Edit Module
Edit Module
Edit Module
Edit Module
Edit Module

Scholar of the Midway

A look back at the family-drama-filled firing 21 years ago of Bears exec Michael McCaskey, who died in May

Story pages
Photo: Michael Zajakowski

Michael B. McCaskey left a large if complicated footprint on Bears history. The Ivy League academic, whom Mike Ditka once disdainfully described as “more of the intellectual type,” succeeded his grandfather George “Papa Bear” Halas in 1983 as team president and CEO. The partial owner served in those roles for 16 seasons, during which the team made the playoffs eight times and, in 1986, won its only Super Bowl. But after the glory days, the team’s luck took a turn, and so did McCaskey’s. In 1999, after the Bears failed to make the playoffs for the fourth straight year, he was fired … by his mother, Virginia McCaskey, the team’s principal owner. It didn’t help that her son had never been embraced by Bears followers, as Jonathan Eig pointed out in his September 1999 Chicago article “Sacked!”

In Chicago sports, team owners are the bad guys. They get all the blame for losing and little credit for winning. Among the city’s current cast of owners, Michael McCaskey, the former Harvard associate professor and the author of a book on business management, has been the most widely despised of all. Behind his back, sports reporters have referred to him as Montgomery Burns, the miserly and merciless cartoon boss on The Simpsons. Even when the Bears won a Super Bowl early in McCaskey’s presidency, fans always had a nagging sense that McCaskey was more comfortable on a yacht than on the gridiron.

After he was fired, he got the consolation prize of chairman, a role he kept until 2011. Eig had speculated that McCaskey might eventually “step into Virginia’s role as the ultimate power broker,” but it was not to be. He died of cancer at the age of 76.

Read the full story below.

 

Sacked!

It was one of the most stunning family dramas ever played out on Chicago’s public stage: Bears president Michael McCaskey, grandson of the team’s legendary founder, George Halas, was fired by his mother. His bloodlines, sports background, and Ivy League business credentials should have made him perfect for the job. Here’s why he had to go.

The kid had a beautiful stride. He had long, lean legs, and he seemed to move smooth as ribbon across the perfect green grass. He ran as fast as he could — 10 yards . . . 20 . . . 30 — and when he looked toward the sky the football was right where he had expected it, spiraling toward his open arms. He caught it without breaking his rhythm.

If any kid ever had the game in his blood, he was the one. He went to his first Bears game at Wrigley Field before his first birthday. When he was a little older, say, eight or nine, he sat on the field next to the players, leaping out of the way when a bunch of those huge, muddy bodies hurtled toward him like freight cars off their tracks. He sat so close he could watch his grandfather’s powerful stump of a chin throw jabs as he barked orders. He could see the steam rise from the old man’s head.

The kid spent his summers with the team, too, out in the cornfields of sleepy little Rensselaer, Indiana, where the Bears held their training camp. He and his brothers helped out in the laundry room and caught goldfish in their hands from an ornamental pool. When no one was around, they scrambled onto the jade-green field to run pass patterns, dodge imaginary defenders, and pretend they were Red Grange and Paddy Driscoll.

The kid had it good, but he wasn’t spoiled. With 11 children, his parents were nowhere near rich. But he certainly had a sterling football pedigree. His maternal grandfather was George Halas, one of the founders of the National Football League and the legendary owner and coach of the Bears, the guy with the jabbing jaw, the tight wallet, and the endless hunger for victory. George Blanda, a Hall of Famer, taught the kid how to kick field goals. Sid Luckman, one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, taught him how to set up and throw the forward pass. Johnny Morris showed him how to run sideline patterns, and Bill Wade, one of the finest quarterbacks of his day, threw him perfect spirals so he could practice his routes. The kid had soft hands, terrific concentration, and, not surprisingly, a pretty good instinct for the game. Good enough, anyway, to play a little college ball at Yale.

But what goes through a kid’s mind as he runs patterns? Did he think he could win his grandfather’s love and respect if he ran fast enough? Did he really think he might be good enough to play for the Bears someday? What, exactly, was he running after?

