The dog days of the offseason are finally behind us now that training camp is underway, just in time for our countdown of the Top 100 Chicago Bears of all time to really heat up. As we get closer to the season opener, we get closer to naming the #1 Chicago Bear of all time.
It is hard for me to put in to words how I feel about coach Ditka. I started watching football in ’84 as a youth and Ditka could do no wrong. The Bears were an elite team for most of my childhood and Ditka was the only coach in any sport that seemed to have an actual impact on his team. Looking back on those years with a somewhat more impartial eye, Ditka clearly had some flaws as a coach, but a 106-62 record (.631) is pretty impressive so he must have been doing something right. I actually met Ditka two weekends ago at his new restaurant in Arizona and I was honored to just to shake his hand. If you are looking for an objective review of Ditka’s career, look elsewhere.
I missed Ditka’s playing career, but it was even more impressive than his coaching stint with the Bears. Ditka went to college at Pittsburgh expecting to be a dentist. I can just imagine Ditka yanking teeth out of his patient’s mouths and telling them to stop whining like a wuss. Obviously Ditka’s dental career never panned out due to his dominance on the football field. Ditka lettered in three sports at Pitt (baseball, basketball), but football is where he truly shined as a rare three-way player (LB, TE, P). Ditka is considered one of the greatest college tight ends of all-time, but should be considered one of the greatest athletes. Ditka led Pitt in catches all three seasons, was a solid linebacker and punter, and was a consensus All-American in 1960.
The Bears drafted Ditka with the 5th overall pick of the 1961 NFL Draft. There was some debate on what Ditka’s best position was but George Halas decided on tight end, which at that time in the NFL was just a glorified tackle. Ditka changed the tight end position for good his rookie season.
Ditka won the NFL Rookie of the Year, set the Bears record for most rookie touchdowns (12) and led the team in catches (56), yards (1076) and TDs (12) all while being one of the best blockers on the team. He was also named 1st team All-NFL and made the Pro Bowl. Teammate and Hall of Famer Bill George had this to say about Ditka’s rookie year:
“He is the best rookie I have ever seen. 11 more of him and there would be no place for me on the team”
He never had a better statistical season than his rookie year, but Ditka was still a force to be reckoned with. Ditka was named All-NFL in each of his first five seasons and also made the Pro Bowl all 5 years. He never missed a start during his time with the Bears despite some fairly serious injuries. The injuries did start to mount up though and by Ditka’s 6th season in Chicago (1966) he had clearly slowed down and had his worst statistical season as a Bear (32, 368, 2). Ditka also began to feud with owner George Halas over player salaries which Ditka considered cheap and behind the times. Halas didn’t take any lip from players and traded Ditka to Philadelphia for QB Jack Concannon and a draft pick.
Ditka went on to play five more seasons in the league with both Philly and Dallas but knee, hamstring and shoulder problems slowed Ditka down and he never came close to the numbers he put up in Chicago. In his six seasons as a Bear, Ditka made 5 All-Pro teams, 5 Pro Bowls, was Rookie of the Year, and won an NFL Championship (63). He had 316 catches, 4,503 receiving yards and 45 TDs in his Bears career. Ditka also won a Super Bowl (71) with Dallas during his 4 years playing with the Cowboys.
Dallas gave Ditka his first coaching job as an assistant under the legendary Tom Landry. He coached with Dallas for nine years and the Cowboys made the playoffs in 8 of them, won 6 division titles, 3 NFC championships and 1 Super Bowl (1977). During his tenure with the Cowboys Ditka reached out to George Halas via a letter, clearing up any old animosities and letting Halas know that he was ready to take over as head coach of the Bears. That is awesome and a classic Ditka move. It apparently went over well with Halas and the Bears hired Ditka as the Bears head coach in 1982.
When Ditka was hired as the Bears head coach the Bears had been on a brutal stretch, only making the playoffs twice in the 15 years since Papa Bear Halas retired as head coach (1967). Ditka vowed to change that, promising his team that if they worked hard and followed his instructions they would win a Super Bowl within 3 years. He was only one year off. After a couple of transition years (82,83) the Bears won 10 games in 84 and lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion 49ers in the conference championship. As we all know, the Bears won the Super Bowl the next season behind one of the greatest defenses off all-time. Ditka was named NFL Coach of the Year after the ’85 season and again in ’88. The Bears were dominant for the rest of the 80s but for some reason couldn’t get past the Redskins in the playoffs (86, 87). Despite one of the most talented rosters in the league, the Bears only won one title under Ditka in the 80s.
The 90s started out well with the Bears going 11-5 in both 90 & 91, but they fell apart in 92 with a 5-11 record and Ditka was fired after the season. I remember clearly being crushed when the Bears fired Ditka despite playoffs appearances in seven of the last nine years and a Super Bowl title. It still seems unfair. Ditka took four years off from coaching before taking over as the Saints head coach in 1997.
Ditka is one of those rare players that succeeded in college (All-American), the NFL (5-time All-Pro, 2 rings), and as an NFL coach (1 ring). He was elected to the NFL Hall of Fame in 1988 and was the last player to have his number retired by the Bears (2013). Ditka has also made millions of dollars as an endorser, runs a successful restaurant chain, and is so popular in the city of Chicago he could probably run for public office and win. Iron Mike is an icon and role model in Chicago. I idolized Ditka as a kid when I first started watching football and didn’t know any better, but even now as a jaded adult… my feelings for Ditka haven’t changed. He is a true legend and one of the greatest Bears of all-time.
What do you think of the ranking? Too high? Too low? I guess you’ll have to check back to see who finished ahead of him to judge for yourself. We’ll be counting down a different person each day as we inch our way to the September 7th season opener.