The opening festivities at the Bears100 Celebration Weekend Friday night didn’t disappoint, with so many franchise legends congregating with legions of fans at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont. Media members had a chance to speak with those legends, from Dick Butkus to Mike Ditka to Devin Hester and everywhere in between, Friday evening. Below is a sampling of some of the best quotes and stories we heard:
1. The time Dick Butkus nearly got in a fight with George Halas
Halas retired from coaching in 1967, four years after winning his last NFL championship and two years into the Super Bowl era. His successor didn’t have much success: Jim Dooley went 20-36 in his four years, and became the first Bears coach to ever be fired following the 1971 season.
Following Dooley’s firing, Butkus remembers going in to the Bears’ office to get his mail and stopping by to see Halas. By that time, Butkus had established himself as one of the best defensive players in NFL history. The conversation between the team’s founder and star linebacker was frank, as Butkus remembered it playing out Friday:
“I’m asking him, ‘who’s going to be the new coach?’ And he says ‘ah, well, you’ll know,'" Butkus said. "And I said, ‘you know something, coach, I really don’t think you want to win here.’”
“And he got up and I thought he was going to take a poke at me. ‘What’d you say?’ (I said) ‘I don’t think you wanna win here.’
“I says, ‘who’s in the Super Bowl?’ He said, ‘oh Dallas and Miami’ or something. And I said, ‘two god damn expansion teams, when we should be there.’ And he sat down, and that was the end of the conversation.”
Abe Gibron was hired to replace Dooley, and Gibron’s .274 winning percentage in three seasons still stands as the worst in franchise history (John Fox narrowly avoided that ignominious designation, finishing his forgettable three years with a .292 winning percentage). Jack Pardee and Neill Armstrong both got the Bears back to the playoffs, but it wasn’t until Mike Ditka was hired in 1982 did the Bears return to their championship glory.
Butkus’ point, though, still resonates today: Why has a franchise as historic and successful as the Bears only won one Super Bowl?
“There’s no reason why we can’t or shouldn’t be in the run all the time,” Butkus said. “I know you lose draft choices or whatever when you finish first all the time but how can you explain New England being up there all these years? That’s not right. The Bears should be the ones.”
The good news: Butkus saw an awfully positive sign of things changing in the Bears’ favor over 2018’s Labor Day weekend.
“They always had a reputation about their pay,” Butkus said. “But I’m glad to see that they came out and paid some money for (Khalil) Mack and got him, and look what he did. It’s unbelievable what he did. He turned the whole thing around. They maybe don’t want to say that, but he did. He’s just got everybody by the way he plays.”
2. Gray Matters
We’ll go for a shorter quote here: Jay Hilgenberg, the two-time All-Pro, six-time Pro Bowl and Super Bowl winning center, on current Bears coach Matt Nagy:
“I said it one time, when they dissect Matt Nagy’s brain it’s going to be the shape of a football,” Hilgenberg said. “It’s amazing what he comes up with.”
3. Mission No. 1
Mike Ditka grew up in Pittsburgh not knowing much about the Bears’ rivalry with the Green Bay Packers, which by the time he was drafted in 1961 had been building for four decades. So when he got to Chicago, Halas sat him down with an important message.
“I can remember when I first came to the Bears, and I’m from Pittsburgh so I didn’t know a whole heck of a lot about it, so one thing Mr. Halas said — we sat down, we’re talking — the most important thing, he said: We’ve gotta beat the Packers twice,” Ditka said. “The most important — we’ve gotta beat the Packers twice. That’s what he said to me. I wasn’t sure who the Packers were.”
Twenty years later, the Bears brought Ditka back as a head coach. He went 15-5 against the Packers, which included an eight-game winning streak from 1985 to 1988. So for Ditka, that the Bears will begin their 100th season against the Packers, in the NFL’s 100th season, is only fitting.
“That’s the way it should be,” Ditka said. “Mr. Halas and coach (Vince) Lombardi would like it that way. … It’s one of the great rivalries in the history of the game.”
4. How Gary Fencik wound up with season tickets for life
Fencik lived out every Chicagoland football player’s dream by winning a Super Bowl with the 1985 Bears. So when it was time for him to negotiate his final contract with the team, he wanted a clause inserted into it: A guarantee of four season tickets.
“I said look, I’m from Chicago, I need season tickets,” Fencik said. “And they go, we can’t give you what we don’t have. We don’t have any tickets to give you.”
Instead, Fencik settled on a clause that wound up getting him those tickets a decade and a half later.
“So I put it in my contract, in perpetuity, if the Bears ever built a new stadium I would have the option to buy four tickets between the 40 yard line and the middle of the first section,” Fencik said. “I’m on the 42-yard line, row nine, in the middle of the first section.”
As a season ticket holding fan, Fencik said this about the current Bears that, surely, plenty of other season tickets holders have felt too: “What you feel as a fan is that there is something special.”
5. Thinking Offense
A couple of quick bites from 1985 Super Bowl winners on the current Bears’ offense:
Jim McMahon: “He’s got a great offense to play in. From the little bit I’ve seen, that’s the kind of offense I would like to play in.”
Ditka: “I like what the Bears have. They can run the ball, they play very good defense, I love the quarterback. There’s a lot of good things there.”
For more: We'll have plenty more to come from Friday's Orange Carpet event, including three Hall of Famer's thoughts on Khalil Mack and Devin Hester's thought about joining those Hall of Famers in Canton.