They called him Iron Mike. He played and coached football as if every Sunday was Iwo Jima and he was the first man in.
There’s great irony in the coaching career of Mike Ditka, a Chicago Bear through and through.
Ditka, on an NFL Network special called "A Football Life," said that winning the Super Bowl in 1971 as a player—and as a Dallas Cowboy—meant more to him than when he won it as a coach in 1985 with the Bears.
The irony is that the man who coached Ditka with the Cowboys, and the man he has the utmost respect and love for—Tom Landry—was 180 degrees from Ditka in terms of personality and coaching style.
If you looked up “stoic” in Webster’s, there’d be a photo of Landry, in his fedora, expressionless.
Ditka was anything but stoic. Manic comes to mind.
Ditka fought with his players. He fought with the officials. He fought with the media, especially. And he had some run-ins with the fans. He had a heart attack at age 48 and was back on the sidelines 11 days later. He was Iron Mike, after all.
Landry walked up and down the sidelines as if he was waiting for a bus. He didn’t berate his players for the world to see. Landry showed emotion as often as Haley’s Comet.
Tom Landry and Mike Ditka couldn’t have been more different as head coaches. Yet Landry was the man from whom Ditka learned the ins and outs of coaching.
Ditka won his world championship in 1985, but he remains an anomaly of sorts.
Let’s take a look at the Super Bowl-winning coaches throughout history.
There was Vince Lombardi, and while Lombardi’s motivational tactics are legendary—and confirmed by his players—he was not the ranting and raving lunatic that Ditka could be, and was on an almost weekly basis. It should be noted that Landry coached with Lombardi when they were both assistants with the New York Giants.
Hank Stram, 1969 Chiefs. Stram was an affable, snickering, smiling man who carried his rolled up program, wore natty suits and used words like “matriculate,” but he was no maniac.
Don Shula, 1972-73 Dolphins. Shula, a fellow Hall of Famer with Ditka and Landry, had a profile worthy of Mt. Everest, but a personality that was cerebral and under control. No mad man here.
Chuck Noll, 1974-75; 1978-79 Steelers. Noll’s next quip will be his first. His players have made fun of him for his lack of humor and levity. He was another who managed to keep himself under control.
John Madden, 1976 Raiders. Madden was crazier in the broadcast booth than he was on the sidelines.
On and on it goes. The list of winning coaches doesn’t include any candidates for an insane asylum.
Bill Walsh, George Seifert, Bill Parcells, Tom Coughlin, Bill Belichik—with the exception of maybe Parcells—all of these coaches were relatively staid, controlled men whose hearts were so far removed from their sleeve, you wondered if they were human.
The NFL coach historically runs on fumes. It’s a life of 18-hour days, sleeping on the sofa in the office and watching more film than a movie critic.
It’s hard to combine such a life with the manic, relentless, confrontational style that Mike Ditka lived while coaching the Bears from 1982-92, and later with the New Orleans Saints in an ill-advised comeback in the late-1990s.
He had a heart attack at age 48, which didn’t come close to mellowing him. Who has a heart attack and resumes work 11 days later? Especially in the kind of business that Ditka was in, which consumes and eats men?
I worry about Jim Harbaugh, the coach of the San Francisco 49ers. Harbaugh learned his coaching chops from Bo Schembechler at Michigan and from Ditka himself with the Bears. Two wallflowers, those men were not.
Harbaugh runs the throttle high. He is, perhaps, manic in his own way. There is a lot of Bo and Iron Mike in him. Schembechler was another who was felled by a heart attack in his 40s—on the eve of his first Rose Bowl.
I also worry about Jim Schwartz of the Lions.
Schwartz’s temper is already legendary in Detroit. As is his impetuous behavior, which has, unfortunately, cost his team some football games.
It’s no wonder—none at all—that Harbaugh and Schwartz were the two coaches involved in that silly handshake incident at Ford Field following a game in 2011.
If you had to pick two coaches out of the 32 in the NFL who could descend into that kind of madness—a near fistfight over a post-game handshake—Jim Harbaugh and Jim Schwartz would be at the top of the list.
Schwartz used a word at the beginning of training camp that I didn’t figure to come out of his mouth—at least not in describing himself.
That word was “humbling.”
He was talking about last year’s 4-12 record, when the Lions lost their final eight games. It was one year removed from 2011’s surprise 10-6 mark and playoff appearance.
Schwartz said that the 4-12 record was humbling for him—and this from a guy who often acts like he’s the smartest man in the room, especially when the others in the room are members of the media.
Mike Ditka was an exception. He was one of the few Super Bowl winning coaches who was stark raving mad. Most of the others were reserved, and were calming influences on their football teams.
It says here that if the Lions are to reach their potential, in a year in which Schwartz and GM Marty Mayhew have been put on notice by the Ford family, the coach needs to rein himself in and his football team needs to stop being a bunch of hotheads.
The Lions have already committed a bunch of personal fouls this exhibition season. Late hits, taunting and other indiscretions have jobbed the Lions of 15 yards at an alarming rate.
I believe that football teams, more than in any other sport, are a reflection of their coach. The Lions have been problem children on the field ever since Schwartz took over in 2009. They commit too many silly penalties, and at the worst possible times. It has killed them, truth be told.
The Lions need to calm down. They need to be smarter.
So does their coach. Schwartz needs to be the anti-Ditka. We’ll see how humbled he really is.