Vintage Ditka takes over Saints He's as colorful as ever as he returns to coaching


Iron Mike Ditka became a Saint yesterday, but he quickly showed he still has a devilish touch.

Ditka, hired as the coach of the New Orleans Saints four years after being fired by the Chicago Bears, didn't take long to prove he is as outspoken as ever.

Ditka, who broke his hand punching a locker at Memorial Stadium after a loss to the Baltimore Colts in 1983, used a word at his news conference that had to be bleeped in the sound bites.

Talking about his habit of making controversial comments, he said: "The funny thing is when you're winning, you say something [outrageous], it's kind of cute. When you're losing, you say the same thing and you're an [deleted]. I know."

The reporters laughed. Ditka is never dull and he's always been emotional. There were tears in his eyes and a catch in his voice as he was introduced.

"Life to me is about challenges and climbing mountains and that's what I intend to do, climb another mountain," he said.

While he climbed that mountain in Chicago, he frequently screamed at quarterback Jim Harbaugh on the sidelines, drove another quarterback, Mike Tomczak, to see a psychiatrist, threw gum at a fan and once said: "Donnell Woolford can't cover anybody."

When he had a heart attack during the 1988 season, he was away from the job only 11 days.

Ditka, 57, a Hall of Fame tight end with the Bears, Eagles and Cowboys, coached the Bears from 1982 to 1992 and won 106 games, including Super Bowl XX in New Orleans after the 1985 season.

The 1985 Bears were a rollicking bunch, featuring William "Refrigerator" Perry, Walter Payton, punky quarterback Jim McMahon and defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, who barely tolerated Ditka and treated the defense as if it were a separate team.

But that was a different era. Whether Ditka's rambunctious style can work in the free agency era, when players are spoiled by boxcar salaries, remains to be seen.

For Ditka, who played for George Halas, being a Bear was something special. In today's game, the players tend to be more loyal to their paychecks than to a team.

Ditka, though, sounded as if he'll try to do things the same way.

"People say, 'Can you do things the same way you did them before?' I don't know, but I'm sure going to try. I'm going to try from the bottom of my heart because that's the only way I know how to do them. And what your mind can conceive, your heart would believe you can achieve. I know that's corny, but, hey, what else is there in life?" he said.

Ditka is the second coach hired in a week who had been away from the game. The St. Louis Rams last week hired Dick Vermeil, who hasn't coached since 1982.

When Ditka was asked whether he can turn the 3-13 Saints around, he said: "I don't believe in miracles, but I don't believe it'll take a miracle."

It should be interesting to see how Ditka copes working for owner Tom Benson, a car dealer who believes his employees should keep their desks clean, shouldn't eat at them and should keep their cars washed.

The one thing there's no doubt Ditka can do is sell tickets, and the Saints didn't have a single home sellout last year.

Ditka was offered a five-year contract, but chose to take a three-year deal, showing he has confidence he can turn it around immediately.

"This is a great opportunity. Somebody just said, 'Do you still have the drive?' I have the drive and the enthusiasm is growing as I talk to you people. I didn't realize how much I missed this."

He has incentives in his contract for winning the NFC West title and for winning playoff games.

"Especially if he wins playoff games," said Benson.

The Saints, the eighth team to change coaches since the start of the season, have not won a playoff game in the history of the franchise.

Ditka replaces Jim Mora, who quit in midseason, and Rick Venturi, who finished out the season as interim head coach. Venturi will stay on as assistant head coach and linebackers coach.

Pub Date: 1/29/97

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