It is springtime in Chicago, and Michael McCaskey is making his first big public appearance since his devastating personal and professional disaster the previous winter. The occasion is a black-tie fundraising gala presented by Bears Care, the team’s charitable organization. The cocktail hour at the Ritz-Carlton is jammed with an interesting mix of athletes and aesthetes, physical trainers and philanthropists. Eppie Lederer, better known as Ann Landers, glides into the room looking like Elizabethan royalty. But the football players don’t notice. The beefy jocks, with their bald heads and rented tuxedos, form a line, protecting one another from unwanted conversations.

If there is one man in the crowd with the background comfortable among this strange convergence of power brokers and power backs, it is Michael McCaskey. But not tonight. Tonight McCaskey mingles even less than some of his team’s young players. He is tall, thin, and, at 55, still possessed of a fine, athletic build. He resembles Michael Douglas, the actor. His gray hair, swept gently from front to back, stands high above the crowd. His tuxedo, a perfect fit, is accented with a flowery tie in soothing tones of orange and red. But he does not work the crowd. Instead, he settles into long chats with two or three friends, grinning often, smiling rarely. When a journalist approaches to ask if he might arrange for an interview at a more appropriate time, McCaskey swiftly declines.

“Ted Phillips is our spokesman now,” he says.

Yes, the journalist tells him, and that’s exactly why he has requested the interview. As almost everyone in Chicago knows, McCaskey was fired last winter. Fired by his mother. Officially, he was promoted, from president to chairman of the board, replacing his 80-year-old father, Ed McCaskey, but even spin doctors for the team have hardly bothered to pretend that Michael McCaskey improved his position. In one of the most stunning family business dramas ever to unfold on the public stage in Chicago, Virginia McCaskey, the daughter of George Halas, announced last January that she was replacing her son with Ted Phillips, a former accountant. For the first time in the 79-year history of the team, neither a Halas nor a McCaskey would lead the Bears.

In Chicago sports, team owners are the bad guys. They get all the blame for losing and little credit for winning. Among the city’s current cast of owners, Michael McCaskey, the former Harvard associate professor and the author of a book on business management, has been the most widely despised of all. Behind his back, sports reporters have referred to him as Montgomery Burns, the miserly and merciless cartoon boss on The Simpsons . Former employees and city officials have described him as arrogant and aloof, the kind of guy who uses big words to make others feel inferior. Even when the Bears won a Super Bowl early in McCaskey’s presidency, fans always had the nagging sense that McCaskey was more comfortable on a yacht than on the gridiron.

Yet, while many people close to the team were happy to see him taken down, the sight of Virginia McCaskey making her announcement on live television muted their glee. This very private woman, admired by almost everyone who has ever met her, was clearly in pain. Watching her on TV, Mike Ditka, the Bears’ former coach, sat in shock. “That would be brutal,” he said. “I don’t know if I would be tough enough to do it.”

For football, in which most ownership issues are dull affairs, this drama qualified as practically Shakespearean. For the McCaskeys, a dignified, unprepossessing clan, it certainly qualified as tragedy. But to many, including Ditka, it came as no surprise. McCaskey had become president of the team in 1983, after Halas died, inheriting one of the greatest and most popular sports teams in the city’s history. Less than three years later, drenched in Champagne, he clutched a Super Bowl trophy. But the Bears quickly dipped from their position atop the league, and many observers have blamed McCaskey for the long descending spiral. For one thing, though it might have been the right thing to do, he fired Ditka, the most popular coach in the team’s history. He also dismissed Jerry Vainisi, the general manager who had helped assemble that championship squad. McCaskey never did hire another GM. Maybe he wanted to save some money, but it seems more likely he thought he could do the job better himself.

He did a splendid job of building the Bears’ new headquarters and practice facility in Lake Forest, but on a more important front, and despite more than a decade of effort, he failed to find a new stadium for the Bears. If he had succeeded, the McCaskey family wealth probably would have grown dynamically, with money pouring in from new luxury suites and increased attendance. The team might then have invested in better players and begun to win again.

