Though he grew up a part of Chicago royalty as the eldest grandson of Bears founder George Halas, the timing of Michael McCaskey’s ascension to the Bears’ throne was a blessing and a curse.
McCaskey, who died at 76 on Saturday after a lengthy battle with cancer, had the unenviable task of following the ultimate National Football League giant when he became the Bears’ president and CEO after Halas’ death in 1983.
The massive shoes of one of the NFL’s founding fathers would be impossible to fill — McCaskey wasn’t groomed for the job; he owned a management consultant business outside of Boston when he took over the Bears in 1983. But at the same time, two of Halas’ best moves in his 60-plus years as the Bears’ owner — hiring Jim Finks as general manager in 1974 and hiring Mike Ditka as coach in 1982 — were bearing fruit that would put McCaskey in position to reap the franchise’s greatest reward of the post-merger era.
In 1985, the Bears ran roughshod over the NFL with a team that was the antithesis of the Yale-educated McCaskey — brash and loud, with a love of the spotlight and an insatiable appetite for recognition. The Bears went 15-1 in the regular season and dominated the postseason, including a 46-10 victory over the Patriots in Super Bowl XX.
And the Lombardi Trophy went to -McCaskey, who relished the moment. It would prove to be his highlight as Bears president and CEO, along with winning the NFL’s Executive of the Year Award that season.
Unfortunately for McCaskey, sustaining that level of excellence would be elusive. Without Finks, who had resigned in August 1983, the Bears struggled to replenish talent, the Ditka era petered out and McCaskey, despite his business acumen, lacked the football intuition to stem the downward spiral.
It came to a head in 1999, after Dave Wannstedt, Ditka’s successor, was fired after six seasons following a 4-12 record in 1998. In January, McCaskey called a news conference to announce the hiring of former Bears assistant coach Dave McGinnis to replace Wannstedt. But McCaskey had jumped the gun, announcing McGinnis’ -hiring before the sides had agreed on a contract.
McGinnis balked at terms of the deal, was miffed about the irregular process and turned down the job, forcing the Bears to cancel the news conference. The Bears scrambled to hire Dick Jauron the next day, but the embarrassment of the McGinnis episode would have repercussions.
Three weeks later, Virginia Halas McCaskey replaced her eldest son as president and CEO with Ted Phillips, the Bears’ vice president of operations, who previously handled contract negotiations. McCaskey was named the chairman of the board, replacing his father, Ed McCaskey. Michael served in that role until 2011, co-founding Bears Care — the team’s charitable foundation — in 2005 among his accomplishments.
As the McCaskey family noted in a statement released by the team, Michael McCaskey “was already successful in every sense of the word when he took over for George S. Halas after the passing of ‘Papa Bear’ in 1983.” He spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer. He earned a doctorate in business from Case Western Reserve. He taught at UCLA and was an associate professor at the Harvard Business School. And he was active in several philanthropic ventures in Chicago.
“We are grateful to Mike for overseeing arguably the greatest team in NFL history and for his many years of service to the Bears and to us,” the McCaskey family said. “The oldest of 11 siblings has many duties thrust upon him, not all of them pleasant, yet Mike handled them all with grace and patience.”
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was among those who paid tribute to McCaskey, calling him “a calm and sound voice in league meetings” and crediting him as “a driving force in growing the NFL’s international footprint with the first American Bowl game in London featuring the Bears and Dallas Cowboy in 1986.’’
“Michael McCaskey proudly carried forth the legacy of his grandfather and NFL pioneer George Halas as team president and chairman and played an instrumental role in the success and popularity of the Bears,” Goodell said in his statement. “The Bears’ memorable 1985 season and their Super Bowl XX victory helped further propel the NFL onto a global stage. . . . We extend our deepest sympathies to Michael’s children, Kathryn and John; his mother, Virginia, and the entire McCaskey family; and the Bears organization.”