Settling the Score: Talkin' Chicago Sportsby Mike North
Calm, reasoned, and well-modulated tones are not the order of business in discussing Chicago sports, and when it comes to talking Chicago sports, Mike North is in a class by himself. He led the sports-talk-radio industry out of its formative stages and became the city's most recognized voice. With his in-your-face style, North has all the answers and doesn't shortchange the reader when it comes to opinions. Why do the Bears carry the city? What's the basic difference between Sox and Cubs fans? Will the Bulls ever return to glory? Can the Blackhawks recapture their stature as one of the top teams in the NHL?
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Settling the Score
Talkin' Chicago Sports
By Mike North
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2009 Mike North
All rights reserved.
Is there anybody who's more of a Chicago Bear than Mike Ditka?
Once you get past George Halas himself, there's nobody even close. Ditka is Da Coach, and before he was Da Coach, he was one of the best tight ends who ever played the game.
I loved Mike Ditka the player, and I loved Mike Ditka as a coach. And as far as being on the radio with him, I loved that, too.
But while having him on the air was good for Mike North and the Score, it was also good for Mike Ditka. I don't know that he ever acknowledged that. I have nothing but respect for Ditka, but that doesn't mean he didn't do a few things that really upset me, and I talked about them on the air.
After the 2006 season, it bothered me that the Bears were going into the NFC Championship Game against the Saints, the other team he had coached, and he never came out and said who he was backing. It was obvious that his ties to Chicago were a lot stronger than his relationship with New Orleans, so who was he kidding by not coming out and rooting for the Bears?
I was always on Ditka's side when he was coaching the Bears, even when things weren't going well for him in that last season. That was 1992, the first year the Score (WSCR-AM) was on the air. I backed him until the end, and I think he was appreciative of that. The Bears were awful that season (5–11, tied for third in the NFC Central), and all the talk was about when Ditka would be fired, who would replace him, and how the team would react to a new coach. I had said all along that season that the Bears had better think long and hard about replacing Ditka. And if they did fire him, they couldn't come in with somebody who didn't at least come close to him in personality.
Well, leave it to Mike McCaskey to follow Mike Ditka with Dave Wannstedt. All the experts thought Wannstedt was this defensive genius for the Cowboys who would follow in Jimmy Johnson's footsteps and become this great coach. He was a disaster who couldn't carry Ditka's cigar case. Wannstedt didn't know what he was doing, and I guess that's what made him McCaskey's boy.
Before Ditka became George Halas' choice to coach the Bears — the last decision Halas made for the team before he died in 1983 — he was a great player for the Bears. To me, he was one of the best tight ends who ever played in the NFL. He was a great blocker who would knock everybody down in front of him, and he had great hands. The guy is in the Hall of Fame, for crying out loud.
There have been other good tight ends, but when Ditka came along, he was the first one to be used as a pass receiver as well as a blocker on an almost equal basis. He was simply an unstoppable player once he caught the ball. Unlike a lot of players that you see nowadays, Ditka would not go down to the ground or run out of bounds. If you wanted to stop Ditka after he caught a pass, you had to tackle him. Usually it took two or three guys to stick him good if you wanted to tackle him.
That's one of the main reasons I liked Ditka so much. You can say that he demanded a lot of his players and that he was tough on them, but he never asked for more than he gave himself. And he gave it to the same franchise that he played for and made his name. Ditka didn't have to be such a hard-ass or such a tough guy, but that's what came naturally for him. He was being true to himself, and he was the right guy to coach the team when Halas brought him on board.
You have to remember where the Bears were before Ditka got there. They had been coached by Neill Armstrong for the previous four seasons — not exactly an inspirational guy. Armstrong may have been a nice guy, but I'm not sure how much the players listened to him. They were a losing team in their last two years under Armstrong, so it was obvious that they needed somebody with fire and passion. That's why Halas was willing to put past differences with Ditka aside and bring him back to the team.
For one, Ditka had the same philosophy as Halas on how to build a team. At the time, the passing game was really becoming popular. Ditka had seen for himself how damaging the passing game could be because he was an assistant coach for Tom Landry and the Cowboys and they had just been beaten by the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game on Dwight Clark's famous catch of Joe Montana's pass. But Ditka still thought that if you put together a team that could punish and pummel the opponent, you could win a game.
He pretty much said the same thing when Halas called him up, brought him to Chicago, and interviewed him about the possibility of becoming head coach of the Bears. Halas asked Ditka what his philosophy was about being a head coach in the NFL, and Ditka told him he didn't have a philosophy.
Instead, he told Halas that he was not going to throw the football all over the lot and that he didn't believe in doing that. Instead, he wanted to bring a nasty, tough team on the field and simply kick ass.