But McCaskey fumbled. He threatened to move the team to the suburbs, then backed off. As their negotiations grew bitter and personal, Mayor Richard M. Daley refused even to continue to meet with McCaskey. All the while, the team kept losing, and many fans stopped caring. Morale within the Bears organization nose-dived. Making matters worse, the McCaskey family began to squabble. “Yes” or “no” votes on team matters would be hopelessly split, with a couple of “yeas,” a couple of “nays,” and half a dozen suggestions for different ways to phrase the question or approach the problem. Eventually, some family members lost confidence in his ability to lead the business.

Still, he might have kept his job had it not been for one more glaring failure, a failure so embarrassing that it outstripped all the others. After the Bears had logged 41 wins, and 57 losses, under Dave Wannstedt, the coach he had hired six years earlier, McCaskey fired him. Then he announced to the media that he had hired Dave McGinnis, a defensive coordinator with the Arizona Cardinals and a longtime friend of the family. The announcement, however, was news to McGinnis. At first, it seemed as if McCaskey had botched the simplest of all business deals. Later, reports surfaced that the team president had announced the deal prematurely to pressure McGinnis into accepting a low salary. McGinnis refused to discuss that detail. “I told Michael that I would never say anything about what went on,” he says. “It’s just that there’s a way that you do business, especially at this level and especially in this league, and if you don’t start out correctly it’s not going to be right.”

Those close to the team say the negotiations left McGinnis believing he couldn’t trust McCaskey well enough to work for him. While the media assembled at Halas Hall to meet the team’s new coach, McGinnis refused to take the podium.

For Virginia, the strain was too much. Her children, five of whom worked in the team’s administration, were bickering. The press had launched a full frontal assault on the ownership’s incompetence. She was convinced she had no choice but to make a sacrifice, to show Bears fans that she would no longer tolerate failure. Her son had to go. Now, as the team begins a new season with a new president, a new coach, and a new quarterback, the McCaskeys don’t want to talk about the recent past.

“Right now we’re in hiding,” says Ed McCaskey, Michael’s father. Indeed, at the fundraising gala, Ed and Virginia are sheltered in a small grove of trees attached to an indoor rock garden at the Ritz-Carlton, far from the crowd. “If we win a couple games it will be easier to talk.”

“I would rather look ahead,” says Virginia, a short, powerfully built woman in plain shoes. “The people who have spoken to me along the way have a pretty good idea how difficult it’s been. We’re not looking for sympathy. We’re looking for enthusiasm and support.”

But it won’t be easy. For the Bears to rebuild a weak team and get stadium negotiations back on track with the city, officials will have to undo nearly two decades of damage. As they embark on that campaign, one question will surely continue to haunt them: How did Michael McCaskey — the man who wrote the book on executive challenge, the man who seemed to have been born and bred to run the Bears — fail so badly?

How could the kid have failed to catch such a perfect spiral?

For McCaskey, the disappointments must have been baffling. Perhaps he even began to feel like the fictional business manager he created in his book 17 years ago. McCaskey was an associate professor at the Harvard Business School when he wrote The Executive Challenge. In reading this and some of his other business writing, one is struck by how much distance he had put between himself and the game of football. McCaskey has said many times that religion and football, in that order, were the most important things in his household as a child. Yet he was the first in his family to step away from football, to move from Chicago and build a career outside the game, to stop attending Sunday services at Soldier Field. Many of the friends he made at Harvard never even knew about his football past.

After three years at the Quigley Preparatory Seminary, McCaskey decided life as a Catholic priest might be too confining, and he transferred to Notre Dame High School in Niles. He played defensive back on the football team. His next stop was Yale University, where he majored in philosophy; but, even as he fell deeply under the spell of Plato, he played on the football team as a receiver. In 1963, he had three catches for 34 yards and no touchdowns, but the rest of his college career was spent on the practice squad and on the bench. Abbott Lawrence, the captain of the 1964 team, remembers McCaskey as intensely focused, always serious, a deeply religious young man who didn’t chase women or drink beer. McCaskey’s “faith journey” made it difficult for him to fit in with his teammates, recalls Lawrence, but those who got to know him found a loyal and reliable friend. McCaskey wanted to play quarterback at Yale but had to settle for receiver, and when other receivers garnered almost all of the playing time, he never complained. Everyone knew he was the grandson of George Halas, Lawrence says, but McCaskey never bragged about it. “He was one of those on the bench who were totally into the game,” says Lawrence. “He’d know the patterns, he’d know the defense, he’d know the strategies. He was ready. But Mike had a sense of his own destiny and purpose and you didn’t get the sense his feelings were hurt if he didn’t start.”

