Mike Ditka is 79-years-old, and 26 years removed from his coaching the Chicago Bears, who held their training camps at UW–Platteville.
But if there was any question that the former Chicago Bears player and coach has mellowed, Ditka dispelled that thought quickly during An Evening with Mike Ditka in UW–Platteville’s Ullsvik Hall Saturday night.
Ditka not only still looks like a bear, he growled like one during various parts of his speech in the Pioneer Catholic Banquet to raise money for UWP’s Newman Center.
Ditka said he wanted to move training camp from Lake Forest College, near the Bears’ in-season training facilities, because training camp is “supposed to be for the players to bond,” but “every [player’s] wife and every kid was right there, and their mind couldn’t stay on football.”
Ditka credited former Bears general manager Jerry Vainisi for selecting UW–Platteville, and added, “It was the greatest thing we ever did. … Everything’s perfect. I mean, we couldn’t ask for anything better. … I realize we’re in Green Bay Packer territory, but the community really treated us great.”
The culmination of the Bears’ years at UWP was the 1985 season, during which the Bears went 15–1 and dominated the NFL, ending with a 46–10 stomping of New England in Super Bowl XX in New Orleans.
“Sometimes in life good things happen only once,” said Ditka about the 1985 season and the Bears’ inability to return to the Super Bowl while he was coach despite the Bears’ dominating most NFL teams. “Could we have done more? Yeah, but we played the Packers, and they weren’t going to let us [win], and we played the Vikings, and they weren’t going to let us” win.
Ditka is a NFL Hall of Fame tight end, and was an All-America tight end despite catching just 12 passes in his senior year.
Before that, there were efforts to get Ditka to become a priest, “but I was too busy swinging at curveballs.” He went to the University of Pittsburgh to become a dentist until Halas drafted him, and “whatever he saw, I’m glad he saw it.”
For an ex-Bear who played against 1960s Packers teams that prevented the Bears from winning more than one NFL championship, in 1963, Ditka had complimentary things to say about those Packers and their coach.
“You talk about the will to succeed and the will to make people better,’ said Ditka of Lombardi, for whom Ditka played in two Pro Bowls. “I played against those teams. They were the best.”
Ditka called Packers quarterback Bart Starr, who died May 26, “a good man, a great man. He was a great football player, but he was a better husband and father.
“I cherish the rivalries I had with them. [Linebacker Ray] Nitschke tried to kill me. Kill me!”
Ditka played for George “Papa Bear” Halas, one of the National Football League’s founders, who he said “traded me away because I was a pain in the ass,” and yet hired Ditka, then a Dallas Cowboys assistant under Tom Landry, to be the Bears’ coach.
Ditka had retired from the Philadelphia Eagles for two days before Landry called him and said, in Ditka’s words, “I don’t know if you can still play, but I just traded for you. I’m willing to take a chance on you if you’ll take a chance on yourself.”
Ditka played in Super Bowl V and VI for the Cowboys, winning the latter. He then retired and was making money opening nightclubs in Dallas and elsewhere when Landry hired him to be the Cowboys’ tight ends and special teams coach. Ditka called that offer “the best decision I ever made in my entire life.”
Halas then hired Ditka, who said, “I was the lowest paid coach in the NFL, and it did not matter. … We had the nucleus, but we also had a lot of crybabies and whiners.”
Ditka drafted Brigham Young quarterback Jim McMahon, whom he called “goofier than a fruitcake,” but accomplished something only two other Bears quarterbacks have ever done — an NFL title.
“If you look at the way Jim McMahon took over the football game, that was fun to watch,” said Ditka in a sentiment he may not have expressed when he was McMahon’s coach. When asked if he would have done anything different, he said, “I would have kept McMahon” instead of trading him away.
Lining up behind McMahon at running back was Walter Payton, who Ditka called “the best I’ve ever seen … he set the example for the way you play the game and the effort and hustle that he put out,” and “one of the finest men I’ve ever known.”
Ditka’s Bears teams were led by their defense. “Nobody knew what the hell we were doing,” he said. “Our players didn’t know.”
Ditka said he “worked for everything,” but added it was good luck for him “to be in the right place at the right time with the right people.
“It’s still people. People still play the game. It becomes mano a mano; they’ve got to control the guy across from them. Sometimes coaches get too much credit, and sometimes coaches get too much blame.”
One highlight — or lowlight depending on one’s allegiance — of Ditka’s Bears career was the 1989 game at Green Bay, where the Packers won 14–13 on a Don Majkowski touchdown pass that was initially ruled to have thrown from beyond the line of scrimmage, before officials changed their minds, circumventing the NFL’s replay procedures of the time.
“Green Bay cheated us,” said Ditka, before adding, “It looked like he was” across the line of scrimmage, “but I’m not saying he was.”
When asked what parents should teach their kids, he said, “a good positive attitude on life. … Not everybody’s going to be first string. Not everybody’s going to be the hero. Not everybody’s going to hit the home run; sometimes they’re going to strike out. Then what do you do? … If you’re going to do something, put your all into it.”
When asked whether he’d let his sons play football, Ditka said, “Football is a rough sport; it’s a collision sport. … I would never stop my child from playing football, but … it’s a tough sport, it really is.” He then advised to “put a baseball bat in his hand.”
The Bears fired Ditka after the 1993 season. The Bears left Platteville in 2001 as part of a deal to get State of Illinois funding for a new stadium.
“The community was so good to the Chicago Bears,” said Ditka, “and I want to thank you for that.”