Da Coach: Irreverent Stories from His Players, Coaches, and Friends

Da Coach: Irreverent Stories from His Players, Coaches, and Friends

by Rich Wolfe

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Capturing the tough, no-holds-barred stories told by Mike Ditka's drinking buddies, combative players, loyal teammates, friends, and fans, this unique tell-all shows “Da Coach” through the eyes of the people closest to him. Raucous and amusing, this biography proves that Ditka's no-nonsense attitude and give-'em-hell demeanor on the playing field was


Capturing the tough, no-holds-barred stories told by Mike Ditka's drinking buddies, combative players, loyal teammates, friends, and fans, this unique tell-all shows “Da Coach” through the eyes of the people closest to him. Raucous and amusing, this biography proves that Ditka's no-nonsense attitude and give-'em-hell demeanor on the playing field was certainly no act. Gale Sayers, Dick Butkus, and Walt Garrison remember going shoulder to shoulder on the gridiron with the monster of the midway himself. Jim McMahon, Mike Singletary, and Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson share incredible stories of Ditka's intense sideline strategizing, skirmishes, and scuffles. Tom Landry, Dave McGinnis, and Bob Costas recount Ditka's early years as a renegade roughhouser, and his incredible success as the man in charge of the World Champion Chicago Bears. Da Coach celebrates the life and colorful times of a true sports original who has it all—guts, glory, and personality to spare.

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Da Coach

Men are from Mars, Real Men are from Pittsburgh

By Rich Wolfe

Triumph Books

Copyright © 1999 Triumph Books and Rich Wolfe
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62368-463-1


College Days



As an undergraduate at Pitt, Ken Clapper never went to a single Pitt football game. Yet he was the key to recruiting Pitt's legendary Mike Ditka. Clapper has had a very successful career in the insurance business in Altoona, which is about two hours east of Pittsburgh.

A few years ago, I was chairman of the cancer drive in Blair County, Pennsylvania. Seated beside me at the kickoff luncheon was Joe Paterno. I told Joe the story about how I stole Ditka from Penn State, and he could hardly eat his lunch.

It was the summer of 1957 and I got a call from John Micheloson, Pitt's coach. We were good friends. John said, "Are you having some baseball thing over there next week?" I said, "Yeah, we're having the national amateur baseball federation." He said, "There was a left fielder on the Pittsburgh team. He's a good football player. He's going to Penn State. But at least touch base with him. His name's Mike Ditka."

So the Pittsburgh team came in and they stayed at a real cruddy hotel — it was just the luck of the draw. I tracked him down. I said, "Mike, would you like to go to dinner?" I took him to dinner, we had a nice chat, but I didn't really make any progress. So I followed the Pittsburgh team the next day and that night I again asked, "Mike, want to go to dinner?" I don't know what made me say it. At dinner I asked Mike, "What do you think you want to do in life?" "Oh," he said, "I think I want to be a dentist, maybe even an oral surgeon." I said, "Well, we just had a new oral surgery clinic open up here recently. Would you like to see it?" He said, "Yeah, I'd like to see it." He was nice. He wasn't a smarty like he is now.

So I talked to the manager of the Pittsburgh team. I said, "Could we take Ditka through the oral surgery clinic?" He said, "Yeah, on the way out of town." They were eliminated on Thursday, and on the way out of town, they stopped.

I got the oral surgeon, Joe Haller, off the golf course. In fact, he didn't even change his shoes — he was still wearing his golf shoes. The team parked outside the clinic. We took Ditka in and talked to him about dentistry, oral surgery, and things of this type.

Meanwhile, the team was waiting outside for Ditka. We were ready to close the thing down, and Ditka looked at me and said, "Mr. Clapper, do you think Mr. Engle would be mad if I changed my mind and decided to go to Pitt?" I said, "Oh no, Mike. Mr. Michelosen and Mr. Engle both are interested in your education as well as your football." He said, "Well, I think that's what I'll do." He went outside, got in the car, and started back home. I called Michelosen and said, "John, get your ass down to Aliquippa with your feet under the kitchen table. We've got Ditka." He said, "You've got to be kidding; he's committed to Penn State." I said, "Just do what I tell you." John drove to Aliquippa and Ditka said, "Yeah, I want to go to Pitt."