After a stint in Ethiopia for the Peace Corps, McCaskey went to work on his doctorate in business at Case Western Reserve. He taught for three years at UCLA, then was hired by Harvard, where he became a popular teacher in the business school. By almost anyone’s measure, he was a resounding success, and he was young enough that the possibilities must have seemed limitless. In the late 70s, on the tennis courts at Harvard, McCaskey met Nancy Richardson, a doctoral candidate in psychology who had never even heard of George Halas. They were married shortly thereafter and moved into an old Victorian house in Cambridge, where they began their own consulting business. McCaskey seemingly showed little interest in his family business, but at the same time, it appears the family business had little interest in him. At one point, according to someone close to the family, Virginia visited her father and suggested that the old man find a place for Michael in the organization. Halas said not yet.

“He didn’t have much regard for his grandson,” says the Halas family friend. “It was well known he had little confidence in Michael. … He didn’t think he was a real football man. He thought his instincts were off in the scholastics.”

George Halas thought he would live forever. And most of the people who knew him agreed; if anyone was tough enough to bully his way into immortality, Halas was the man. But Halas made it clear that if he did die he wanted his son, George Halas, Jr. — better known as Mugs — to run his team. Mugs, in fact, was in small measure responsible for the Bears’ Super Bowl win in 1986. Years earlier, when he recognized his father was getting too old to compete with younger members of the NFL brass, he persuaded him to hire Jim Finks as general manager, and Finks went on to put together much of that championship team.

But Mugs died of a massive heart attack in 1979 and did not live to see the team’s crowning moment. Halas, profoundly shaken, reasserted his control of the team. He fired Finks and hired Mike Ditka, one of his former players, as coach and Jerry Vainisi, his personnel manager, to serve as general manager. Halas also took steps to see that the team would remain in the family when he died, dividing the Bears stock among Virginia, her 11 children, and Mugs’s two children and his second wife. He gave almost all decision-making power to Virginia.

That arrangement did not sit well with Mugs’s widow and her children, who filed suit challenging the McCaskeys for control of the team. The McCaskeys kept control of the team, but the two clans remained bitterly divided.

In 1982, the same year he published his book on management, Michael McCaskey met with his grandfather to discuss joining the family team. It’s not clear why he wanted to return, though some have speculated that he may have been responding to his mother’s wishes. In one interview, McCaskey said it was his brother Pat who suggested that he try applying his sophisticated business concepts to the Bears organization. “I really hadn’t thought about it and I certainly didn’t write the book with the Bears in mind,” he told this magazine in 1987, ”but I was intrigued.” Halas, apparently, was not. He declined to extendcan offer.

In 1983, however, at the age of 88, Halas died, and Virginia chose her oldest son — the brightest, most obedient, and best educated of the bunch — to run the family business. There was a feeling among the McCaskey clan that Michael could do anything.

When McCaskey became president, he tried to take a hands-on approach, much as his grandfather had. He walked onto the field during practices, marched along the sidelines during games, and talked to the players in the locker room. Why not? Hadn’t he grown up doing those things?

But these Bears were a rowdy bunch. Jim McMahon, a rebel punk in sunglasses, was their up-and-coming quarterback. Mike Ditka, a screaming, cursing prodigy of George Halas, was the coach. Buddy Ryan, a creative genius with a wild streak, was defensive coordinator. This was not a group in search of leadership. But as long as the Bears were winning, everyone managed to put up with the clashing of egos. In fact, around the NFL, McCaskey was hailed in some quarters as a business genius, a brilliant football reformer who had the wisdom to allow his employees to express themselves creatively. NFL owners also applauded McCaskey’s decision in 1985 not to sign two of the team’s key players — Todd Bell and Al Harris — who had demanded big raises.

