Ditka fired as coach of Saints

Team also lets go GM, entire coaching staff

January 06, 2000|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

Mike Ditka, who was a larger-than-life character portrayed in sketches on "Saturday Night Live" as "Da Coach" when the Chicago Bears won the Super Bowl in January 1986, became just another coach without a job yesterday.

Ditka, his entire coaching staff, the general manager who hired him, Bill Kuharich; and the team's salary cap consultant, Terry O'Neil -- all were fired by New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson after a 3-13 season.

"It became necessary to clear the slate," Benson said in a statement.

Benson extended Ditka's contract for three years at $2 million a year last season. Kuharich, who also got an extension, had four years left on the deal at about $500,000 a year. It'll likely cost Benson in the neighborhood of $10 million to pay off the contracts of the 21 fired employees.

The only notable employee who survived was assistant general manager Charley Bailey, who was brought in from the Pittsburgh Steelers' front office last year and didn't have ties to Ditka.

Kuharich and Ditka had impromptu news conferences in the team's parking lot after Ditka ended his Saints tenure with a 15-33 mark.

"Unfortunately in this business, if you don't win enough games, then there are days like this," Kuharich said.

Ditka, 60, who had said last week he thought he was returning, said: "It surprised me. It surprised Bill. I really thought that we would probably get another year to try to get it untracked. But I fully understand when you're 3-13, fellas, and you have the expectations that we do and it doesn't work out. We've got to be realists. I don't like it."

Ditka added: "We tried, but we didn't get it done. I feel bad for a lot of people I've grown to love. Life goes on. It was a great experience. It just happened to be a bump in the road, that's all. I'll tell you what -- you can say anything you want to or write anything you want to, [but] we did a lot of good things."

Ditka's tenure in New Orleans may be remembered as an example of how not to run a franchise.

He'll be remembered mainly for the Ricky Williams trade. To get Williams, Ditka gave up eight draft picks -- all the 1999 picks, and the No. 1 and No. 3 in 2000. The Saints' first-round pick in the coming draft, which will be the second overall pick, will go to the Washington Redskins. Williams, a running back out of Texas, wound up hurt much of this past season and gained only 884 yards.

The Williams trade, though, was only one in a series of mishaps. Ditka put together a poor coaching staff, made a series of shaky draft picks and went into the season with Billy Joe Hobert and Billy Joe Tolliver as his quarterbacks.

Ditka's ill-advised tenure in New Orleans, though, was only, as he said, a bump in the road in his illustrious career. He was a Hall of Fame tight end for the Bears who wrote the late George Halas and asked him for the Chicago coaching job.

At a time when the hot-tempered Ditka wasn't considered prime coaching material, Halas gambled on him in 1982 as his last major decision before the team founder died the following year.

Ditka turned out to be an inspired choice, the right man in the right place. The late Jim Finks had put together a great team, and Halas kept Buddy Ryan to run the defense.

The Bears won 52 regular-season games from 1985 to '88, a record for a four-year period, but after the 1985 season, Ditka never won another Super Bowl.

The Bears went into decline, and he was fired after an 11-year run. He went into the broadcast booth, where he's likely to return. He said his coaching days are over.

Ditka's firing leaves four teams without coaches. The Packers fired Ray Rhodes, the Patriots fired Pete Carroll, and both Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick quit on the Jets.

Benson may hire a general manager first, and one of the candidates is likely to be Charley Casserly, who was removed as the Redskins' general manager by new owner Daniel Snyder.

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