Mike McCaskey, the urbane, Ivy League-educated grandso of the legendary George Halas, fired his grandfather's last hand-picked coach, Iron Mike Ditka, yesterday in what amounted to a changing of the guard for the Chicago Bears.
"We're going to have to find some new ways to do some things. . . . There's going to be a premium on fresh ideas and a new start. I've come to the difficult conclusion that it's best to start this process with a new head coach," McCaskey said at a hushed news conference in Chicago as a teary-eyed Ditka stood by.
Ditka, 53, who agreed to stay on as a consultant, said as he choked back tears: "I'll try to do this with class. I don't know if I can. Scripture tells you that all things shall pass. This, too, shall pass. Regrets, just a few. But too few to remember.
"I can't sing it ["My Way"] quite as good as he [Frank Sinatra] did. Thirty-two years, and I have a lot of people to thank. . . . I thank Coach Halas. . . . I guess you've got to thank the players the most because they make it happen. . . . We drafted some good kids; we took a run. . . . We did a pretty good job. . . . Had some great assistant coaches. . . . I really loved everyone I ever had, disagreements or no disagreements. . .
"I've had my run-ins with you guys [reporters] and I've had a lot of support from you. . . . I thank you. . . . I thank the fans of this city. . . . The Bears will come back. Mike Ditka will survive. I'll land on my feet. There's no problem about that. I don't worry about that. I worry about how this organization is perceived. I believe it will go forward. . . . It's pretty hard to erase 17 years [six as a player]. Not much else I can say. Thank you. I appreciate it, and this, too, shall pass."
It was noteworthy that in thanking all his assistant coaches, he was apparently even referring to Buddy Ryan, a man with whom he had his differences, even during their 1985 Super Bowl season.
He also mentioned Halas, who hired him in 1982, but he never mentioned McCaskey. When McCaskey started running the team after the death of his grandfather in 1983, he never had a rapport with Ditka.
In a way, water was thicker than blood. Ditka was more of a Halas than McCaskey. Halas was the rough-and-tumble, street-smart founder of the league who once threatened to fight the late Art Rooney, the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, over a $500 guarantee.
Rooney, who'd been a boxer, got his money without throwing a lTC punch, but said with a twinkle in his eye, "George, if we'd had that fight, you were no sure thing."
Ditka was a throwback to those feisty founders. He did things his way. A combative, controversial man who became an icon in Chicago spawned the "Da Bears" segment on "Saturday Night Live," and he once played himself on "LA Law."
Halas was 86 when he made the decision to hire Ditka, prompting one observer to say, "That's like Orville Wright coming back to run United Airlines." Ditka, then an assistant coach with the Dallas Cowboys, was considered too volatile and temperamental to be a good head coach.
But so was Halas in his heyday, and he overlooked the fact that, when he played for him, Ditka said Halas "threw nickels around like manhole covers."
McCaskey, who went to Yale and taught at Harvard, never liked Ditka's style. He wanted to get rid of Ditka in 1984 until the team beat the Washington Redskins in the playoffs to make the NFC title game. He was forced to renew his contract and had to endure Ditka when, from 1985 through 1988, the team's 52-11 mark was the best in the NFL.
Even a heart attack in 1988 (he missed only 11 days of work) didn't calm down Ditka, but when he had his second losing season in the past four and became increasingly combative with the fans and reporters, McCaskey had his excuse to fire him.
The firing was more than a sports story. It made the evening news on all three major networks, and CBS called him "the most notorious person to hit Chicago since Al Capone."
McCaskey didn't name a replacement, but there was speculation that Richie Petitbon, the assistant coach who runs the Washington Redskins defense, is a top candidate. Like Ditka, he was a member of Halas' last title team in 1963. The Redskins said they won't give permission for their coaches to be interviewed while they're in the playoffs, and Petitbon declined to comment.
A taciturn, no-nonsense man, Petitbon would be a contrast to Ditka.
A group of fans -- the real Da Bears -- gathered outside Halas Hall yesterday and chanted, "We want Mike; we want Mike." Ditka came to the window and gave them a thumbs-up sign.
In his own words
Some quotes by Mike Ditka:
"I think I motivate as well as any coach in football. As a matter of fact, I'm not sure I don't motivate as well as any football coach ever has. That's a bold statement to make, but I'm making that statement." -- Ditka on Ditka earlier this season.