They took Ditka, a high school fullback by the name of J. M. Cunningham, and another player to Pitt, and they registered them for class. Then they took them to Lake Erie and hid them for three days. After school had started, they brought them down and put them in class.

In the meantime, Paterno, who was an assistant at Penn at the time, was over at the Pitt campus, saying, "I know you've got Ditka here somewhere." He never found Ditka until after Ditka was in class. That is how Ditka got to Pitt. He came to Altoona intending to go to Penn State, and left here going to Pitt.

I don't know how he did in that baseball tournament. But he was a good baseball player. And he's liable to hit you for writing this book.

Q: Red Grange was nicknamed "Old Seventy-Seven," "The Wheaton Iceman," and "The Galloping Ghost." What was his fourth nickname?

A: Red. His first name was Harold. When asked once how he came to wear number seventy-seven, Grange said the guy ahead of him in line got number seventy-six and the guy behind him got number seventy-eight.



Joseph Haller is a retired oral surgeon from Altoona, Pennsylvania, now living in Vero Beach, Florida. It was in his clinic that Ditka decided to become a dentist and enroll in the University of Pittsburgh, thus forsaking Joe Paterno and the Nittany Lions.

We had a guy who really promoted Pitt like crazy — Kenny Clapper. I had never heard of Mike Ditka before Kenny Clapper got a hold of me and wanted me to meet him. Ditka was in Altoona playing in a baseball tournament. Kenny wanted Ditka to meet me because he wanted Ditka to go to dental school at Pitt. One of the reasons Ditka went to Pitt was because he had a chance to get into one of the professional schools — either medicine or dentistry. Those other schools like Penn State didn't have a dental school.

They took me off the golf course to meet him. I walked into my clinic with my golf shoes on. I'm a neural and oral facial surgeon. I do all the facial stuff — give people new chins, new jaws, etc. They wanted him to see that. I worked him over a little bit and finally he decided to go. I'll tell you one thing — he wanted to be a doctor.

We told Ditka that if he was a good enough student to get into Pitt, he probably could get into dental school, because John Micheloson, who was a great coach at Pitt, used to get a lot of guys into dental school.

The other players were sitting out front in their cars, waiting for him. He was still in his baseball uniform. I was in my golfing outfit. My office and golf course were only ten minutes from where they were playing baseball. He was at the clinic for about an hour or an hour and a half. The only other person with him was Kenny Clapper from Altoona. Kenny was a big supporter of Pitt for many years, and he wanted Ditka to go to Pitt. He was actually more responsible for Ditka going to Pitt than I was. He wanted me to add some muscle to it. I knew everybody over at Pitt, and Kenny knew I could get Ditka into the dental school since the dean was a good friend of mine. I was a trustee and I was also on the state dental board.

My first impression of Ditka was that he was a big, strong kid. They told me that he was a good football player and a good baseball player. I was impressed with the guy, and he seemed pretty sincere. He expressed himself very well. I said, "Are you sure you want to go to dental school?" He said, "Yes, that's what I want to be." Of course, he never got that far. He made out better; he ended up a coach.

I've seen Ditka quite a few times since then. Three years ago, I played in a tournament in California for Frank Sinatra before he died. Ditka always played in those tournaments, and I had a chance to talk to him a little bit. He didn't remember me.

Mike Ditka is the only man to score a Super Bowl touchdown and coach a Super Bowl winner.



Jerry West, such an NBA legend that he was the model for the NBA logo, was arguably the best defensive guard ever. He is the only MVP of an NBA Finals who played for the losing team. His long and successful career as a Hall of Fame player, coach, and general manager began in his hometown of Cabin Creek, West Virginia, and continued on to the courts of West Virginia University.

The University of Pittsburgh was our biggest and most bitter rival because the two schools were only about ninety minutes apart. We would win the games at our court in Morgantown fairly easy. We would never be threatened as much as when we played at Pitt. The games at Pitt were really hard-fought, close games, very competitive, and very physical.

In 1958, during my junior year, we played a game at Pitt. It was a field house-like place, and around their court they had a running track. At one end of the court, there was no seating, just a curtain and, behind that, the running track.

