Title: New Orleans embraces Ditka But it's no Chicago.(Sports)
Date: October 3, 1997 Publication: Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL) Author: Bush, JoeByline: Joe Bush Daily Herald Sports Writer
NEW ORLEANS - There are three Grabowskis in the greater New Orleans phone book.
There is a page and a half of Boudreauxs and 117 Fontenots, not including Jerry, the one who plays center for the New Orleans Saints.
And during breaks in the live broadcast of Mike Ditka's WWL-AM radio show Tuesday nights at Spanky's Grill and Beer, no one in the crowd woofs with their fists in the air.
It's a different crowd in the Big Easy, but Ditka won it over almost immediately after his hiring last Jan. 28. Since the swooning was immediate and had nothing to do with what Ditka had done for New Orleans, it had everything to do with his gruff celebrity.
Remember, as world-famous as this town is for music, French heritage, Mardi Gras, riverboats and cuisine, it is less than half the size of Chicago.
While Chicagoans have five major-league pro teams to choose among, here there are the Saints, a minor-league baseball team called the Zephyrs, three minor-league hockey teams (Brass, IceGators, Kingfish) and a pro soccer squad (Riverboat Gamblers).
"This is the first time a larger-than-life phenomenon has hit New Orleans," says Times-Picayune sportswriter Brian Allee-Walsh, who has covered the Saints for 11 years. "They've never had a coach that's been on 'Third Rock from the Sun,' let's put it that way. He supersedes what an NFL coach should be. He's strong, he's virile, he shoots from the hip."
Most Bears fans weren't in awe of Ditka; he was one of them. He had played for the Bears, was hand-picked to coach the team by Papa Bear George Halas, had a working-man's directness and lack of tolerance for b.s.
While there is no family-tree connection here, New Orleans is every bit as blue-collar as Chicago.
"New Orleans has got a lot of mix; low-income to middle-income," says Jerry Fontenot, a Louisiana native. "They identify with his straight-forwardness and his record as a coach. His style. That's what people relate to."
Indeed, Ditka gets the loudest cheer at Spanky's when he snarls at the pre-game pleasantries that go on between opponents these days. "Kissy-kissy" and "huggy-huggy" he calls it.
Before the Saints had played a game, there was a web site devoted to all things Ditka: Mike Ditka Altar. Saints ticket sales skyrocketed and good tickets are hard to find on home dates.
Evidently, "Da" is no longer yours, Chicago, but travels with Ditka, becoming regional dialect wherever he lands.
Ditka does commercials for Burger King, a local carbonated beverage named Big Shot, and an HMO, not to mention the national gig for 1-800-COLLECT.
In the Burger King spots, the locals have fun with Ditka's outsider status. The French word "Lagniappe" means "something extra," or "bonus," and its pronunciation is as dainty as its spelling. In the commercial, Ditka shoves out "Lag Nap."
There are not one, not two, but three weekly half-hour TV shows featuring "Da Coach."
"It's gotten a whole lot more exciting and colorful," says Cindy Siegrist, one of the fans at Spanky's. "Whether (the Saints) win or lose, he's already done a huge service for the Saints."
So if the Saints don't win another game this year, it'll be OK?
"Well, now you're pushin' it," says Siegrist's friend, Linda Scott.
After a 1-4 start, then, the question is simple: How long will the honeymoon last? No, there's a better question: How long will Mike Ditka last?
Ditka blew into New Orleans like Buddy Ryan stormed into Phoenix, and thus far that unfortunate comparison runs deeper than ex-Bears coaches who took over floundering franchises.
Just as Ryan told enraptured Arizonans, "You've got yourself a winner," Ditka pledged to forge a team that would, if nothing else, mirror its coach. There would be smash-mouth football, there would be fighters, there would be wild-eyed Southern boys.
"Find a way or make a way," is the motto, and for sure these Saints have found a way to lose (an NFL-high 21 turnovers) and a way to wear down their iron-clad head coach.
Ditka shows up for his Monday press conferences looking more than his 57 years. Monday, a reporter actually sounded motherly when she said "Mike, how big a toll is this taking on you? You look tired."
"I am tired," he said. "I'm emotionally tired. You can handle the physical aspect; it's the emotional aspect that makes you tired. It makes you old. If you don't care, it doesn't matter. Unfortunately, I happen to care a lot.
"I made some promises to myself, and I made them to these people, and I'd like to fulfill them."
Most of the Saints have yet to share Ditka's determination. Ditka has admitted he overestimated the talent he inherited. At this point, he and the coaching staff aren't looking for wins, just some effort.
"I think the restoration process is 10 times what he thought it was," Allee-Walsh says. "He thought he could will (the team) not necessarily to victory, but to his style of play. He's been embarrassed. They haven't lived up to his image, and I don't know if anybody can. This team is faced with a real identity crisis."
The natives have noticed, they're getting restless and some of them aren't blaming the players.
"I think Ditka is dazed and confused," says Andy, a caller to WWL's post-game show last Sunday. "He's got three years of a Stalinist plan, and I don't think he can pull this thing out."
Caller Doc pipes in: "I think Ditka's gonna lose his credibility if he doesn't" replace ineffective quarterback Heath Shuler with rookie Danny Wuerffel.
Nick chimes in: "Ditka's been evaluating the players, and so forth. What I really think he needs to do is evaluate himself and his coaching staff."
Saints offensive coordinator Danny Abramowicz new it wasn't going to be easy.
"The expectations were so high," Abramowicz said. "Like he was gonna come in and just because it's Mike, the wand was gonna be waved."
Sure, but who raised those expectations?
Ditka turned down a five-year contract with the Saints, signed a three-year deal, and bought a house in the gated English Turn development, a golf-course community with homes ranging in price from $350,000 to over $2 million.
His Bannockburn home recently sold for nearly $2 million, so he and his wife Diana are now residents of the Crescent City.
An English Turn sales agent proudly describes the development as the city's only "true" gated community. "No one gets in," she says.
That's no way to get close to the people, but then again, Bannockburn wasn't exactly a South Side tavern. Besides, it's apparent already that Ditka's aura will eventually fade next to the glare of the team's performance.
"I doubt if it'll ever develop into the Chicago love affair, even if he's successful," Allee-Walsh says.
Tuesday night at Spanky's, half the callers are from the Chicago area, and Ditka seems to perk up when he talks to them. Fans don't hesitate to approach Ditka during commercials. He signs whatever, and poses for pictures. He looks like he's having a good time.
Sometime during the evening he tells a caller, and the rest of his fellow Louisianans, "I'm not in a popularity contest. If the people don't like my decisions, I can't help that."
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COPYRIGHT 2009 Paddock Publications
COPYRIGHT 2009 Paddock Publications
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