McCaskey could be stubborn and aloof, traits that didn’t go over well with the wild and woolly Bears. Even as the team charged toward its Super Bowl, some players and staff began to resent the team president’s cold, businesslike approach, his tightness with cash, and his seemingly massive ego.

“’There’s only so much money to go around’ — that was an expression he used quite frequently,” recalls Jim Dooley, who played for the Bears in the fifties, and coached them in the sixties and the eighties. “First the Christmas bonuses for the coaching staff were eliminated, then the mascot was eliminated, and then the Honey Bears [cheerleaders] were eliminated.” George Halas was tight, too, says Dooley, but he alway took good care of his coaches and the team’s fans.

Jim McMahon was among the first to publicly predict that McCaskey’s approach would ruin the Bears. “Michael McCaskey doesn’t have any qualifications to operate the Bears, except his name,” the quarterback wrote in his 1986 autobiography. “He went from Yale to Harvard to running his own consulting firm to running the Bears. He took over as president and chief executive officer in November of 1983, and before he got his feet wet, he was jumping around our locker room, in January of 1986, with a Super Bowl trophy. He must think he’s the reason we won. … Most of us just laugh to keep from strangling him.”

McCaskey, predicted McMahon, would take the best and youngest team in the league and destroy it, in part because he would refuse to pay big money to keep top players and also because he would have trouble working with strong personalities. “My gut reaction,” he wrote, “is that he’ll take our championship and rest on his laurels — or rather, our laurels.”

Fresh off the Super Bowl victory, the Bears enjoyed huge civic support. McCaskey seized the moment to present his vision for a new stadium — a 75,000-seat, open-air arena in the parking lot just south of Soldier Field. The Bears had played at Soldier Field since 1971, and McCaskey vowed to erect the new home by 1990. Without a new stadium, the club would begin losing money beyond that date, he warned. As one deadline gave way to another, McCaskey began looking at West Side sites, suburban sites, and even Gary, Indiana, sites. And as the searches and negotiations over public financing stretched on, McCaskey and Daley both dug in their heels. Some members of the McCaskey family believed the mayor was doing whatever he could to sabotage any plan Michael suggested. The dispute may have had deep roots — George Halas and the mayor’s father, Mayor Richard J. Daley, had never gotten along — but by all accounts the clash of personalities between the two descendants was enough to doom the talks.

“Michael is extremely bright, and he has an East Coast, professorial manner,” says one long-time friend. “He’s not a loose, pat-you-on-the-back sort of guy. He’s stiff-backed and formal and his language is precise. He doesn’t have the businessman’s panache that lets you maneuver in a situation.”

One former member of the Bears’ upper administration says the same thing, only less charitably: “He’s the most arrogant person you’ll ever meet in your life. He thinks he’s smarter than everybody. He has a great command of the English language, and instead of talking to you he talks above you. He has absolutely no people skills.”

In 1993, after the Bears had stumbled to a 5-11 record and Mike Ditka showed signs of coming unglued, McCaskey fired him. Some members of the organization believed McCaskey was eager to fire Ditka because the coach got credit when the team won. Ditka had always connected with fans in a special way. His foul mouth, brazen honesty, and cigar-chomping manliness struck a chord in a city that likes to think of itself as tougher than the rest.

These days, upon reflection, Ditka says he probably deserved to be fired. But he didn’t like the way McCaskey called an impromptu press conference in 1984, days before a big playoff game, to announce that his contract had been extended, and he didn’t like the way McCaskey fired his close friend and adviser Jerry Vainisi. There were many other, smaller clashes, but these days Ditka is reluctant to criticize his former boss. He does reflect on some of the differences between McCaskey and Halas, and in so doing he offers an implicit complaint.