Of course, I had no idea who Mike Ditka was, but I met him that night. Early in the game, I faked out my defender and was driving for an easy layup. Ditka absolutely creamed me and deposited me over this curtain that kept dust off the floor. While I was scraping cinders off my arms and legs, one of my teammates said something to him. Ditka called him a "snake," but to use the language, called him a particular kind of snake, and said he would break his neck. So all throughout the game, you knew Mike was around. He was just an aggressive player.

Q: What was the previous name of the Big 10 Conference?

A: It was called the Big Nine after the University of Chicago dropped out following the 1939 season. It became the Big Ten again when Michigan State joined in the early 1950s.



Foge Fazio is the assistant coach for the Minnesota Vikings and a former Pitt head coach. The Coriapolis, PA, native has known and played with and against Ditka since childhood.

Mike went to a larger high school than I did, but I knew him then and watched him play. He was a year behind me at the University, and we were on teams together. We also played American Legion baseball against each other.

During his sophomore year he went out for the basketball team at Pitt and made the team. We were playing at West Virginia, and they put him in the game. Jerry West and all those guys just got the hell out of the way. His nickname was "the Hammer." Naturally, Mike was the hammer and the enforcer, but he also liked to shoot the ball. He would take a couple of shots now and then, and we would be sitting in the stands going crazy cheering for him.

Mike is such a competitor. He was playing shortstop in one of our games, and someone hit a ball out to center field, where his brother Ashton was playing. Ashton came in and got the ball, but he didn't throw it to the cut-off guy. Mike was so pissed he threw his hat down and went after Ashton. Ashton saw him coming, took off running, and went over a chain-link fence to get out of his way. The game was delayed until Mike got back, and then they had to put in a new center fielder. I don't think Mike caught up with him, but I'm sure he got him later at home. Mike was a good shortstop. He had great range and was a good hitter and leader, just like he was in football.

We were playing Boston College at Boston College my senior year. In those days, when we scored a touchdown we had to line up and kick off. So basically we were on the kickoff cover team, too. If you started on defense and offense, you had to cover the kickoffs.

It was a pretty tough game and we had just pulled ahead of them. Mike was all fired up, running up and down the line, smacking guys on their helmets. He smacked one guard, Norton, and almost knocked him down. I saw him coming and ducked. Then he went up to Jimbo Cunningham, who was a big, tough fullback. He smacked Jimbo on the head and they almost got into a fistfight. People had to separate them right there before the kickoff.

One week we were getting ready to play Syracuse, the national champions. On the Thursday before the game, we were at our place doing a practice session without pads. They threw a long pass to Mike and he went down the field and caught it. Just as he caught it, he ran smack into the blocking sled, which was a two-man steel sled without the pads. A hush fell over the whole place. He just jumped right up. He had a big gash on his hand, and I'm sure he was bruised as hell, but you never would have known it. He still came out and played that Saturday. Most people would have been lying in the hospital. He is just a tough, tough individual.

We played a 5 — 3 defense. I played outside linebacker either beside Mike or just behind him. I'd go to make a tackle, and all at once I would hear a "boom" — Mike would somehow go off his block and just knock the hell out of the ball carrier, before I could get there. I was shocked when he went to the NFL and played tight end. I thought for sure he would be a linebacker or a defensive end. He was a crusher. He was an outstanding defensive man.

I went to the Patriots in 1960. I was cut and went back to see Pitt play Michigan State at Pitt Stadium.

Pitt had to play at 10:00 in the morning so they could get their game out of the way. A big fight broke out between Herb Adderley and Mike Ditka on the field. They probably would still be fighting today, like two gladiators on the field, but some people broke it up. It was one of those rambunctious deals that was momentous at the time.

When I got the head coaching job at Pitt, Mike called and said, "The Italian kid from Coriapolis who went to Pitt and the Slovac kid from Aliquippa who went to Pitt now become head coaches on the same day." He even put that in his book.

We played Illinois one year when the NFL was on strike. Mike came down to the game and gave my players a pep talk and really fired them up. They all knew who Mike was.

He is such a loyal guy. Every year he holds a golf tournament for his high school in Aliquippa. At one time, with the factory, they were probably graduating four or five hundred kids; now, they are graduating about one hundred. He holds the golf tournament to raise money not only for the football program, but for scholarships for needy kids. One year he had just had one of his hips replaced. Another year he played after a knee operation. He is very loyal to his hometown, and he always has been.

