The Daily Herald from Chicago, Illinois on August 31, 1997 · Page 152
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The Daily Herald from Chicago, Illinois · Page 152

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Chicago, Illinois
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Sunday, August 31, 1997
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Page 152
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Page 6/Section 1A NFL^T Sunday, August 31,1997 DaflyHeiald Saints relying on Iron will to lead the way BY BOB LEGERE Daily Herald Sports Writer Mike Ditka has won a Super Bowl in New Orleans as a player, an assistant coach and a head coach.. But in all three instances he had the advantage of not being saddled with the Saints. This year Ditka undertakes one of the biggest challenges of his career as he tries to build a 3-13 conglomeration of rookies, underachievers and has-beens along with a handful of star players into a Super Bowl team. In the 30-year history of the New Orleans Saints franchise, none of Ditka's 11 predecessors managed to win even one playoff game. The Saints haven't had a winning seasons since 1992. If they manage to go 10-6 for the next 23 seasons, they'll be above .500 as a franchise. Ditka, however, has talked the talk of a man committed to winning — and doing it his way — since the Saints' first day of training camp in LaCrosse, Wis. Opinion seems to be split over whether Ditka can — by the sheer force of his will — resuscitate the Saints, or whether the job is too big and he is too old, too mellow, too set in his ways and too far removed to do what he did with the Bears. If there are any of the latter in the Saints' camp, they won't be there for long. Ditka knows what kind of players he wants, and by the first week of training camp his players knew what he wanted "He has no hidden agendas," said Heath Shuler, the quarterback the Redskins gave up on but whom Ditka has chosen to lead his Saints to the promised land. "You know where you stand with him every day when you walk on the field. "You can't play for this guy unless you have confidence in yourself You have to have self-motivation, you have to have confidence. He's gonna push you, not only physically but mentally. He's gonna push and see how.far you .can go until you break, and if you don't break, you're one of his guys-" Ditka didn't waste any tune determining who his guys were. Nine starters from last season are gone, including quarterback Jim Everett and the team's top two wide receivers, Torrance Small and Michael Haynes, all of whom were cut. "I was brought in to make changes," Ditka said. "If they wanted things to stay the same, they shouldn't have hired me." Ditka did not disappoint those who expected the old "Iron Mike," even after a four-year hiatus spent in the broadcast booth. "I want my players to be tough guys," Ditka said. "I want them to play tough, think tough, act tough. If you hit the other guy harder than he hits you, chances are you're going to beat him. -"I don't know if I'm .right or, wrong, but I do know ttmtJ'U have a group of guys you can" go to war with. I'll have the kind of people who wiU fight to the end." But for all the old braggadocio and machismo, there is much about Ditka that seems in contrast to his old clipboard-tossing, gum- throwing, locker-punching, quarterback-berating self. And there is little of the inflated self-importance that had come to characterize his last couple seasons in Chicago. "You may think that flatters me, but it really doesn't," a perturbed Ditka said after the umpteenth question referring to him and what he means to the franchise. "This is about the Saints, and I'd like to keep it that way." But he doesn't deny that his presence alone has elevated hopes for the Saints. "You'd like to walk softly, but there are great expectations," Dit- ka said. "But it's not about me. It's about this football team." Ditka's determined to succeed where few have before him, but he fully intends to enjoy himself doing it. While he ran a tough camp, he wanted his players to enjoy their .work as much as he does. "I enjoy everything about this," he said. "Everything's fun for me. What I really enjoy is the enthusiasm, seeing guys playing with enthusiasm. And I want these guys to have fun and believe in themselves. This game's hard, and if you're not having fun, it's tough to get up in the morning and go to practice every day." There .was little evidence of Saints players haying fun during three weeks of training camp double sessions, but a 3-13 team needs all the work it can get, at least if its coach is Mike Ditka. "We've got tremendous improvement to make," he said. "We've got a lot of goals that we're trying to reach. Hey, if it was easy, we'd go out there for 10 minutes and pack it in. We can't do that. We've got to spend time out there. The onV way I know how to get it done is to practice." Ditka says he is better prepared in some ways to take over the Saints than he was to take the Bears' top job in 1982, But he doesn't have the same tools he did in Chicago. "There was more uncertainty in my first Bears camp because I didn't know a lot of the players," said Ditka, who led the Bears to six NFC Central titles and victory in Super Bowl XX at the Super- dome. "Here Fve got a pretty good feel for the team, but I don't think I have the leaders I had there, like Walter Payton and Mike Singletary." Early in the Saints' camp, the old, sarcastic Ditka surfaced when he was asked if most of