“The old man was man to man, face to face, person to person,” says Dit“ka, who now coaches the New Orleans Saints. “He was in your face. Michael was more of a — well, he’s more of the intellectual type. I think intellectual is fine. You have to be intellectual to get through life, but I think you have to be a people person. You have to relate to people. You gotta like people. You gotta respect people. If you do those things, then you don’t have any problems communicating. If you don’t do those things, it’s very hard to communicate, and when the lines of communication break down, then you got problems.”

Under Halas, Ditka says, “our philosophy was to hit ’em in the mouth, and if that didn’t work, hit ’ern in the mouth again, and if that didn’t work, hit ’em in the mouth again.” But under McCaskey, the philosophy changed. “The game becomes too cerebral, and it’s not a cerebral game. It’s a people’s game. It’s played with heart and desire and instincts and basics and fundamentals. When you get to the point where you think you’re gonna outsmart ‘em, it’s pretty hard. You better outplay ‘em. You better outhit ‘em.”

To replace Ditka, McCaskey selected Dave Wannstedt, defensive coordinator and assistant head coach for the 1992 Super Bowl–winning Dallas Cowboys. Wannstedt had no experience as a head coach, but he seemed like the sort of person Michael McCaskey would work well with, a soft-spoken, infinitely patient soul who never went out of his way to make headlines or pick fights. By the time Wannstedt joined the team, in 1993, the unit that George Halas, Jim Finks, and Mike Ditka had built and taken to the Super Bowl was gone. Few players and coaches remained.

Finally, after all the years of operating in his grandfather’s shadow, Michael McCaskey would have the chance to prove himself. His time had come.

But the Wannstedt era was marked by a series of questionable football decisions. There were poor first-round draft picks (John Thierry, Rashaan Salaam), and terrible trades (giving up a first-round pick in 1997 for Rick Mirer, a quarterback with a lousy record that grew lousier in his short stint with the Bears). The Bears did make the playoffs in 1994, losing in the second round to San Francisco, but they have not returned. Since 1994, not a single member of the team has made the Pro Bowl (football’s all-star game), a remarkable record of failure.

The Bears won only eight games over the course of the past two seasons, and for the first time in anyone’s memory, Chicago football fans seemed to grow apathetic. Seats at Soldier Field were left empty by the tens of thousands. When the Green Bay Packers came to town, Cheeseheads outnumbered Bears hats. When fans showed any emotion at all, it was anger, much of it aimed at Michael McCaskey.

“The image became that someone was running the Bears in a three-piece suit from Harvard or Yale or wherever he’s from,” says Doug Buffone, who played and coached for the Bears from 1966 to 1979 and now has a sports talk radio program on WSCR-AM, “The Score.” “All of a sudden people didn’t care anymore, and I never thought I’d see the day.”

The losses and the growing discontent among fans and his own family must have weighed heavily on Michael McCaskey. Win or lose, he always showed emotion watching his team play. He shouted and groaned and sweated through games the same as everyone else in his family did. But he didn’t share his deeper feelings, not with his siblings and not with any of his friends who were interviewed for this article.

Even Tim McCaskey, the second son of Virginia and Ed, says he doesn’t know how his brother is handling the ordeal. “Everyone has said to me, ’Boy, that had be tough on your mom cutting your brother’s legs out from under him,’” he says. “My response has been: Hey, what about my brother, who got his legs cut out from under him by his mother?”

Michael McCaskey’s office is now occupied by Ted Phillips, a modest young man with a quick smile and a contagious laugh. Phillips could not have less in common with his predecessor. For starters, he is anything but aloof. He’s short, with a bit of a belly, and he wears his hair in a style that suggests he has misplaced his comb. He dresses casually and makes conversation easily. The overall effect is disarming.

Phillips grew up in a middle-class New Hampshire home, went to college at Notre Dame, and moved to Chicago to become an accountant. He found a job with a firm that counted the Bears among its clients, and his work impressed the Bears well enough that he became the team’s controller in 1983. Now, as he sits his well-appointed office, watching his players run laps around the practice field, Phillips still seems a bit stunned by the year’s events, as if he’s not sure whether someone might come along at any moment and tell him it was all a mistake: Hey, your office is down the hall, buddy, next to the janitor’s closet.

