New Orleans Saints Coaching History—Mike Ditka (1997-99)

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Mike Ditka

History repeated itself, in a way, in 1997.

In 1976, John Mecom was looking to make a splash when he hired a Super Bowl winning coach in Hank Stram to coach the New Orleans Saints.

As we detailed previously, the move did not work, though it may not have been Stram’s fault.

In 1997, Tom Benson looked to make a splash when he hired a Super Bowl winning coach in Mike Ditka to coach the Saints.

I was doing a radio show with Ed Daniels from the Morial Convention Center on Jan. 26, the day before Super Bowl XXXI between the Packers and Patriots when we got tipped off by a friend that Tom Benson was hiring Ditka as the head coach of the Saints.

We reported, perhaps even broke the story on the show and both of us proceeded to talk about how we felt it was not a good hire.

Ed and I proceeded to field calls and most, if not nearly all of them, were opposed to our view as the listeners felt it was a good, if not great hire. We were patient and we understood.

The analysis was professional, philosophical, not personal in any fashion.

On a personal level, my feeling at the time was that Ditka was a bully.

In Chicago, he was revered, loved, and could do no wrong. He used that popularity as a bully pulpit to bash others and intimidate media trying to do jobs.

As a coach, we felt Ditka was simply over the hill, a guy whose time had passed.

The Bears went from being the best team in the NFL to being a poor team, thanks to poor personnel decisions and Ditka’s ways.

Chicago saw it and made a tough decision to let him go after the 1992 season.

No one else saw fit to hire him for over four years, despite the fact that he was a Super Bowl winning coach, a Hall of Fame player with star power.

The Saints felt otherwise.

“We will find a way or we will make a way.”

That was the mantra of Ditka when he arrived to coach the Saints in 1997 and it was on full display at LaCrosse, WI at training camp, which I covered.

Unfortunately, Ditka’s Saints did neither.

Plagued by poor quarterback evaluation and poor quarterback play, along with bad personnel decisions, the Saints wasted having some really good players in William Roaf, Wayne Martin, Joe Johnson, La’Roi Glover and Sammy Knight and Jerry Fontenot. Doug Brien and Mark Royals gave New Orleans a solid kicking game.

Mark Fields was a developing player and Jake Delhomme could have been that quarterback necessary to win but never really got the chance in New Orleans until it was too late, in the final two games of the Ditka regime.

Instead, the Saints toiled through the likes of Heath Shuler, Billy Joe Hobert, Billy Joe Tolliver, Danny Wuerffel and Kerry Collins.

There was the presence of Buddy Diliberto’s favorite at the time, defensive lineman Pio Sagapolutele. Buddy, of course, would have chosen to simply call him “Pio” or “The Samoan.”

The draft picks were forgettable.

The only pick in the 1997 draft to play solidly was guard Chris Naeole and he may have been a stretch as the tenth overall pick in the first round.

The 1998 draft produced Kyle Turley, a talented but mercurial, emotional tackle who played very well before letting his emotions get the best of him.

The 1999 draft was another story.

The “Iron Will to win” wilted, rusted in the summer heat of the Crescent City as Ditka sealed his fate with a disastrous trade, dealing the entire 1999 draft’s picks plus a first-round pick in 2000 to Washington for the right to pick Ricky Williams.

It was an embarrassing trade and the embarrassment only grew when Ditka ignored common sense and posed for a magazine cover with Williams, who was wearing a wedding dress.

Then, there was the bounty of riches accrued by Washington through the trade. The Redskins used three of the picks to select LaVar Arrington, Champ Bailey and Jon Jansen, among others. All three became All-Pros.

Williams proceeded to play well for the Saints as he dealt with internal issues, keeping his face internal by doing media interviews with his helmet on and covering his face on camera.

Meanwhile, the Saints languished.

After posting 6-10 records in 1997 and 1998, New Orleans collapsed under the weight of the awful roster decisions in 1999. The Saints went 3-13 and Tom Benson cleaned house, dismissing Ditka and general manager Bill Kuharich, who presided over the hiring of Ditka.

On a personal level, Ditka turned out to be nothing like the guy he was in Chicago, the guy I thought he would be in New Orleans.

Ditka was a nice guy, a caring person, one with emotions that were clearly evident.

Ditka had a change in his life.

He had been humbled. He understood some of the things he had perhaps done wrong. He was determined to change those things.

Ditka had devoted himself to his Catholic, Christian faith. It changed him.

He treated others in kind fashion. Mike even had a jar that he would place money in every time he cursed with the monies to go to a charitable cause of his choice in an effort to curb his previously crude language.

I even got to speak at a team Chapel service on the road with the team, perhaps the only time a media person got to do so, in 1998.

With Ditka seated in the front row, I proceeded to lighten the moment by getting the first jab in.

Stating that Ditka was an icon in the NFL and how I was just a little reporter, I repeated the story of how I questioned Mike’s hire on that Saturday in 1997 and how he played the part of a bully while making bad personnel decisions in Chicago.

I went on to state how I was wrong about Ditka, that he was a caring, kind person of faith, that he was easy to pull for, that I truly wanted to see him succeed in a big way.

My conclusion was that into his second year with the Saints, too bad I was right!

The room broke out in laughter.

I was joking.

Ditka, seated in the front row, simply cracked a wry smile, an unlit hanging out of his mouth.

One final memory of Mike is that he opened a very good restaurant in 1999. Ditka’s on St. Charles Avenue had a nice atmosphere and good steaks. It is too bad that the restaurant went away not long after Ditka went away. Mike’s on the Avenue took over the location before Desi Vega’s Steakhouse moved in and has been a smashing success.

Mike Ditka is a good man. He even spoke at a ministry luncheon on my behalf and was a big hit. He was genuine. He simply was no longer a good NFL head coach by the time he arrived in New Orleans and by the time he left.

His failure here turned out to be one I may have felt worst about, based on the person he had become and because a good man in Kuharich had also been victimized by the failure.

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Ken Trahan


Born and raised in the New Orleans area, CCSE CEO Ken Trahan has been a sports media fixture in the community for nearly four decades. Ken started with Bill Hammack and Don Jones in 2008. In 2011, the site became On August 1, 2017, Ken helped launch Having accumulated national awards/recognition (National Sports Media Association, National Football…

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