I met with Mike Ditka at his Oak Brook restaurant for an exclusive interview for a two-part series in Hinsdale Magazine, in which the legendary coach and hall-of-famer talked candidly about his exit from ESPN, his political picks, business ventures, the ‘85 Bears, his favorite quarterbacks and how he got to where he is today. The 76-year-old legend revealed a personal side, as he spoke about growing up in Aliquippa, Penn., and his relationships with former players, coaches and owners.
Ditka was the 1961 UPI NFL Rookie of the Year, a five-time Pro Bowl selection and five-time All-Pro tight end with the Bears, Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys. He is perhaps most famous after his playing days as the outspoken Bears head coach who, despite his toe-to-toe standoffs with players such as Jim McMahon, was hoisted upon the shoulders of his victorious Super Bowl team. His tough persona as a player and coach was revealed, as he openly expressed his personal views, despite public backlash. In March, ESPN removed Ditka from “Sunday NFL Countdown,” and placed him into an “unspecified emeritus-type NFL role.’’ Throughout 2016, Ditka has given interviews in support of Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump, and recently criticized President Barack Obama.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the man nicknamed “Iron Mike” is his straight-talk and appreciation and loyalty to the people that helped him get to where he is today. He provided our readers and young athletes a playbook on succeeding as professional athletes and in life.
SCOTT JONLICH: It’s good to meet you. How are you, Coach?
MIKE DITKA: Scott, I’m good.
SCOTT: As we’re sitting here, you’re an entrepreneur and a football legend opening your newest restaurant venture, Grill 89 in Westmont. Can you tell us about it?
DITKA: I have a great group of partners, and we have some restaurants, and have done well with them. Grill 89 is a concept we are going to do in conjunction with a restaurant called Cucinova’s, where you build your own pizza. You pick what you want and put it in the oven, and boom—in two minutes, you got a pizza. Grill 89 is more of a sports bar and restaurant. I went down and took a look at it the other day, and it’s coming along real good. I like the concept—I put my own money into [it]; it’s not only my name. I’m really excited, because when I played, I lived out here in Lombard (1961-65) and Downers Grove (1966), and when I came back, I coached and moved up north; but in my youth, I spent much time in the west suburbs, so I know a lot about Hinsdale [and the surrounding towns]. Then, [I] got traded to Philadelphia, and I still kept a home here in Downers Grove, but then sold it when I moved to Dallas.
SCOTT: What’s a typical day like for Mike Ditka?
DITKA: I get up every morning; I work out in the pool; I swim, run in the water. I exercise, do my sit-ups and I get on my way. It depends what my day is. Today, I came down (from the city) to meet you, and then I gotta go back down and do what I do best—I’m going to take a nap—, and then I’ll go to the restaurant and meet some other people and do some other things over there, and that’s about it. ... Believe me, doing something is no problem—it’s saying no that is the problem.
SCOTT: Is Chicago home full-time for you, or do you split time somewhere else?
DITKA: I will be in Naples more now that I’m not doing TV work [at ESPN]. I bought a home in Naples, and we are Florida residents, but I keep a condo in Chicago, and I like it. I have a lot of friends here and great roots, so I like it a lot. We got involved with some people a few years ago in Naples, and we built a club, and it’s really fantastic, so I enjoy that too.
SCOTT: I met you through a mutual friend of ours, Bob Allegra, who is your pilot. Are you doing a lot of flying these days?
DITKA: I won’t be doing as much. First of all, it’s not cheap. I won’t be flying as much only for one reason: I’m not going to be doing the ESPN stuff.
SCOTT: You mean the recent decision about letting you go from “Sunday NFL Countdown?”
DITKA: That’s fine, but it didn’t matter. [ESPN] knew ahead of time [that] I was not going to be doing as much travel anyway, so they decided to make a change, and that is fine. ESPN has been great to me. They have been wonderful. What a great experience I had, but you know, it’s over. I don’t want to travel anymore, but I’m gonna do something with them, but it will be out of the studio here from my house in Florida.
SCOTT: I see you’re opening a fine Mike Ditka cigar, I presume? Tell me about your cigar business among your other business ventures.
DITKA: That’s a Game Time [cigar]. Well, we are not going to get rich off of this. It’s a good cigar made by Camacho. Are there better cigars? Yeah, there probably are, but I smoke a lot of cigars. Somebody gave me five Cubans the other day. I smoke two of them, and I can’t tell the difference! They’re a little smoother, maybe, but that does not bother me. This is the new one.
