LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Mike Ditka's days as coach of the Chicago Bears continued to appear numbered yesterday when club president Michael McCaskey again stonewalled the issue.
With media encircling Halas Hall in Lake Forest like vultures, Ditka and McCaskey arrived at their offices within a half-hour of each other, 7:25 a.m. and 7:55 a.m., and never spoke.
McCaskey got a microphone stuck in his car door when he left at 1:30 p.m., but would offer no words to resolve a story that has taken on a life of its own.
"I was led to believe clearly we would talk, and we didn't," Ditka said after leaving at 3:30 p.m. for his radio show on WSCR.
Through a spokesman, McCaskey said he hoped to make an announcement before the end of the week.
Only two weeks ago, the concept of firing one of America's unique sports figures was shocking. Now, it is a topic of such constant discussion that it seems a foregone conclusion. If McCaskey's coyness is intended to soften the blow, he has succeeded brilliantly.
Ditka himself sounds resigned to a fate beyond Chicago.
"I am prepared for the best, and I am prepared for the worst," Ditka said on Sunday night on WBBM-TV.
Stories are written not only naming possible successors, but speculating on how their methods might differ from Ditka's. Pros and cons of the post-Ditka Bears already have been argued -- all without McCaskey's saying a word. Soon, McCaskey will be hailed for making any decision rather than blamed for delaying one.
That decision could be announced today before McCaskey leaves for an NFL owners meeting tomorrow in Dallas on the league's labor situation. Before he returns, Ditka is scheduled to make an appearance in Los Angeles.
Ditka said yesterday he understood he was supposed to meet with McCaskey upon his return from vacation. Instead, McCaskey met individually with some assistant coaches, who provided McCaskey with evaluations of the personnel attheir own positions.
This is a significant change from past procedure when McCaskey met collectively with assistant coaches, Ditka, and personnel chief Bill Tobin to evaluate players together.
To do it individually indicates a desire by McCaskey to protect corporate secrets. If the coaches scatter, it would benefit the Bears if they do not take each other's evaluations with them. Also, McCaskey may believe he is getting a more objective picture of how difficult a task the head coach faces in rebuilding the Bears from their 5-11 record.
McCaskey left Halas Hall early and appeared last night on WGN radio's Extension 720 to discuss the Peace Corps, in which he once served in Ethiopia.
Peace within Halas Hall is of more interest to Bears fans who have grown to identify Ditka as a city landmark. With one year left on Ditka's non-guaranteed contract, McCaskey's decision is between cutting the cord now or extending the tenure beyond 1993.
To allow Ditka to coach out the contract does not appear to be one of McCaskey's considerations or he would have long ago provided the "vote of confidence" Ditka seeks.
To delay a decision a year would only invite an escalation of the media circus that follows Ditka's every move. The rush for sound bites got so intense yesterday that Ed McCaskey, chairman of the board and Michael's father, was jostled and had coffee spilled on him as tried to get to his car.
Michael McCaskey has said he is studying a restructuring of the Bears' chain of command in order to cope with new demands under the increased free agency of the proposed new league system.
Most teams have general managers or one person under the owner to make decisions on trades and on the draft. On the Bears, McCaskey makes final decisions after consulting with Ditka and Tobin, whose relationship has been strained at times. In the absence of one general manager, it is important that the coach and personnel director communicate regularly.
Tobin's brother Vince is the Bears' defensive coordinator and often has been mentioned as a logical successor to Ditka.
Since the final year of Ditka's contract is not guaranteed, McCaskey would not be obligated to pay the estimated $900,000 salary if he chooses to replace him. Ditka claimed he only recently discovered this fact after a lawyer looked at the contract, a contention McCaskey disputes.
McCaskey's silence on the subject of Ditka's future speaks louder than any "vote of confidence." McCaskey's reluctance to have a summit meeting with his coach has allowed the owner to monitor Ditka's behavior instead of listen to the persuasive rhetoric of a coach who can be as disarming as he is alarming.
If this is McCaskey's purpose in postponing the process, he has allowed Ditka enough rope to hang himself. To the professorial owner, Ditka's refusal to tolerate the daily routine of media scrutiny, choosing instead to appear regularly on paid radio and television shows, may be the strongest indication that his coach is no longer interested in dealing with the tedious obligations that accompany the coaching profession.
If Ditka has lost his relish for the easy part of his job -- communicating with the public -- McCaskey is forced to wonder how much time and energy and patience Ditka is willing to devote to teaching and developing and encouraging young players in a rebuilding process.
If Ditka is the right man for that job, McCaskey still had obvious doubts about it yesterday, one week into the 1993 season.