“I feel very blessed, very fortunate,” he says a couple of times.

But he also points out several times that he would not have accepted the job if Virginia McCaskey had not assured him that he would have the power to make whatever moves he thought necessary. Soon after Phillips’s appointment, there were rumors out of Halas Hall that Michael McCaskey was trying to cling to some of his turf, that he hoped to remain involved in some of the team’s important football decisions. Phillips says McCaskey is not involved in the day-to-day football operations.

When a reporter asks what McCaskey is doing as chairman of the board, Phillips seems at a loss. He looks to Bryan Harlan, the team’s director of public relations, for help. Harlan shrugs.

“Charitable endeavors,” Harlan finally says. “Community work.”

“Ownership issues,” Phillips adds. “Like league expansion.”

For all practical purposes, it sounds as if Phillips is fully in command, and he has already made several bold moves to correct some of the team’s biggest problems. To win back disgruntled fans, Phillips plans to hire an advertising firm to put together a campaign in time for the start of the season. He’s planning to improve some of the halftime and sideline entertainment at home games (though he says he has no plans to bring back the Honey Bears). He wants to improve traffic flow around Soldier Field and hire greeters to welcome fans to the game. He is also counting on fresh faces to lift hopes: Dick Jauron, the new coach, has players excited, especially since the Bears have a soft schedule in the upcoming season. Cade McNown, the team’s top draft pick, has the potential to be Chicago’s best quarterback since McMahon.

But Bears fans have learned to guard against pre-season optimism. When summer training camp opened, McNown’s future with the team seemed uncertain, and the new Bears regime suddenly showed signs of behaving like the old. Even before the young quarterback had been signed to a contract, the team cut veteran quarterback Erik Kramer, who had been expected to serve as a tutor for McNown. As a football move, it seemed to make little sense. As a business move, while it no doubt saved money in the short run, it nevertheless seemed a mistake. That’s because Kramer and McNown shared an agent, and when one quarterback was cut, negotiations with the other suddenly became more difficult. Bears fans everywhere could be heard to groan, “Here we go again.”

“We’ve never really had to worry in recent times about the image of the club,” says Phillips. “We’ve been the Chicago Bears. But when you have the difficult times we’ve been through and you feel you’re really down, you need a new spark to get that image back.” And he says the people who work at Halas Hall need a new spark, too. “We’re trying to build a family atmosphere,” he says, which might sound funny considering that the Bears are a family business, with five brothers on the payroll. Michael McCaskey is chairman of the board, Pat McCaskey is the director of community involvement, George McCaskey is ticket manager, Brian McCaskey is director of player development, and Tim McCaskey is vice-president. But there’s a big difference between a family business and a family atmosphere, and Phillips says the atmosphere needed improvement. “We want people to feel pride in where they work,” he says.

The other big problem facing Phillips is Soldier Field, where the Bears have been locked into one of the least profitable stadium deals in the NFL. Michael McCaskey and Mayor Daley got along so badly during their negotiations that, eventually, they could not be in the same room. Progress became impossible, and with the team’s lease set to expire after this season, Phillips had to work fast. Within months of his appointment, he broke the stalemate with the mayor and renewed the lease for Soldier Field. He has vowed not to move the team to the suburbs, and he has hired a local architect to design a proposal for the renovation of the lake-front stadium. Daley has expressed enthusiasm for the preliminary sketches. Phillips hopes to reach a comprehensive agreement with the city before the year is out. As a symbol of the team’s dedication to Chicago, the painted bear head that has graced Soldier Field’s 50-yard line will be replaced this year with a big “C” and one of the end zones will be painted with the word “Chicago” instead of the word “Bears.” In case the mayor and the fans don’t get the hint, the 1999 media guide will feature a picture of Soldier Field with the city skyline rising behind it.

“I guess it’s an olive branch,” says Bryan Harlan.