It was a simple answer, and it was the same kind of philosophy that Halas had when he was coaching the Bears and one that he believed in until the very end. That made the match between coach and owner a perfect one.
But Ditka knew that his attitude and personality were not a match for everyone in Halas Hall. Not all of the Bears' front office people agreed with Halas that the philosophy of pounding your opponent was going to win in the NFL. It didn't matter when Halas was alive and still the man that Ditka had to answer to, but once Halas died in 1983, Ditka had to deal with quite a bit of friction from the owner's box.
As he was molding his team in 1982 and 1983, Ditka was putting together a team of punishing, hard-hitting guys who were willing to run through a wall for him. By the time the 1984 season started, Bears fans knew that Ditka was on the right track with his team. There were a few games that season that let us know for sure that the Bears were on their way. There was a home game against Minnesota where the Bears absolutely murdered the Vikings. The score was only 16–7, but the defense basically kicked Minnesota quarterback Tommy Kramer all over the field. The Bears had 11 sacks that game, and you knew they were something special.
A week later, the Raiders came to Chicago. The Raiders were basically the bullies of the NFL. They had beaten the Redskins in the Super Bowl, and they were supposed to be tough. The Bears beat them 17–6 and also beat them up. Jim McMahon lacerated his kidney that game which ended up costing them, but it marked the changing of the guard in the NFL. The Bears were real, and everybody knew it.
The team proved it by going down to Washington and beating the Redskins in the playoffs, but they took it on the chin against the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. It was a game that would stick with Ditka and the Bears for a long time. There were reasons for the loss, including McMahon's injury, but Ditka couldn't stomach the idea of losing to Bill Walsh.
After the game, Walsh handed out a couple of back-handed compliments to the Bears, saying they would be the team to beat once they got their offense squared away and McMahon came back. Ditka knew there was something pretty smug about Walsh even if he truly was a great coach. In the locker room after the game, Ditka told the team how much he believed in them and that they would take care of the 49ers next year.
That loss burned inside of Ditka throughout the whole off-season. He was particularly livid that they used offensive guard Guy McIntyre as a lead blocker from the fullback position. Ditka couldn't wait for the 1985 season to start, and he couldn't wait to take on the 49ers.
That happened early in 1985 — the sixth game of the season. The Bears were rolling, having won the first five games of the year before the road trip to San Francisco. Not only was Ditka looking forward to this game, but so was everyone else. The offense was particularly motivated, having been insulted by Walsh following the NFC Championship Game the year before. The Bears overpowered the Niners on both sides of the ball, using the running of Walter Payton (132 yards) and the speed and aggressiveness of the defense to punish San Francisco. Joe Montana was sacked seven times in that game, and he never knew what hit him.
Ditka decided enough was not enough and wanted to pay Walsh back for the way he had used McIntyre the year before. He had his own secret weapon in William "the Refrigerator" Perry, and he lined him up in the backfield. It wasn't a play that the Bears had practiced, but Ditka wanted to send his own message to Walsh.
He called Perry over, told him he was going to run the ball and to protect the ball when he got hold of it. The Bears used Perry to run with the ball on two plays in a row, and he virtually took all the life out of the San Francisco defense. The 49ers wanted no part of the 325–330-pound Perry. You couldn't blame them, either!
So the Bears won the game, and Ditka sent his personal message to Walsh in the form of Perry running the ball. That victory had taken care of all past-due bills. Ditka knew it, and it was time to look forward to taking the team to new heights during the rest of the year. However, Buddy Ryan didn't appreciate the way Ditka had used his defensive tackle. Ryan didn't have much use for Ditka to begin with, but using Perry in the backfield was something the defensive coordinator viewed as stepping on his toes.
Ditka didn't care. He saw Perry as an offensive weapon, and he was going to continue to use him. If he didn't get along with his defensive coordinator, that didn't matter — all he really had to worry about was taking his team to the Super Bowl.
The rest of the season was a pretty smooth ride for the Bears, with dominating wins the rule most of the way. Who will ever be able to forget the 44–0 win over the Dallas Cowboys in Texas Stadium? I think that win may have shocked a lot of the older Bears and former players more than any game they played that year.
My old buddy Doug Buffone took more pleasure out of beating the Cowboys than any other team because Tom Landry and Roger Staubach had stuck it to them just about every time they played. So to go down to Dallas and punish the Cowboys like that was just a tremendous weapon. If they could beat the Cowboys like that on the road, how could anyone else stick with them?
That became the question the rest of the year. Could they go on to an undefeated season and win the Super Bowl? Could this be the best team of all time? Bears fans wanted it all, and so did Ditka. They were 12–0 when they went to Miami for that Monday night game in early December. The Dolphins had Dan Marino and a big-time passing game, but going into that game, you just had the feeling that the Bears were going to bury the Dolphins. They had done it to everybody else. They were getting better, and they just seemed like they were bigger, stronger, and tougher.
