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Ditka: Saintly start NFL: Bear-like snarls and growls are conspicuous by their absence as Iron Mike starts from the ground up with New Orleans.


LA CROSSE, Wis. -- The reincarnation of Mike Ditka, living legend and former Chicago Bears coach, continues without incident in this sleepy Wisconsin border town hard by the Mississippi River.

Five days into his first training camp with the New Orleans Saints, there have been no tirades, no threats and little turbulence other than what two-a-day practices normally bring.

Five years after he last coached in the NFL, Ditka is back on the sidelines again, running the woebegone Saints in a manner not at all reminiscent of his fiery final days with the Bears in 1992.

This is a kinder, gentler version of the man they call Iron Mike. Even when Ditka got the first tell-tale glimpse of his new team in contact drills yesterday against the Minnesota Vikings -- and the Saints were an eyesore -- he was gracious.

"We get better at something every day," he said. "Every once in a while, we revert to do something kind of silly. That happens with a young, inexperienced team with a new coach.

"But nobody is jumping down anybody's throat. Nobody's doing any browbeating of anybody. It's a matter of, if they do something wrong, we correct them and go on about our business."

Ditka won 112 games, six division titles and one Super Bowl in 11 years as coach of the Bears. Yet, one of the enduring images of that time came in Minnesota in 1992, when he lost his composure and chewed out quarterback Jim Harbaugh on national television as the Bears coughed up a 20-7 lead.

By the end of his reign in Chicago, Ditka was feuding with just about everyone -- his players, the media and fans who criticized him on his radio show.

It was that volatile exit, Saints president Bill Kuharich said, that possibly kept Ditka from getting another coaching job until now. Ditka says he's mellowed since then; Kuharich isn't sure.

"I don't know if mellowed is the right word," Kuharich said. "His being away from the game helped him. [But] he hasn't changed. I just don't think he'll go off like he did on Harbaugh in Minnesota. But he's not going to be [a stoic like former Vikings coach] Bud Grant, either."

Kuharich knew what he was getting when he hired Ditka last January to turn around the 3-13 Saints: A proven winner, a motivator, a dominant personality. Even though Kuharich is the youngest team president and general manager in the NFL at age he had no reservations about Ditka's background or age (57).

"He was the right guy for this team," Kuharich said. "It was his track record, his credentials, his ability to motivate.

"This guy is an icon. I'm a 44-year-old general manager in his first year in control of an organization in the NFL. This guy went to the Super Bowl as a player, an assistant coach and a head coach.

"If you're a young general manager, you can't train a young coach. If I was 20 years in the business, like [San Diego's] Bobby Beathard, I might go for a Kevin Gilbride or a Vic Fangio. But I need to have that experience factor [as coach]."

Kuharich may be Ditka's boss, but the Ditka imprint can be seen throughout the team and its roster. As he did in the early days in Chicago, he's willing to play with young, unproven players. That's in sharp contrast to Jim Mora's coaching era in New Orleans, when veterans were preferred.

Already, Ditka is lining up 10 new starters -- five each on offense and defense. He sacked veteran quarterback Jim Everett (34), in favor of Redskins reject Heath Shuler (25), dumped the big salaries of Michael Haynes, Torrance Small and Jim Dombrowski, and took a guard (Chris Naeole) with the 10th pick in the draft.

The Saints have gotten Ditka's message that hard work will eventually reap dividends.

"We know what he expects and there are no complaints about two-a-days or anything else," Shuler said. "I think that's because, who's going to complain to Mike Ditka? Nobody. If he heard it, you might as well pack your bags."

Ditka hasn't yet run anyone off the team in camp. But he did tell defensive end-turned-linebacker Renaldo Turnbull, who walked off the field once in 1996 in defiance, that Turnbull should keep walking if he ever does it again.

It's that kind of discipline that the Saints need, Kuharich said.

There were indications in yesterday's workout against the Vikings that the Saints are being transformed, however slowly, into Ditka's hard-nosed image. One such instance was when rookie running back Troy Davis took a high, hard shot from Minnesota linebacker Dixon Edwards -- but kept running up field.

"Mike likes that, doesn't he?" Saints owner Tom Benson said immediately to a group of reporters on the sideline.

On the field, Ditka slowly turned away from the action and smiled his approval.

Pub Date: 7/23/97

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