SCOTT: Where can one pick these up?
DITKA: That’s a good question. They are here in the restaurant and [in] cigar stores and online. That’s the new one; you can keep that.
SCOTT: Thank you! You know, now I’m going have to ask you to sign it. I like the solid wood case—good presentation.
DITKA: That’s a little bulky. For 20 cigars, that’s a lot of packaging. You probably got more money tied up in the packaging than you have in the cigars.
SCOTT: Well, quality goes into quality packaging, I guess? Would you say you are busier now more than ever? What other products have your name on them?
DITKA: I’m involved with some people, and we have a line of wines. It’s no big deal—they came to me. Is that wine good? Yeah, all wine is good. Is it better than someone else’s? I don’t know; I don’t drink anymore, so I don’t know. When I used to drink, I thought it was pretty good. Cigars are the same thing. They came to me; I didn’t go to them. In other words, I’m not going out to market my name and use it—no, I don’t do anything like that. I don’t care about that stuff.
SCOTT: I want to switch gears and talk football. You were obviously a great tight end, and played with many great players. Can you tell me who you think was the best quarterback you’ve seen, and who is the best quarterback now?
DITKA: In his day, Johnny Unitas was pretty good. Was he better than Tom Brady? I don’t know. Is he better than Peyton Manning? I don’t know. These guys are great. The athletes today are bigger, faster, stronger. Is [today’s] quarterback better than Bart Starr? Bart Starr won championships. He had a good team around him; he had a great coach. There are so many good [quarterbacks] in history. That’s the biggest problem we have—who was the greatest? Well, there’s a lot of people who fall into the category of greatest in baseball, football, basketball, hockey, but I don’t know [if] there is one that you can say that they were the best at that position. I don’t know if there is one.
SCOTT: But Johnny Unitas comes to mind when you think of the past?
DITKA: Johnny was special. He was playing sandlot ball in Pittsburgh when they signed him, and then the next thing—it’s crazy. His success story is unrivaled. I became pretty good friends with Johnny before he passed away. I mean, it was an amazing thing that happened. Those stories don’t happen anymore, because the scouting is so good now. Nobody’s going to fall through the cracks. Forty or 50 years ago, [talented prospects] would fall through the cracks. You might get a guy who’s a free agent, or a guy in the eighth round, and end up being a hell of a football player; and you can still get a few today, but it’s not as common now as it was then. The scouting now is so sophisticated, but even [scouts] make mistakes. If you are going to base everything on how high a guy jumps or how fast he runs, you’re gonna miss the boat, because it’s what’s inside the guy. That’s what you have to determine: do you have the heart and the character to play the game. SCOTT: With that in mind, who would you pick as your quarterback to win right now? You’re going to the Super Bowl; who would you take with you? DITKA: Peyton Manning—Peyton has been through it all. Whether in Indianapolis or Denver, his greatness has shown through, and maybe he has records that nobody, nobody will ever break.—I really believe it. First of all, part of being great is longevity. He has had real good longevity. He’s been there a long time. When it’s all said and done, Peyton will go down as one of the top five or six quarterbacks in the history of the game—might be No. 1.
SCOTT: I think many people would agree with that.
DITKA: I think Tom [Brady] doesn’t have a lot of great people around him, but he makes them great. He’s got a hell of a coach (Bill Belichick); he has a hell of an organization. Drew Brees is also great. I mean, we can go on and on. There’s a lot of great quarterbacks, and Eli [Manning] too. The key to me [to being] a great quarterback is, can you win championships? That is what you are measured by. That’s what made Bart Starr so great. He had a lot of good players, but they would have not been the same—Bart and [Vince] Lombardi knew that. You look at the Steelers and how great they were. [Terry] Bradshaw was good. They had a great defense, but Bradshaw was pretty darn good; and he had some great receivers, but he got the ball to them. There are so many [quarterbacks], and I know I’m forgetting some—and that bothers me, because I don’t like forgetting—but the guy up in Green Bay is as good as I’ve seen in Aaron Rodgers, and that is my opinion,”
SCOTT: You have probably been asked this question a thousand times. The ‘85 Bears—30 years after that season, does your opinion or memories of that team change over the years? How do you view that team today compared to maybe 20 years ago?
