When cornered, Mike Ditka is one Bear who shoots back.
Taking aim at his many recent controversies, the veteran Chicago Bears coach came out firing Wednesday on matters as diverse as the United States Constitution and reading quarterback Jim Harbaugh the riot act.
In his own irascible style, Ditka growled his way through a conference call with the Tampa Bay media, an interview that resulted in the following highlights:
Ditka, an avowed "ultraconservative," on Democratic vice-presidential candidate Al Gore's debate performance: "Nothing impresses me about Al Gore. He's one of the typical Democratic liberal spenders."
Ditka on the Harbaugh audible controversy: "He did something that was not supposed to be done. Period. Cut and dried."
Ditka on the recent publication of an unflattering biography: "You want to read a good book? It's called Ditka, an autobiography. It's a great book. Pick it up and read it."
And, Ditka on his recent publicized forays into the political forum: "People evidently don't believe in the Constitution. I have a freedom to say what I believe politically or religiously or socially. Therefore, they want to make something out of that."
It has been an extremely controversial season thus far for Ditka. With his Bears (2-3) set to take on the Bucs (3-2) Sunday at Soldier Field, Ditka has seemingly spent as much time fending off criticism as he has concentrating on football. For a man who was supposedly mellowed by a 1988 midseason heart attack, Ditka's famed intensity has flared early and often.
In Chicago, a town spoiled by almost a decade of Bears success, patience with Ditka's combative ways may be at an all-time low. No less an authority than former Ditka teammate Ed O'Bradovich, the man who gave Ditka's Hall of Fame induction speech, has publicly taken his old friend to task on a local Chicago TV station.
"If you're a leader of a team, you cannot yell at someone in public all the time," said O'Bradovich, referring to Ditka's televised sideline tirade at Harbaugh after an ill-fated audible in a 21-20 Oct. 4 loss at Minnesota. "Teams will lose confidence after constant public humiliations."
Always thin-skinned with critical fans, Ditka labeled disagreeing fans "jerkos" in a recent radio interview, prompting another salvo of criticism.
"You just can't talk to fans like Ditka is," said O'Bradovich, one of whose sons is married to one of Ditka's daughters. "He's got to stop this. He's hurting himself. Ditka has forgotten where he came from. He's gotten too big."
Ditka's response? "I don't know who he is," Ditka said. "(Letting him give my induction speech was) the biggest mistake I ever made."
Asked about the Harbaugh incident Wednesday, Ditka at first declined comment, then defended his right to lecture his quarterback wherever and whenever the urge hits him.
"I know if somebody yelled at me it wouldn't hurt my confidence one bit," he said. "It'd probably make me more enthusiastic to prove that the person was wrong. But we don't spend all our time working to get things a certain way as coaches to let one guy go out and try to do something that he thinks is right, contrary to what we know is right."
Though he has had no comment on Ditka's outburst, Bears president Mike McCaskey reportedly was greatly upset by the Harbaugh harangue. Ditka met with McCaskey Wednesday morning, but when asked if anything newsworthy resulted from the meeting, Ditka replied: "The only thing newsworthy that came out of it is I'm still employed."
Keeping his comments terse and guarded, Harbaugh said he has not relinquished the right to audibilize in the Bears' offense.
"We'll be audibling when I feel it's necessary, while working within the framework of the offense," Harbaugh said. "I put all that behind me as soon as it happened."
Ditka's outspoken nature has surfaced repeatedly this fall in the politically charged atmosphere of an election year. Introducing Illinois Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rich Williamson, Ditka told those in attendance and a C-Span TV audience, "If Bill Clinton is elected, it'll set the country back 200 years."
On Wednesday, he added this critique of Tuesday's vice-presidential debate: "The only guy who won was Vice President (Quayle), there's no question about that. He was the only one who made sense. Nothing impresses me about Al Gore. He's a spender, that's all he is. He's one of the typical Democratic liberal spenders. We have enough of those in Congress right now, and that's where he should end up, nowhere else."
On Tuesday, the Chicago Tribune reported that for all Ditka's recent campaign efforts, his Cook County voting record showed just three trips to the polls in the past 17 elections. Limited participation, however, has not taken the bite out of Ditka's firmly held political convictions.
"If I don't have a right to say what I think, then I'm sorry," he said. "Whether it offends Republicans, Democrats, independents or newspaper writers _ and you should never offend newspaper writers because, hell, they're omnipotent.
"Our Constitution in this country guarantees that you have the right to assemble and to speak on whatever you think is right. I'm not telling other people they have to do that. I'm just saying what I believe is right. Right is right and wrong is wrong in life, and it doesn't matter who you offend by saying it. There's evil and there's good."