We played in an alumni game in the spring of 1977. I was the linebacker coach for Jackie Sherrill at the time and we all played in the game. Mike was coaching the Dallas Cowboys at the time and he came back and played defense. We were thirty-seven years old. But that's the kind of guy he is. He gives back to the people in his hometown.

Q: Who is the only college football player to be MVP of four bowl games?

A: Bo knows it's Bo Jackson, Auburn '82, '83, '84, '85. Marvin Graves of Syracuse came close, winning every year but his senior year. Few people know Bo's real name is Vincent Edward Jackson. His mother's favorite TV show was Ben Casey, starring Vincent Edwards. Bo, a baseball and football teammate of Frank Thomas at Auburn, is the only NFL back to have two touchdown runs of over ninety yards from scrimmage.



Although he is only 5'9", he became the first All-American basketball player in University of Pittsburgh history. He was Mike Ditka's friend and fraternity brother, and is now a successful surgeon in the Pittsburgh area.

Mike was a good basketball player; he was a very coordinated and talented athlete. He not only played basketball, he also played football and baseball and was a wrestling champ for the interfraternity council. He was an all-around athlete and a real good guy.

He was a junior, one year behind me. When they were initiating us into the fraternity, they had us run around in the basement of the fraternity house in women's panties. We were running around in the basement, and one of the brothers took some ice cubes, pulled Mike's pants back, and dumped the ice down his panties. Mike didn't say anything, but I saw him walk over to a table where there were about a half dozen eggs in a container. He picked the eggs up, went over to the guy — who was wearing a brand new suit — and smashed them over his head. Eggs were running all over him. I thought, "Oh, my goodness, we're going to get thrown out of here for sure." But they didn't throw us out; they went ahead and let us join. What a sight: this guy was all dressed up and thought he was doing something, and BOOM! Eggs all over him.



Paul Martha attended Pitt with Mike Ditka, and later went on to enjoy a professional career with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Denver Broncos.

When I was recruited by Pitt, Mike and I worked a construction job together. He kind of took care of me. We were building a Kaufmann's department store in Monroeville. No one ever fooled around with Michael; therefore, no one ever fooled around with me. Construction is construction and it can get a little physical, but no one ever got physical with Michael.

Michael was a very physical guy, but I never saw him get in a fight. No one really wanted to fight him because he was bigger than most people. He was just Mike Ditka, and people didn't fool around with Mike Ditka.

I think he was a junior then, and I was about to become a freshman. I never really played with Mike, but I played against him when he was with the Bears and I was with the Steelers. In college, we scrimmaged, but we never played on the same team because freshmen weren't eligible in those days.

I did play some basketball games with him. I played for Pitt for two years, and we would scrimmage the varsity. Michael wasn't a player with a lot of finesse; he was a big guy and very physical. West Virginia had a good team — Jerry West, Clint Kishbaugh — but we were a little more physical than they were.

He was a pretty good baseball player. He played center field. We both played for the Lawrenceville Tigers, a sandlot team, in Pittsburgh. It was good baseball. A lot of minor league players came back and played.

One season Pitt played USC, and the McKeevers twins, who starred for Southern Cal, gave Ditka a tough time. They picked on him, and the crowd (this part of Pittsburgh was a tough crowd) got on Michael about the McKeevers. The crowd was more Pittsburgh fans than Pitt fans, so they got on Michael. He wasn't doing too well — he had struck out once and had dropped a fly ball — so they got on him. He was out in center field, and I played shortstop. Right in the middle of the inning, he started in from center field, and I said, "Michael, where are you going?" He said, "I've got to take care of business." He just cleaned out the stands; they saw him coming and they just left. Bingo, everybody was immediately gone. Then he came back to center field.


Excerpted from Da Coach by Rich Wolfe. Copyright © 1999 Triumph Books and Rich Wolfe. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Rich Wolfe is a sports marketing consultant, has owned a minor league basketball team, and currently owns a Central Hockey League franchise. He is the author of I Remember Harry Caray and Sports Fans Who Made Headlines.

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