There would be no Jim McMahon, but they had been winning without him. Remember, that 44–0 win over Dallas came with Steve Fuller in the lineup. He was no McMahon, but he was capable. The Dolphins, however, were as ready for the Bears as any team that season. Instead of letting Marino sit in the pocket like he usually did, Don Shula had him roll out so he could buy time, stay away from the pass rush, and find open receivers.
The Dolphins got a few breaks in the game and took advantage of them, and that's why the final score was 38–24 Dolphins. Ditka couldn't have been more angry with Ryan because of the play of the defense, but there was no flaw there. It was just the circumstances of the game that got away from the Bears, and Miami took advantage.
There would be no hangover after losing that game. The Bears would close out the season with three more wins before rolling into the playoffs with a 15–1 record.
The first team in was the Giants, and I don't know what Phil Simms says now, but there was no way the Giants had a chance against that Bears team. It was a 21–0 shutout, and the Giants had no hope. It was the same thing the next week in the NFC Championship Game against the Rams. This time it was 24–0 as the Bears pummeled Eric Dickerson and treated him like he was some third-stringer. He couldn't do a thing, and he was by far the best running back in the league at the time — outside of Payton. The Rams' quarterback was Dieter Brock, a Canadian Football League refugee who had had a pretty good year. But he was not in the class of the Bears defense, and that was that.
The Bears finally had a shot at the Super Bowl, and Ditka was not about to blow it. This was the reason Halas had hired him to be head coach, and I know Ditka's only regret was that the Old Man was not there to enjoy it. The Patriots had gone on a great run to get to the Super Bowl as the AFC champs, but they had been handled 20–7 by the Bears in a game that wasn't as close as the score, and there was no way their next meeting would be any different.
Added to the motivation of the Bears winning the Super Bowl was the likelihood that Ryan was leaving to become a head coach elsewhere. That got the defense even more fired up than usual. When the two teams took the field at the Superdome in New Orleans on January 26, 1986, there was only one possible outcome.
There was one moment of hesitation. The Bears fumbled on the opening series of the game, and the Patriots recovered deep in Chicago territory. New England couldn't move the ball an inch but still went ahead 3–0 on a Tony Franklin field goal. After that, it was all Bears. Led by their dominating, crushing defense and a good offensive performance, it was 46–10 Bears. And once again, the game wasn't as close as the score.
As satisfied as Ditka was, there was one bitter pill. Payton had not scored a touchdown. McMahon had rushed for two touchdowns, Perry had one, and Matt Suhey had one, but Payton did not get his. Payton was upset about it, and the fact that Payton was upset bothered Ditka. Payton was his favorite player of all time, and Ditka didn't like the idea that his future Hall of Famer was unhappy.
Payton put it behind him and moved on, but it was a flaw in the perfect diamond that was the 1985 season.
I love Gale Sayers. He was unbelievable as a football player, and he was a guy I got to see as a teenager in person at Soldier Field. I saw him when he was at his peak, and I have to say that I've never seen anyone better.
That includes the great Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Eric Dickerson, and any other back you want to name. Of players that I have seen perform either in person or on television, nobody was better than Sayers.
A lot of people will say that Sanders was better than Sayers, but that's just not the case. Sanders had more moves than any five running backs who were playing in the 1990s, and he had a dramatic impact on a team that was basically average (or below) during his career. But just because he was quicker and more elusive than running backs at that time, does that mean he was quicker and more elusive than Sayers?
No it doesn't. Sayers had just as many moves as Sanders, and he was also faster and stronger. So as far as I'm concerned, that's the end of the argument right there. Now there's no reason for anyone to think I'm putting down Sanders for any reason. The guy was one of the best runners of the past 25 years, he's in the Hall of Fame, and he basically carried that team. But if we are talking about Sayers, Sanders was not as good.
Sayers was just a magical player. I have to say that I have always enjoyed talking to him when he has been on the air and that he's a really good guy. I know there are some media people and other radio guys who may not like Sayers and think he's difficult and aloof, but that's only because they don't know him. Once you get to know Sayers, he's a really good guy and you find that he's really easy to like.
He was a magician when he was running with the ball. He had it all in that he knew when to accelerate and he knew when it was time to slow down. He knew when to make a cut and when not to. He was just so instinctive that he was impossible to stop.
Excerpted from Settling the Score by Mike North. Copyright © 2009 Mike North. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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Meet the Author
Mike North is a sports-radio personality who hosted a show at WSCR "The Score 670" in Chicago from 1992 to 2008.
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