shape


For the Sun-Times

Several former players have said they can’t remember a time when fans were so down on the Bears.

Jerry Vainisi begs to differ. The only Bears general manager with a Super Bowl ring grew up in Rogers Park and offers much-needed historical perspective. Believe him when he says that as disappointing as this season has been, it’s not the nuclear winter many are making it out to be.

“There were more hopeless days back in the ’70s before Jim Finks became the general manager,” Vainisi said. “At that point, there wasn’t even an expectation of winning. I’ve been a Cubs fan all my life, too. Back then, the feeling was like the feeling around the Cubs the last two or three years. There was a resignation to losing.

“Today’s team has talent. Things haven’t clicked exactly right, but it’s nowhere near as desperate as it was then. This ship can be righted. It’s not a hopeless situation. Before Finks, it was a hopeless situation.”

Not that Vainisi spends a lot of time fretting about the Bears these days. Serving as the chairman and CEO of the Forest Park National Bank and Trust keeps him as busy as he wants to be. He spends summers and weekends at his Lake Geneva home with his family.

Vainisi joined the Bears as controller in 1972 and worked in the legal department and as club treasurer before founder George Halas, in one of his last official acts before his death, named him general manager in 1983. Vainisi, coach Mike Ditka and player personnel director Bill Tobin ran the football operations until Vainisi and the Bears parted ways in 1987.

“I’ll go to a couple of games a year, and I will watch the games on Sunday if I don’t have something else to do, but I don’t let football interfere with other interests that I might have, like going up to Lake Geneva, golfing or whatever,” said Vainisi, 73. “I try to keep abreast of what’s going on, but I’m not planning my day around watching a football game anymore.”

That’s not to say he doesn’t know how it feels to be hunkered down at team headquarters when it feels as if angry fans might storm the gates. Vainisi enjoyed as successful a run as any Bears GM but still has insight into what general manager Phil Emery and coach Marc Trestman have been experiencing during this season of discontent.

“What happens is there’s a resignation that something has to change because you can’t keep going on the way you’re going,” he said. “By the same token, management put a plan in place, and while it didn’t go according to plan, you have to re-evaluate the plan and what you’re doing to be successful, and then you have to decide whether to stick with it and tweak it or start over again. That’s between the general manager and the president of the team. The likelihood is, with the commitments they’ve made to [quarterback Jay] Cutler, they will stick to their original plan and work on making some player acquisitions and improving areas of weakness.”

Angry fans and pundits have been clamoring for the Bears to hire a football “czar,” or an experienced hand to run the football side of the business, which Vainisi believes is unnecessary given the current corporate structure.

“They have one in Phil Emery,” he said. “They’ve turned the whole football operation over to him. [President Ted] Phillips oversees the total operation. If they hire Bill Parcells, he isn’t going to oversee the entire operation. He’s going to oversee the football side, just like Emery is doing now and like Ron Wolf did and Ted Thompson now does in Green Bay.”

Vainisi will never forget his first meeting with Ditka after he was named general manager. It was a prelude to his favorite memory from his time with the Bears.

“I told him one of the things I really wanted to do was go into Dallas and beat the hell out of ‘America’s Team’ and have all those fans sitting on their hands in the third quarter totally silent,” Vainisi said. “The day we played the Cowboys, I remember a neighbor telling my wife that we’ll see what kind of team the Bears are today. He said it derogatorily. Then we went in there and beat them 44-0.”

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