The Chicago Bears are finished for another Sunday and it's time to listen to their coach, Mike Ditka. This is interesting. One week, after a loss, he begins with five consecutive Yes and No answers (no multiple choice for him), interspersed with a "Next question" or two. Another week, glowering after a loss, he starts out this way: "I'm sure I'll be criticized one way or another whatever I say." When reporters subsequently call him "paranoid," he refuses to talk -- but only for a day or two.
Last season, he admitted he decided on a starting quarterback because of what he heard on a radio call-in show. This season, he released quarterback Bob Avellini, his whipping boy, after saying he couldn't play him because the crowd would boo too much. He readily admits he has a bad temper (a locker-punching incident last year is ample evidence) and decided, at the end of last season, that the only way to remember to keep his composure was to put on a tie. A good move. The Bears, hapless otherwise, are 10-4 in the tie era.
Mike Ditka was born into football to play and coach it, not talk about it. He sat in his office in the leafy Chicago suburbs, surrounded by framed images of George Halas, the man who brought him back, and he was at home. But standing in front of a microphone after a game, talking the way he used to play, he ran roughshod over everything.
"I shouldn't speak after a game," he said recently from the Bears' red-brick office in the woods of Lake Forest, Ill., miles and miles north of the reality of Soldier Field. "I may be the worst (loser) in the NFL. I take it too hard. I get too frustrated."
Ditka, who turned 45 two weeks ago, may be the most intriguing coach in the NFL. He almost certainly is the one who spends the most time talking about himself. Explaining himself, really.
The Avellini story is the perfect example. A nine-year veteran from Maryland and a former Bears starter, Avellini was released this month because, Ditka said, "I can't play him here. The fans would boo him unmercifully."
An unusual excuse, Ditka admitted.
"I don't know if it was right or not, but it's the way I felt," he said. "I only said what I felt. Maybe I shouldn't have said it."
Sometimes, Ditka's words are a smokescreen. There is a bigger picture and it doesn't look too bad. In the final year of a three-year contract, he has the Bears in first place in the NFC Central Division. A 6-3 record may not sound like much, but it's the Bears' best start since 1971 and they have a three-game lead in the division. Rapport with his players, strained at the outset by his roller-coaster emotions, has peaked, thanks to the weekly gripe sessions he initiated. And his team has received more national attention this season -- due in large part to Walter Payton's NFL rushing record -- than it has since 1963, when Ditka was the all-pro tight end and the Bears ruled the NFL.
Many of Ditka's friends believed he and the Bears were made for each other. Said Johnny Morris, a former teammate turned host of the coach's show: "The Bears want a team the way Mike Ditka played."
Halas, the Bears' founder, coach and, finally, chairman of the board until his death nearly a year ago, loved Ditka as a player. While Halas once traded Ditka because of, among other things, a disparaging remark made about Halas, he also brought him back to be in his coach.
As a player, Ditka knocked tacklers onto their backs, played with blood dripping down his arms, wouldn't leave games. In the mid-'60s, the Bears and the Rams were playing at the Coliseum in Los Angeles. As the Bears stood in their huddle, a fan ran onto the field carrying a banner, forcing the officials to call time. Ditka excused himself from the huddle, ran toward the fan, decked him with a forearm, ran back to the huddle and said, matter of factly, "Let's play football."
"I still have that on tape," said Morris, a flanker who was watching from the huddle at the time.
Ditka was the NFL rookie of the year in 1961, coming out of Pitt. He played in five Pro Bowls. He became a legend in Chicago. Then, during a contract dispute in 1967, he opened his mouth.
"George Halas," Ditka told an audience during a speaking engagement, "throws nickels around like manhole covers."
Within days, he was traded to Philadelphia.
He was traded once more, to Dallas, in 1969. At the Cowboys' training camp one day, he and running back Dan Reeves were playing gin rummy. Uncharacteristically, Reeves was winning.
Enough of that, Ditka said. He gathered up the cards, piled them neatly and ripped the deck in half. He then picked up his chair and threw it against the wall.
"One leg stuck," remembered Reeves, now the Denver Broncos' coach. "I figured at that time that he was fairly competitive."
The nine years Ditka spent under Tom Landry as an assistant at Dallas were fine-tuning. Some call it mellowing. He learned that intricate offenses are not all bad. "I had never been a detail guy before," he said.
Landry has called him "a blend." That he is. Latka still wears his 1963 Bears' championship ring. But, when the stones fell out, he took the diamonds out of his Cowboys' Super Bowl ring and jammed them in.
The Chicago offense is a hybrid, too. The old days of handing off to the running back again and again are over. Now, Payton goes in motion, catches passes, even throws a few. But don't be deceived. In the heartland, they run the ball.
"It's a gut-check, Ditka said. "In pro football today, it is so difficult to take the football down the field running it. That's why I like to do it."
When Ditka came back to Chicago, big shoulders, swaggering, there was some surprise. He never had been a head coach. And Halas still was in charge, "An unusual move," recalled Michael McCaskey, the new president of the Bears.
"How could he ever come back and coach the Bears?" Morris asked rhetorically. "He had talked back to Halas. But that probably was what convinced Papa Bear to go back and hire him.
"Mike would back down from no one."
Neither would his heros. Vince Lombardi. Bobby Knight. Woody Hayes. Ronald Reagan. "I like what he stands for," Ditka said of Reagan, "and I'm proud to say it."
He has yanked whole personality traits out of those men. Like Knight and Hayes, he is a bad boy on the sideline, throwing his game plan into the air as the TV cameras roll, screaming at players. (The tie has helped a little there.) Like Lombardi, he believes winning is the only thing.
Nevertheless, Ditka hasn't won the way his heros have. He went 3-6 in the strike season and 8-8 last year, while going with a youth movement that swept out many veterans unhappily. Still, Brian Baschnagel, a ninth-year wide receiver who may have been hardened by his days under Hayes at Ohio State, believes it's only a matter of time.
"Mike has turned this football program around," said Baschnagel, a member of the players' council that meets with Ditka every Friday to discuss problems. "He is a player's coach. He knows what we are going through. He's got an open mind and is willing to listen. A lot of times, a strong emotional coach can be intimidating. He isn't."
But is he a winner? McCaskey, Halas' grandson, figures this is the season to find out.
"I don't intend to make a decision (on Ditka's contract) until the end of the season," McCaskey said. "The decision on who will be the head coach next year does not depend solely on the won-loss record. Mike Ditka has put a lot of excitement bank in the offense. He also brings to the Bears a great unhappiness with anything less than winning."
Ditka, the only head coach in the NFL with a moustache, rarely smiles. He stands with hands on hips at his news conference -- even when he's in a good mood. Toe to toe with the media, ever the competitor.
Even on the golf course, he finds little solace, which may seem strange for a seven handicap. "Not too bad for a coach," Ditka offered.
Yet Ed O'Bradovich, the former Bears end, says he has seen Ditka throw and/or break "two, three, even four" clubs in 18 holes. And Ditka almost refuses to lose. He and Reeves often play "emergency holes," extra holes they extend until dark "to get even."
Unfortunately, you can't extend football games that way. When Ditka came back to Chicago, no one expected instant winning. And he didn't promise it. He only wants it.
"The city has been maligned," he said, "It's a tough city, it's a fair city. I've only had on ambition in my life: to come back and coach the Bears. Coach the team I love for Mr. Halas and the city."
He looked up from his desk and eyed the many feisty faces of George Halas looking out at him.
"Somewhere," he said, "I think, Mr. Halas kind of likes what we're doing here."