POKE. JAB. ARF, ARF. ROAR!
Yes, it's that time of year again—bearbaiting season.
You know the medieval game: Simple folks would chain a bear to a stake, poke it with a stick for a bit, then let the dogs loose to torment the animal into a bellowing, claw-flailing frenzy. Great fun. It beat chinking cracks in the mud hut, anyway.
Substitute an NFL coach for the bear, the press corps for the dogs, and you've got the modern-day version of this pastime. And if you make Mike Ditka the baited coach, or bear, or Bear, why you've got some of the finest entertainment available. Ditka, of course, is the volatile leader of the Chicago Bears, a man whose furnace burns a few degrees hotter than ours. Though he had a heart attack during the 1988 season and has tried to mellow out, Ditka is still a land mine ready to be stepped on. In other words, he's perfect baiting material.
What invariably happens at this point in the NFL season is that once-hopeful fans and the media become fed up with poor team performances and start to clamor for change or, at least, diversion. They focus on a weak spot in a stressed coach's hide—his porous defense, bad play-calling or, in Ditka's case, boorish sideline behavior—and start nipping away. On Oct. 4, in a game against the Minnesota Vikings, Ditka screamed at Chicago quarterback Jim Harbaugh after Harbaugh changed a play at the line of scrimmage and threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown. The Bears, who had been ahead 20-0 in the fourth quarter, lost their composure and went on to lose the game 21-20, dropping their record to 2-3. Disgruntled Chicago fans and the media had their bear.
Ditka was savaged by the press for two weeks, and then on Oct. 19, the day after the Bears beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31-14, Ditka was asked by a reporter if he had had to restrain himself from screaming at Harbaugh after Harbaugh threw an interception that set up a Tampa Bay touchdown. Stand back, hounds!
"Three hundred and ninety-nine of the plays [this year] I've been calm," the big Bear snarled. "One I've been excited. Yet you sons of bitches made a big deal out of it! That's life. Remember that. One out of 4001 got excited this year.... Don't ever ask me another question like that about those things, because I won't answer it and I'll walk out of here."
Poke. Arf, arf. Roar!
And the baiting is going on elsewhere in the NFL, wherever boredom or impatience has set in. New England Patriot coach Dick MacPherson is being tested in Boston, Brown coach Bill Belichick is at war with Cleveland sportswriters, Falcon coach Jerry Glanville is on the griddle in Atlanta, and Giant coach Ray Handley is getting a nice prodding from the New York tabloid gang. "I regret being the story more than my football team," Handley sadly said recently. But that's what happens when Handley, who is agonizingly sedate on the sideline as his team stumbles about, loses his cool in one press conference, cancels another and then decides to cut by half the time he makes himself available to the media during the week.
Handley just doesn't understand. The media—attracted because of the incredible success of the NFL as entertainment—have to write or film something even if the team they cover is pathetic. Baiting isn't even criticism, really; it's a sport in and of itself: "How much can a coach take? Film at 11."
Before he stormed out of his press conference the day after the Bears beat the Bucs, Ditka said, "If you think this is a——soap opera, you're full of——." How wrong can he be? Of course it's a——soap opera. None of this NFL stuff, not the games nor scores nor trades nor drafts nor tirades of the coaches, is important the way a simple snowstorm is. The NFL is all melodrama, diversion. It wouldn't be any fun otherwise. Some people like All My Children, others like All My Noseguards.
However it works, the ritual of harassing coaches has been going on since big-time sports began. If a coach is easily rattled, the press barks all the harder. Still, there are a small but growing number of Chicagoans who feel it's time to let up on Ditka before he says something that will force the Bears to sack the most successful coach in their history. Even Harbaugh has shrugged off Ditka's sometimes abusive behavior, by reminding folks that this is pro football, after all, and he was groomed at Michigan under another sweetheart named Bo Schembechler.
But the problem is, Ditka seems to go out of his way to invite baiting. Even his endorsement pitches are contentious: "It's great the way Electric Avenue does whatever it takes to crush their opponents!" he snarls in a TV spot for Sears electronics, snapping a pencil in two. And at his first press conference after the "soap opera" blowup, when asked about whether off-field stress had made his coaching job any more difficult, Ditka said, "Nope," and once more stormed out of the room.
If he keeps this up, the press will goad him to the Vesuvius stage, simply because it can. If a dog could give advice to a bear at this point, he would tell him not to lash out but to ignore the poking and be agreeable and contrite, even if the bear doesn't feel like being agreeable and contrite. The bear should say something like, "My media friends, I'm going to become a better person. Cigars, anyone?"
Even needle-toothed hounds won't bite a bear who just wants to get along with them.
RONALD C. MODRA