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1985 Bears Coverage: Papa Bear returns in Mike Ditka

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.

Papa Bear returns in Mike Ditka

Kevin Lamb

Originally published Jan. 26, 1986

When George Halas hired his last Bear coach four years ago, he found a chip off the old block of granite. He hired Mike Ditka.

“I think Halas could see an awful lot of himself in Ditka,” says Ed McCaskey, the Bears’ board chairman and Halas’ son-in-law.

At the time, though, the choice was “a complete surprise,” McCaskey said.

“I never dreamed of Mike coming back. They weren’t the best of friends when he left the Bears. I think at the time, Halas was making a desperate, last-ditch effort to take control of the Bears back.”

It was met with raised eyebrows and stifled laughter. Ditka? He was considered the low man on Dallas’ coaching totem pole. He didn’t seem to use his head much unless it had a helmet.

Another ex-Bear, Denver assistant coach Stan Jones, said Halas’ taking control was like Orville Wright coming back to run United Airlines.

Four years later, it’s all so obvious. Now people pay more attention to what Ditka writes on clipboards than how far he throws them. Halas is dead, but Ditka has made his fondest dream come true. He has the Bears in the Super Bowl, today at 4 p.m. against New England.

Ditka and Halas even played the same position, although it was end instead of tight end in Halas’ day. They played it so recklessly, they needed the same hip replacement surgery later on.

Their similarities range from fiery tempers to coolly calculated showmanship, from inspirational pep talks to innovative chalk talks, from tough skin to soft hearts and sharp minds.

“Many of their sideline antics are similar,” McCaskey says. They’ve used the same exasperated gesture of outstretched arms. They even chew gum the same way.

Ditka said he was reluctant to wear a tie during games because people would say he was copying Dallas’ Tom Landry, but Landry wasn’t his first coach to wear a tie.

Halas was.

“It’s remarkable how many similarities they have as coaches,” McCaskey says.

No one is in a better position to compare. McCaskey had known Halas nearly 45 years.

Two differences come to mind. Ditka shakes the other coach’s hand after games; Halas shook only Vince Lombardi’s. And McCaskey says Ditka is a little calmer.

“The one thing they share more than anything else is the intensity,” McCaskey says. “When Ditka was a player, he had all the attributes of our defensive squad rather than an offensive player. He didn’t hesitate to grab guys at halftime, yell at them, bust up lockers and helmets. He may have a very worthy successor as a player in Mike Singletary.”

A longtime Cowboy observer remembers Ditka as the receivers coach six years ago, baiting the receivers as they finished wind sprints at the end of practice. He swore at them. He offered to fight them. When he played, he had done the same thing to teammates who didn’t meet his standards.

“Halas used to take a kid out of the game after he made a mistake,” McCaskey says. “He’d put his arm around him in a fatherly way. In the stands, it looked like he was encouraging the kid. All the while, he was blasting him unmercifully.”

That was Halas’ pep-talk technique, too. Before a game, McCaskey says, he would tell a player, “`I’d hate to think a man with your physical attributes is a coward.’ He used the word coward.”

Ditka takes the higher road in pep talks. “He’s quick to pat a guy on the back,” McCaskey says. Times have changed. Results have not.

“Mike gives impressive pre-game talks,” strength coach Clyde Emrich says. “After one of them, even the doctor started running toward the door.”

One of Ditka’s mid-season sermons to the press concerned the disturbing trend toward helping opponents off the ground during a game. Opponents are enemies for three hours on Sunday, he said. Halas felt the same way.

McCaskey recalls a game in San Francisco when the Bears were warned that anyone fighting would be thrown out of the game. Halas added he would tack on a $500 fine.

Two minutes into the game, Doug Atkins was kicked out for fighting. “Halas was waiting for him,” McCaskey says. “He started berating him. Then Doug said, `He kicked me. I wasn’t going to let him get away with that without belting him.’ And Halas told him, `You’re damn right, Doug. Nobody pushes us around.’ ”

The legend of their volcanic tempers and Halas’ pennypinching has obscured the tendency of Ditka and Halas to be pushovers, especially when it came to loyalty.

Ditka takes any opportunity to defend Halas’ reputation, pointing out the countless gifts he gave players who couldn’t beat him at contract negotiations.

People in the Bears’ office staff call Ditka a softie. He can’t say no to demands for his time. He might yell at a player Sunday, but he’ll apologize to the same player Monday if he was wrong, and in front of the team.

Last off-season, Ditka wanted to hire Greg Landry as a quarterback coach. The catch was, he had to fire someone to make room for him. An obvious choice was Jim Dooley, the quality control coach. But Halas had hired Dooley. Dooley stayed.

