Conventional ways not for Ditka, Johnson

But Saints coach defensive on deal

Dolphins' leader rolls the dice on Collins

April 19, 1999|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- Mike Ditka and Jimmy Johnson, two of the league's most colorful coaches, seemed to be trying to upstage each other yesterday as the NFL draft wound to a close.

As teams selected players in the final four rounds who are long shots to be in uniform when the season starts in September, Ditka and Johnson stole the spotlight with high-risk gambles.

Ditka defended his decision to give up his entire draft for running back Ricky Williams, and Johnson made the most controversial selection in the draft by picking running back Cecil Collins in the fifth round, even though Collins recently pleaded guilty to two felony charges and is just one failed drug test away from going back to jail.

When Williams showed up in New Orleans as the first one-man draft in NFL history, Ditka greeted him by wearing a shoulder-length dreadlocks wig and calling himself "Brother Ditka."

He was spoofing the fact that Williams wears his hair in dreadlocks and hired a firm as his agent that was started by the rapper Master P.

Ditka also defended himself against a barrage of criticism from NFL executives who thought it wasn't a good idea to target just one player because late-round rookies who make a team's roster save money under the salary cap.

Even Dan Reeves, the Atlanta coach who coached with Ditka in Dallas and is one of his best friends, said: "If they really think they are one player away, maybe you consider it, but I never felt I was one player away."

Bill Walsh, the president of the San Francisco 49ers, spoke of the risk, saying, "One rocket to the moon is all you get. You've got 50 people on it. It better get you there and circle and land or else."

But Ditka was defiant. He said if he was stupid to make the offer to Washington, why were the first four teams stupid enough to turn down even better offers?

"Why would anybody worry about what we do?" Ditka said, and added that he won't be proven wrong.

"The future is now. It's not the year 2002. It's now," he said.

The Saints will try to make up for the lack of draft choices on the second day by trying to sell undrafted free agents on the idea of signing with the Saints because they won't be competing with any draft picks.

Ditka even gave his message to undrafted free agents who were watching the draft on ESPN.

"Come sign with us," Ditka said. "You don't have any rookies to beat out. The opportunity here is terrific."

Since the draft was 17 rounds in the 1970s and 12 rounds in the 1980s, Ditka can sign players who would have been drafted in previous years.

But signing Williams may be another matter. Leland Hardy, who will negotiate the contract, said Williams' contract should reflect the fact he is "the greatest player in the history of the sport in the college game."

Hardy needs to study the history of the college game if he really thinks Williams is the best ever.

Ditka pointed out he signed for $6,000 as the fifth pick in the 1961 draft, prompting Williams to say: "I don't want to play that bad."

Meanwhile, Johnson, noted for taking risks with players at both the University of Miami and with the Dallas Cowboys, decided to draft Collins in the fifth round, even though he only played six games at two colleges and is serving four years probation after pleading guilty to two misdemeanor and two felony charges for breaking into two apartments and fondling two young women.

Collins not only will have to enter the NFL's drug program, but he also is being tested weekly under the terms of his probation and probably would go back to jail if he flunks one. He already has served 27 days in jail after failing a drug test.

Johnson, claiming Collins is like Emmitt Smith but faster, argued that all of the players drafted in the fifth round are risks.

Johnson also drafted running backs James Johnson and Rob Konrad with his first two picks, so he had the luxury of taking a chance with Collins.

Collins said he has matured in the last seven months.

"I made a lot of mistakes in the past," he said. "I put it all behind me. I'm just a better person right now. I didn't make a lot of right decisions in the past."

Collins realizes what's on the line. "I know this is my last chance," he said.

Rolling the dice is nothing new for Johnson. He took a flyer on Lawrence Phillips after Phillips washed out in St. Louis, and he recently signed wide receiver Tony Martin, even though Martin will go to trial in August on money-laundering charges.

There was a twist in the draft when the final selection -- "Mr. Irrelevant" -- was announced. The final pick is honored every year at Irrelevant Week in Newport Beach, Calif.

For the first time in the 24-year history of the award, the selection -- Penn running back Jim Finn, who was picked by Chicago -- was at the draft. He had hoped to be picked in the last two rounds.

Even though he gained 1,450 yards last year, Finn wasn't even invited to the scouting combine because he played in the Ivy League.

He was thrilled to be drafted and added: "Being the last pick was extra special."

Pub Date: 4/19/99

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