Staring Down His Rowdy Ruffians, Chicago Coach Mike Ditka Prods the Bears to the Super Bowl

updated 01/05/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/05/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

The Chicago Bears have just beaten the Detroit Lions 16-13 in front of a national TV audience. The Bears's head coach, Mike Ditka, sitting at the back of the team plane, is evaluating his performance. "It wasn't bad," Ditka says, his voice strained from all the screaming. "I was calm."

True, for the first minute and a half or so of the game he was a model citizen. But after an interception, an injury, a couple of fumbles and a blown coverage or two, Mount Ditka began to erupt right there on Monday Night Football. Eyes bulging, literally spitting with rage, the coach lashed out at his players, the officials, the world. By the fourth quarter Ditka was in such a rage that ABC commentator Frank Gifford was predicting he'd eat his clipboard. "For him, he was calm," says Doug Flutie, whose frequently un-Bearable play at quarterback during the game earned him a few choice Ditka diatribes. "For him, he was under control."

"A throwback to Vince Lombardi and George Halas" is how Bears General Manager Jerry Vainisi describes Ditka, who after a tough loss in Baltimore in 1983 smashed a metal locker, breaking his hand. But there's more to him than just a top-of-the-lungs management style. Off the sidelines, Ditka can laugh at himself. "I have one physical problem," he once said. "A big mouth." He's fast on his feet. "See this, buddy?" he said to an obnoxious heckler who'd crashed a press conference earlier this year. Ditka made a zero with his fingers. "It's your IQ." And Ditka knows he's got a problem with his temper: "I worry that I'll get so emotional I'll call the wrong play and it'll cost us a game," he admits. "Every day I pray about it. Every day I pray I won't lose control on the sidelines."

There's some debate over how effective his coaching technique is. Bears running back Walter Payton, for instance, says, "Sometimes that stuff works and sometimes it doesn't. You see what he's doing, but you can't always tell what he's done, what produced the results." Whether it's in spite of or because of what Ditka has been doing on the sidelines, the Bears have thrived under his coaching. Their Super Bowl triumph last January was the team's first championship since 1963—when Ditka was a Bear player. They have been a dominating team again this season, despite recurrent injuries to quarterback Jim McMahon, who will miss the playoffs entirely.

Now the Bears are facing the Super Bowl Curse: No team has won back-to-back Super Bowls since the 1979-80 Steelers. One theory is that it's due to all the "distractions"—e.g., money-making opportunities—that occupy a Super Bowl champ's mind. Indeed the Bears lead the league in endorsements. William "the Refrigerator" Perry is a one-man conglomerate, and several Bears have gone into the restaurant business (Ditka's, on Ontario Street in Chicago, is the yuppie watering hole of preference). Thirteen Bears have their own radio or TV shows (Ditka has both). In the past year more books have been published about the Bears than about the members of the Bloomsbury group. And the effect of all this? The Bears clubhouse has been riven with enough jealousy, pettiness and backbiting to start a miniseries. Even the wives have joined in. At one point, Dainese Gault, spouse of wide receiver Willie Gault, labeled Jim McMahon "that fool." Those teams the gods seek to destroy, they first make Super Bowl champs.

Ditka doesn't see what all the fuss is about. "You might not see it now," he says, "but we're ready for the playoffs. We know what's at stake."

Ditka always was intense—even as a kid growing up in a housing project in Aliquippa, Pa. When he did pushups, his father, a steelworker, once recalled, "You could hear the house rock." As an end at Pitt, Ditka won All-America honors. In his senior year, he also won a certain notoriety. During halftime of a game against Michigan State, he reportedly slammed a teammate into a locker for missing a tackle (then apologized—a week later).

Picked by the Bears in the 1961 draft, Ditka played for 12 years in the NFL, helping define the tight-end position. At 6'3" and 225 lbs., he wasn't fast. But once he caught the ball he charged goalward with the inevitability of a crazed water buffalo. Pain didn't stop him either. In 1964 he played much of a season with a separated shoulder. Though he couldn't raise his left hand above shoulder height, he caught 75 passes, compensating for his nearly useless left hand by swatting the ball with his right hand and pinning it against his chest.

"He operated on the very edge when he was a player," says Vainisi. "Our players like that. He can relate to the McMahon types because he was like them."

Despite their bickering—Ditka seemed to be threatening to trade McMahon earlier this season—the strait-laced coach and spaced-out quarterback seem meant for each other. In his current best-seller, McMahon calls Ditka "Sybil, after the girl in that movie. You know, the one who had all those different personalities." McMahon says Ditka's merely "Sybilizing" when he goes from his friendly, funny personality to the ranting, coach-from-hell persona. "McMahon's no expert on psychology," Ditka bridles. "It's asinine for him to say that." Then Ditka smiles and shifts personality. "I like the kid though. I did asinine things when I was a kid too."

As a player, for instance, Ditka said that Halas—the crusty old skinflint owner-coach of the Bears—"threw around nickels like they were manhole covers." Halas was furious. Soon after, Ditka was traded. But before Halas died in 1983 at age 88, he made sure to bring Ditka back from exile as a Tom Landry assistant coach in Dallas to succeed Neill Armstrong as the Bears's coach. What Halas remembered, it was suggested, was that Ditka was one of the few players who ever had the guts to stand up to him.

As a coach, Ditka is not known as a great technician. "His strength is that he's a great motivator," says Mike Singletary, the Bears's All-Pro linebacker. "He's good at finding the red button in each of us." He'll pat a player on the back, kick his butt, even play arpeggios on his sense of paranoia. "He likes to create enemies," says Johnny Morris, a teammate on the 1963 Bears who's now a Chicago sports-caster. "One week it's the press, next week it's 'we don't get any respect.' He's always got an enemy to get him and the team fired up."

Away from the fires that burn at Soldier Field, Ditka, 47, lives quietly with the former Diana Tratham, 43, his second wife, in a modest house in suburban Grayslake, III. (The coach's four children from his first marriage are all grown; none is in pro sports.) He says his arrest for drunk driving last year (he paid a $300 fine) was uncharacteristic: "I let everybody down—the team, my family, my parents. That's not what I stand for or believe in."

Aside from wearing a suit and tie on the sidelines—"He felt it would help him keep his composure"—Diana says her husband has changed little since she first met him in Dallas in 1972. "He's emotional because he cares," she adds. "Look how Mr. Halas used to get mad." Yes, she reports, Mike has been known to raise his voice at home. "And when he does," she says, "even the dogs hide."

Face it: Pray as he might, Ditka will probably always have that towering inferno of a temper. And if you believe anything else...see this, buddy? It's your IQ.

From Our Partners