DITKA: In the moment, it was something I expected to happen. We planned for that; we worked toward that. Our definition of success was, look at what we did. Looking back in retrospect, when I look at all the people who put something into it, the front office, scouting, coaches, players—it’s pretty amazing.—It’s pretty amazing that that could work as good as it worked that one year. Now we didn’t have a lot of championships, but for one year, it worked pretty darn well; and it was a combination of a lot of things, because we drafted well, we had good players, coaches. Buddy [Ryan] did a great job with our defense. [Jim] McMahon was not the greatest quarterback, but he was great for us. You know, it doesn’t matter—it was what we needed. We had the great Walter Payton. We had Matt Suhey. We had a great offensive line and wide receivers. I’m proud of what we did as an organization from top to bottom. We picked the right people, signed them and let them play, and we won a championship.
SCOTT: Coach, tell me about your relationship with the Bears organization today.
DITKA: I’ll always be a Chicago Bear. That’s my favorite team and my favorite organization, because of George Halas. He signed me; I played there. He signed me to coach; I coached for them. I like what the Bears bring to the NFL and to Chicago, but I’m not a part of what they do anymore. They have a great staff, a good front office and a new coach.—I think John Fox is a great coach. Coaches are coaches; they have to get the right players in the right place to win. They got to do that right now, and they are working on that, and I think they are getting better in a lot of areas. ... I’m a Bears fan, but I really don’t have anything to do with them [today]. My time is gone—I’m way over the hill.
SCOTT: Jay Cutler—will he take us to the Super Bowl?
DITKA: That’s up to Jay Cutler—it really is. I think if you have a weakness, you gotta find a way to your strength. If you have a strength, you have to build on that strength. I think he has a strength, and I think his ability to throw the football is as good as anybody in the league. I think you have to be, foremost as the quarterback, you must be the leader of the football team—period. And you lead by example—period.
SCOTT: You think he’s that leader?
DITKA: I don’t know; I hope he is. I don’t know, really. I hope he is; I hope it shines; I hope the light goes on. And I hope that he becomes the leader that they need, because I think the club will rally around him—both offense and defense. And that’s what they did around McMahon: our defense rallied around him. They knew that he was going to put his butt on the line for us. The guy took a lot of shots for us, but he got up, and he got back. That’s what you got to prove. You got to prove, when you are the quarterback, you’re not above anybody—you’re the same as them, and you got to be one of the guys, but you got to be a leader, and you lead by example.
SCOTT: You are synonymous with football. What would Mike Ditka be doing today if football were not a part of his life?
DITKA: Well, I probably would have had to go to work with my dad in the mill. Of course, I went to college to be a dentist, but didn’t quite make it; but I think I have common sense, and I would have found some way no matter what I did to make a living, and to make myself proud and my family proud. I knew that from the time I was seven or eight years old, when I wanted to be a professional baseball player, and I became good at it. But the opportunities to get a college education playing football [were] much greater than baseball or basketball, so I played football.
SCOTT: Tell me about your family and growing up in Pennsylvania.
DITKA: My mother was the sweetest lady in the world. My dad was old-school; he didn’t spare the rod. I got my share, because I was the oldest, so I got the whippings—and that’s okay—and I deserved it. He taught me right from wrong; he taught me [that] you have to do things a certain way. I loved him; I didn’t understand him at times, but I loved him. I loved my mom dearly. She passed away a year ago at 94. Dad only made it to 83, but he was around to see the Super Bowl [in 1986], and that made him proud. I came a long way. I was a guy who left Chicago and went to Philadelphia for two years, and spent my time in purgatory—hell, I would say. Then, I met the greatest man in my life when I went to Dallas, and met coach [Tom] Landry, and played there and coached there for a total of 14 years, and it was phenomenal. That changed my whole life, and coach [George] Halas gave me the Bears job, and that’s where I am today. Things happen for a reason. Could you explain that? I couldn’t explain that. But I went there for a reason. I went there to meet that man—a man called Landry. He changed my life. He made me understand what was right and what was wrong on and off the football field. I was fortunate—a lot of people don’t get that chance. SCOTT: Certainly, there is a lot of talent out there. They are all strong and can run too. What advice would you give young athletes today to stand out and perform at a championship level?
DITKA: Nothing comes easy in life. If you want it, you work for it. You put in the time, you put in the effort and get your body in the best shape you can get it in for whatever sport you’re playing, and get into the best condition possible, and you have to pursue it with reckless abandonment. This has got to be your will, and what you want to do for a living. It’s that simple.