Usually, Michael McCaskey would watch the start of home games from the sideline, then move upstairs. But the McCaskeys’ private box, high above Soldier Field’s 50-yard line, was hardly a warm and relaxing place to watch football. Even if the Bears were winning, even if the team was on its way to the playoffs, even if the stadium was packed and the sun shining brightly, the McCaskeys were a tense bunch. From the days when the grandchildren watched George Halas huff and puff and holler, they had known that being part of the Bears family was not as much fun as it might have seemed. It only got worse when they inherited the team.

Michael’s sister Ellen McCaskey Tonquest says she didn’t know until she got married and moved out of the house that football did not have to be so painful. “Now I know you don’t have to go in your room and cry when the Bears lose, and you don’t have to cry over dinner,” she says. “I thought that was normal.”

Tonquest moved all the way to Oklahoma, where she achieved a measure of objectivity. But the rest of the family remained planted firmly in Papa Bear’s universe. Such was the power of the old man’s personality; and even Tonquest concedes that Michael faced a monstrous burden when he inherited his grandfather’s job.

McCaskey had to run a business and a football team, and he had to answer to stockholders who also happened to be his brothers and sisters, people he couldn’t avoid. Perhaps he never should have been handed the job in the first place, Tonquest says. “He didn’t have the mentality for football. I don’t think he had the ability to make good football decisions, and maybe that’s why they [needed] a general manager.”

As a business executive, McCaskey did succeed in at least one respect: When he left, the team he had inherited with a value of perhaps $50 million was worth probably ten times that much. To be honest, though, every franchise in the NFL has enjoyed similar growth, thanks mostly to television revenues and inflation. None of the McCaskeys have grown rich. Ed and Virginia recently moved from the house in Des Plaines where they raised their children to a smaller place in the same city. They have no vacation home. Michael and his family live in Winnetka, but not in one of the town’s grandest houses.

The real financial payoff for the McCaskeys will come if they decide to sell the team. Some observers believe that when Ed and Virginia die, the children might be too bitterly divided to continue running the business. Michael, as chairman of the board, might step into Virginia’s role as the ultimate power broker, and all the bitterness of recent years might return.

Tonquest, however, believes the team will never be sold. “We’re not in it to be millionaires,” she says. “If we were, we could have taken the money and run.” Tim McCaskey agrees. “There’s a disappointment in having someone other than a McCaskey in that [president’s] chair,” he says. “I didn’t think I’d see it in my lifetime.” The family will continue to own the team for many years, he says. And while he wishes Phillips a successful tenure, he hopes to see another family member back in the top spot someday.

Part of the reason they don’t want to sell, Tonquest and Tim McCaskey say, is that they don’t know whether their grandfather would have approved. Sixteen years after his death, Halas still exerts a powerful influence. Tim remembers a man who was too big to be a grandfather in the traditional sense — too busy with the Bears to look at his report cards, and too busy preparing for a game to attend his own grandson’s wedding. Tonquest says she feels even now that she has to live up to the rigorous standards for excellence set by the old man.

If these two experienced such pressure, one can only imagine how Michael McCaskey must have felt.

The kid remembered the old days so clearly, how George Halas greeted fans outside the stadium and made each person he met feel special. He recalled, too, the soft green fields and the straight white lines and the sight of his grandfather, that tough old goat, overseeing it all, making everyone and everything move just the way he wanted, like some sort of football god. The kid remembered how Halas refused to give up control, even when he was 87 and his bright young grandson came to him and asked for a job. He remembered how his mother cried when the old man finally died, how she sat and held his hand long after his heart stopped beating — how, quite literally, she could not let go.

Maybe the kid failed because he wanted to please his mother. He would not be the first. Or maybe he failed because George Halas could never be replaced, not by anyone. Maybe Sid Luckman and George Blanda and the other legends who showed him the fundamentals of the game never warned him that running the old man’s patterns would never be enough. Maybe the kid didn’t learn that in business school.

Maybe he had to find out the hard way.

Share

Edit Module

Advertisement

Edit Module
Submit your comment

Comments are moderated. We review them in an effort to remove foul language, commercial messages, abuse, and irrelevancies.

Edit Module