Halas and Ditka both mastered the diversionary crisis as a motivating technique, especially for big games. It takes pressure off the players and turns it toward a common foe or cause, real or imagined. It brings the team together, us against them.

“Halas would have spies in the stands,” McCaskey says. “He would make controversial remarks to the press. One time he did that and filled the Coliseum in Los Angeles. They had 86,000, an unheard-of crowd.

“On the road, people were always putting in phony fire alarms in the Bears’ hotels. He would question the food they served to us. Buses would be misrouted. All those things, George did.”

During the big build-up before the Miami game, Ditka pounded away at the theme that ABC-TV’s announcers didn’t like the Bears. During the playoffs, he circled the wagons around the Grabowskis tag, likening the Bears to downtrodden ethnics. He pounded away at the theme that the NFL office didn’t like the Bears.

“He had a twinkle in his eye when he did it,” McCaskey says. “I was afraid he might give himself away.

“When Halas was coaching, the league office was always taking unfair advantage of the Bears. He constantly pointed out fouls committed by other people while our little innocents were just doing their best to protect themselves.”

Ditka didn’t use William Perry in the backfield to create publicity waves. But once the show started, he kept it going. He had Perry catch a pass. He said he might have him throw a pass.

The same was true of this week’s flap over Jim McMahon’s acupuncturist. Ditka didn’t start it, but he stoked the fire. And who’s to say he didn’t suggest that McMahon start it?

The cornerstone of Halas’ football legend is his innovative strategy. “He wouldn’t hesitate to take the edge, use the gimmick,” McCaskey says. “Mike is much the same way. A glaring example is the way he used Perry.”

McCaskey recalls Halas’ using guard George Seals in the backfield, although without Perry’s success. He recalls Ed Sprinkle, a great blocking tight end in the days when tight ends did little else, catching a short touchdown pass that was no less shocking than Perry’s catch at Green Bay.

Ditka has used not only Perry in the backfield, but sprinter Willie Gault. He has had halfbacks pass to quarterbacks. He has the league’s best running game from the shotgun, a formation he had urged Landry to install at Dallas. “I think they have one of the best special-play packages in pro football,” says Patriots coach Raymond Berry.

Ditka’s mind is open. He asks questions fans would ask. What if? What if Perry played fullback? What if Walter Payton played quarterback? What if the first play of the Super Bowl were a halfback pass? Who knows?

Ditka has less unplowed ground to sow for grander innovations, such as Halas’ T-formation with men in motion 45 years ago. But the 46 defense is as radical now as Halas’ offense was then.

Sure, Ditka didn’t design the 46. Halas didn’t design the T-formation, either. An assistant coach nurtured it, and Halas
encouraged him, just as Ditka is doing with defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan. Both Halas and Ditka have been smart enough not to let their egos get in the way of coaching.

“I think I’m getting worse,” Ditka says of his coaching. “But how important is that? I really don’t care if I’m improving. We’re winning. That’s all that counts.

“I did care what people thought, the first year. I cared a whole lot. I had to show these fans and these sportswriters that I’m a genius. I can make guys go in motion and fumble the ball and line up in illegal procedure three times in a row. I had those plays down pat.

“I learned it’s not important. You’re not impressing anybody. You’re trying to win games.”

Whatever it takes. McCaskey says Ditka’s stormy relationship with McMahon reminds him of Ditka’s with Halas. Like Halas,
Ditka takes pride in harnessing the talents of eccentric people. As long as they want to win.

Ditka, Halas and McMahon all have been known to throw furniture when they lost. Ditka once made chair legs stick in a wall.

He doesn’t quit, either. One day in Dallas, Ditka was golfing when a sudden cold front dropped the wind chill below 20 degrees. He finished his round, leaning nearly 45 degrees into the wind. He played with injuries he says now he was crazy to play with, but he wouldn’t do it differently.

No one alive remembers the injuries Halas played with, but McCaskey remembers this story. “Bronko Nagurski swears it’s true,” he says. “He came to the sideline one game and said, `Coach, I think my leg is broken.’ Halas said, `Well, go back in and play, you big SOB, until you’re certain it is.’”

That’s the tradition Halas wanted to renew four years ago. Pride, perseverance and prosperity. Nobody understood it better than Ditka. He still wears his 1963 Bears NFL championship ring instead of two newer Super Bowl championship rings from Dallas.

He hopes to replace that ring after today. When he thinks about that, he can’t help thinking about Halas.

“You’ve just got to think how much this would have meant to him,” Ditka says. “Art Rooney got to see his Super Bowls at Pittsburgh.

“I think the most disappointing thing was the Bears went through an era when they weren’t even really respected. He saw how his once-proud Bears had fallen. I wish he could see this.”