This week, NFL Network aired its latest installment of “A Football Life,” which chronicled the career of Mike Ditka. Most people under 30 know Ditka as an opinionated ESPN football analyst. Young Midwesterners know him as “Da Coach” who led the 1985 Chicago Bears to the Super Bowl. This documentary told “Iron Mike’s” professional story.
Ditka grew up outside Pittsburgh, in the Western Pennsylvania coal town of Aliquippa. He earned a football scholarship to Pitt and became a college gridiron legend. Professional scouts saw his talent as a tight end and Ditka was drafted by the Chicago Bears in 1961.
For six seasons, Ditka was a hard-nosed tight end who revolutionized his position. Along with John Mackey, he was a first-generation receiving end. He couldn’t outrun defenses, so he ran over them. Tough, physical, mean: he possessed all the attributes you want in a football player. Once he dislocated an ankle; he popped it back in and finished the game. Old school.
But he and Coach George Halas couldn’t coexist. Though he earned a pro-bowl selection in his first five seasons, Papa Bear traded Ditka to Philadelphia following the 1966 season. Ditka spent two lost seasons there, his play eroding so much that he planned to retire.
Fortune called during that off-season. Tom Landry brought Ditka to Dallas, a move that saved his career and changed his life. The Cowboys coach traded for Ditka and told the veteran he needed a smart leader to mold Dallas into a champion. Ditka did just that, serving as the ultimate team-player and helping Landry’s ‘Boys win their first Super Bowl (XI).
In 1972, Ditka retired from the NFL. He was immediately hired as an assistant coach by the Cowboys and spent nine years learning the ropes under Landry. He was on the staff when the team won its second Super Bowl (XII) in 1977.
Five years later, Ditka got a call from Papa Bear. Halas wanted his old tight end to lead Chicago back from the football wilderness. The Bears had been dreadful for a decade and Halas thought he needed an energetic young coach to right the ship.
The Bears transformed from an also ran to a playoff contender almost overnight. Ditka preached defense and the running game. He ran a conservative offense that highlighted Walter Payton and tried to eliminate all turnovers. He emphasized toughness and smart football. This blue-print worked wonders.
By 1985, the Bears were the team to beat. They pummeled the competition on their way to a 15 win season (their only loss came on a Monday night game in Miami). They torched the competition in the playoffs, giving up only 10 points in three games.Chicago won its first Super Bowl (XX) after demoloshing the New England Patriots 46-10 in one of the most lopsided Super Bowls in history.
By this time, Ditka was the most prominent coach in professional football. He became a celebrity endorser, an in-demand motivational speaker, and a blue-collar icon.
He was Iron Mike who didn’t put up with shit from anybody. He was a fiery presence on-and-off the sideline. He yelled at all his players. He barked at referees. He used salty language with the press.
In this way, he was a reporters’ dream: refusing to use coach speak and not afraid to shoot from the hip. Genuine news came out of (what would otherwise) be banal press conferences.
But Ditka could not keep the Bears on top. His teams won just two playoff games in his final seven seasons in Chicago. Buddy Ryan (the famed defensive architect of the 46 defense) left the Bears for the Philadelphia Eagles’ head coaching vacancy in 1986. Walter Payton retired following the 1987 season. Da Coach had a heart attack in 1988.
The team remained competitive, but no longer championship caliber. They went 6-10 in 1989, Ditka’s first losing season since his first year on the job. He bounced back with two straight 11-5 seasons, but fell to 5-11 in 1992. The next January, he was canned.
There was a second act, in New Orleans. But Ditka was a shell of his former self. He didn’t have the personnel to compete and made one of the most prolific draft gaffes of all time. He traded his entire 1999 draft class for Rickey Williams, believing the Texas running back could be the next Walter Payton. Though Williams proved to be a serviceable back, he was no Payton.
The Saints’ years were painful. Ditka went 6-10 in 1997 and 1998. He had his worst season in 1999 (3-13) and was dismissed in the off-season.
Da Coach has served as a football analyst for the last decade. Occassionally you see the old fire in the coaches eyes, a look that resembles one of his iconic photos– of an irate Ditka flipping the bird to a camera. Former quarterback Jim Harbaugh (who now coaches the 49ers) says it perfectly captures Da Coach: he was his old man who didn’t care what others thought.
He lived a full life and did things his way. Sure he had a few regrets. Who doesn’t? Such is life. As Da Coach says: “you gotta live in the moment…the past is history, tomorrow’s a mystery, today is a gift. That’s why they call it the present.”