the practices would be in full gear. "How do we play on Sundays?" he shot back. "I haven't seen any of those games where they put shorts on on Sunday." . But rather than taking himself too seriously, as many believe he did in Chicago, Ditka has even pokedfun.athimself, ^ --•- *••*•-• While, discussing, a fractured '• hand'that' one iif his' players"suf-< New Orleans Saints players have been impressed by Mike Ditka's leadership abilities. Associated Press Pnoto fered in training camp, Ditka said it was an injury that didn't necessarily have to be disabling. "I had the same thing (as a player)," he said. "You break it, and then you wind up with a hole in your hand and then, if you become a coach, and you punch.a (locker), you break it again." No one on the Saints is closer to Ditka then offensive coordinator Danny Abramowicz. Ditka hired Abramowicz to coach the Bears special teams in 1992, and he was the first person Ditka called when he began putting a staff together. "Things that maybe used to stay in his craw for awhile, Mike doesn't allow that to happen," Abramowicz said. "He lets that get out of his system now, he doesn't let it stay and eat at him. "Does that mean he's not gonna get ticked off at times? No. I think that he's gonna be a guy that can turn the other cheek and say, 'I really don't have control over some things so why get so upset.' "And Mike, I think, sees that the Lord supplied him with another opportunity to get back into the field he should be in— coaching. He's wonderful with people and that's what he needs to do, and I think that's what he wants to do." While you won't catch Ditka bar- hopping with his players after practice, there seems'no hint that after four years away, and at 57 years of age, he's lost touch with the modern-day players. "That's been the most impressive thing to me, is just how he handles everybody," said the 25- year-old Shuler. 'You don't have to worry about what he's thinking if you mess up a play. He knows that you screwed up, but he's not gonna harp on you. He'll just let you know howyou can do it better. •i. ".Sometimes (someone) will drop a pass> Well, he knows you 1 droppecTa pass, and you know you dropped it. He'll say, instead of, You gotta catch that,' he'll say, 'Be a little, more patient, watch your footwork, come out of your break better." Ditka's second call when assembling a coaching staff went to Dick Stanfel, his offensive line coach for his tenure with the Bears. Stanfel says Ditka has changed some, but not much. When Stanfel was asked if Ditka had mellowed, he considered the possibility for a moment but didn't totally agree. "He'll still be the Ditka that he was," says Stanfel, who has spent 33 years in coaching, including a four-game stint as the Saints' interim head coach in 1980 after Dick Nolan was fired. "He'll still have that fire behind him. When things go bad, you get upset I get upset when they go bad. If you don't get upset when they go bad there's something wrong with you. You're not mellow, you're dead." At Stanfel's age, he should be enjoying his retirement, which he had been doing since the Ditka regime was ousted in Chicago. It took a lot for him to come back. A lot of loyalty. And it goes both ways. "I respect the man," Stanfel said. "He's a hell of a coach. I think he's an honest person and a fair man, and he asked me to come back. Since it was him, I came back. Someone else, maybe I don't • want to come back. But Td like to help him get this team on the right track, which I think he will. "I respect Mike. He's always been good to me, and we've coached a long time together. In fact, I coached him when he was a player a couple years (with the Eagles), so I think there's a feeling for the both of us, I admire him, I respect him, I,hope,he .does (the same thing for me."': .•';!. ; ., :; T - r « Bes'pect is & word-thai comes up/ often when you talk to people who work with and for Ditka. "Of course everybody's going to respect him, just out of the respect you have for a head coach," Shuler said. "But there's a big difference between (Ditka) and the other head coaches I've been around. You've got a lot more respect for this guy than you do everybody else. "He's one of these guys that, I don't know how to explain it, he doesn't say a whole lot at practice, but what he does say, everyone listens. Just because he's talking to a tight end doesn't mean the quarterbacks don't listen. You pay as close attention as you possibly can to him because he has some really insightful stuff. His base is fundamentals, football knowledge, being a smart, productive football player." That may provide a solid foundation, but the ability to motivate always was and still is what separates Ditka and sets him apart from and above other head coaches. Schemes and systems come and go. But football is always a game of emotion. Even before the Saints had their first double session, they had a rallying cry. They wore it on T-shirts at training camp and they'll be expected to wear it on their sleeves or they'll soon wear out their welcome. "Our shirts say, 'We find a way or we make a way,'" Shuler said. "And that's sort of our motto. (Ditka) explained what that meant. Sometimes you can find a way to get through practice and work hard, and sometimes you have to make your own way. You have to push and strive and dig down deep inside your heart and go that extra mile." . That's,;all pitka..asked of. the ; Bears. HeUl accept nothing.less. '

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