SOUTH BEND, IND., JAN. 6 -- Mike Ditka regrets about 99 percent of the naughty things he does, though he still thinks he was right to spit on a referee this year.

That was the time head linesman Ernie Frantz had the audacity to whistle tackle Keith Van Horne for a false start, and Ditka spit on him. Quarterback Jim McMahon -- who gives spittoons for Christmas -- said it was "a pretty weak effort."

Ditka, the Chicago Bears' coach, hasn't apologized yet, but if he's consistent, he probably will. Ditka admits he has a ways to go as a person, which is why he's constantly changing his personal game plan -- sometimes blitzing, sometimes kibitzing.

The blitzing came a couple of weeks ago when he and linebacker Otis Wilson went a couple of rounds over Wilson's lackadaisical play. Wilson says Ditka told him he was through as a player, and Ditka then called Wilson a "liar."

Today, with the Bears preparing for Sunday's Soldier Field playoff date with the Redskins, Wilson explained: "We were very heated. I said some things I shouldn't have said, and he said some things he shouldn't have said, and that's really what happened. It was two rams in there, and we were just ramming heads."

The kibitzing came a day after their incident, when Ditka said: "What incident?" His mood swings, even though he doesn't. Did you see him dance for the Chicago Bears Shuffle? McMahon said that was a "good effort."

There are more sides to Mike Ditka than anybody or any television camera knows, though you'd swear he was a no-good nincompoop if you watch prime-time football games. A year ago, he screamed at little Doug Flutie for throwing incomplete passes and then felt awfully bad about it. So, when Flutie started against the Washington Redskins in the playoffs, he vowed to leave the kid alone, but the kid played lousy.

So, then he said he'd never hold back again, no matter what. When he became Bears coach in 1982, he tried hard to be George Halas, ranting, raving, punching a trunk with his bare fist.

"I'll never forget him punching that thing," Wilson said today. "He screamed, 'God dawg!' He sure paid for it. I think he broke his hand. I laughed."

Of course, the next week, Ditka inspired the team by holding up his cast and saying, "Hey, win one for lefty." They won.

Once he got through his Halas stage, Ditka tried being Dallas' Tom Landry, who was his mentor for 13 years as player and coach. The staid, stoic look wasn't becoming on Ditka, who even tried wearing a tie "to calm me down." When he didn't win, the tie had to go.

Landry has tried pointing Ditka in the right direction, though Ditka often has swerved off course. Landry got Ditka involved with the church. As an assistant in Dallas, Ditka once saw a referee (Landry relates) and shouted: " 'Are you a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes? No? Well . . .' -- then he cursed and cursed and cursed at the guy."

Landry has seen Ditka at his worst, which is why he thinks Ditka has come far, despite the obscene gestures he made at Vikings Coach Jerry Burns recently. That was the night at the Metrodome when a sign mentioned three Vikings coaches and Ditka and called them: "Three Men and a Baby."

Ditka's no baby, he's just sensitive. After the 1987 players strike, he noticed that the Bears' intensity level was down, and he blamed it on the layoff. Later, some players hinted they'd lost confidence in Ditka, and then team president Michael McCaskey -- Halas' grandson -- said he thought maybe the same thing.

Heading into the NFC semifinal, the confidence factor has become an issue, even though McCaskey has retracted his statement and McMahon said: "I haven't heard any players talking like that."

But the whole thing has irritated Ditka, who regrets having said what he said.

During a radio interview Monday, Ditka said if the players had lost confidence in him, maybe he ought to resign or be defrocked. Asked at a news conference if he meant it, he said: "Sure, next question."

Q: Well, do you think they've lost confidence in you?

A: Oh, certainly.

Q: How do you explain that?

A: I'm too tough on them, I guess.

Q: Has it increased from last year?

A: Oh, sure. For a lot of them.

Q: Why?

A: I don't know. We won two more games last year than this year, I guess.

Q: Do you care?

A: Yeah, I really care. I slept about eight hours last night.

Q: But are there lingering ill feelings since the strike?

A: Sure, there is. Sure.

And so on. Ditka was later asked if he'd changed his ideas about coaching, whether he thought it worth all the aggravation.

"I'll talk to you about it in February," he said. "I don't have a clear answer for you. There's a lot of things going through my mind right now. I'd rather not talk about it."

If it sounded like he's ready to quit, remember a new three-year contract kicks in next season, elevating his salary to just under $700,000 a year. And, today, McCaskey was the heavy Ditka booster.

"Has the team lost confidence in Mike? Oh, that's inaccurate," said McCaskey, a former college professor and management consultant. "The team has a great deal of confidence in Mike. They'll be together for a long time coming. He's one of the best coaches in the NFL.

"He reminds me of my {late} grandfather, no question. Both hate to lose and are splendid motivators and willing to innovate. Mike's the typical Bear. Think about how our organization's developed, its personality. You start with my grandfather, George Halas. Well, one reason I like Mike Ditka as a coach is because he carries on that tradition. That's why I'm so pleased he's here."

And Ditka has seemingly been here forever, a former Bears tight end who always got himself into a fine mess. Once as a player at the University of Pittsburgh, he decked two teammates in a huddle. As a young Bear in 1966, he excused himself from the huddle to smash a fan who'd run onto the field. He still has the videotape of that one, and gleefully shows it to his players.

He wasn't so proud in 1985 when he got caught on a drunk driving charge.

"I'm still very embarrassed," he said at the time. "But it will make me a better person. What hurts is that those high school kids I speak to about such things must figure me to be a hypocrite."

This season, he's spit on that ref, hit a San Francisco fan with a wad of bubble gum and thrown the whole state of Minnesota into a frenzy. A few weeks back, he renamed the Metrodome the "Rollerdome," and Vikings cheerleaders showed up for the game wearing roller skates. When the crowd booed him, he raised his arms, encouraging them for more.

But, then, in a quieter setting, like the other day at his media conference, he said: "It's been different {this year}. I'm not going crazy. I've got all my facilities, contrary to a lot of public opinion. I'm okay.

"It's just that sometimes you lose your sense of value of what the heck's important and what isn't. That's what bothers me. When I don't do the things the way I want, that bothers me. I have to live with that, and that hurts me a lot. Yeah, it's been a tumultuous year. Is that a good word?"

Ditka will never change, it seems. He wore black hightops as a player and now black sneakers as a coach. He's still a staunch conservative, a Reagan fan. But as the days draw closer to Sunday's playoff game, you can almost see him about to burst with emotion.

He walked through a crowd of reporters and cameramen today, eyes straight ahead. As usual, he wasn't looking where he was headed, and he bumped into a camera, knocking himself off stride for an instant. Initially, he gave a Ditka glare to the cameraman, but he caught himself, straightened up and carried on.