DALLAS — Despite their difference in temperament and social behavior, Tom Landry and Mike Ditka were close friends for 11 years when Ditka played and coached in Dallas. Landry gave Ditka an impressive reference in 1981 and predicted to then-Bears owner George Halas that his new coach would be a hit in Chicago.
Landry was right. The Bears reached the NFC title game last year and are 6-0 in 1985.
So, Landry felt compelled to telephone an old friend last week after learning that Ditka had been arrested in Chicago on a charge of DUI (driving under the influence).
"I just called to see if he needed a character witness," Landry said, laughing. "Of course, I have to needle ol' Mike every once in awhile to keep him honest."
Landry did "needle" Ditka during their conversation. But he also wanted Ditka to know he supported him and that he shouldn't let the incident distract him from coaching.
"I don't think all the facts came out," Landry said. "Mike had a couple of glasses of wine, but you got the feeling from the media that Mike was pretty drunk.
"I called Mike to see how he was faring. Mike is a good person and he's really done a great job for them. I have a lot of respect for Mike both as a person and as a coach."
Ditka was arrested after his team's chartered flight returned from San Francisco following last Sunday's victory. The Bears were celebrating their biggest win in several years. They are 6-0 for the first time since 1943.
But witnesses said Ditka was drinking wine and had no more than two or three glasses. The highway patrolman who arrested him, though, reported that Ditka was speeding in Cook County.
"I thought he would be pretty happy when he got home," said Ditka's wife, Diana. "But he just laughed and said, 'Guess where I've been? I've been down at the police station.' "
Several calls of protest were placed to the Illinois state police by Bears fans Monday and Tuesday, but Ditka was not critical of the officer who arrested him.
"I have no animosity at all toward the state police," he said. "I understand their job and I have a great amount of respect for them."
Diana Ditka said her husband was depressed about his arrest on Monday, but that he was feeling better Tuesday.
"He just felt that he let some people down," she said. "They were just starting to look at him as some kind of hero."
Despite being one of most popular players in Bears history, Ditka did not receive a warm reception during his first two seasons in 1982 and '83. There was some question last year whether his three-year contract would be renewed. Ditka's temper had been a source of criticism for the new owners.
President Michael McCaskey did not give Ditka a vote of confidence until the Bears reached the playoffs last year.
Now, Ditka is having to deal with another setback.
"I just think that it is unfortunate and disappointing," he said. "There are rights and wrongs in life, and I'm just a person. In life, we all want to change something. But you can't change them."
Interestingly, the Bears and Cowboys could play for the top spot in the NFC when they meet Nov. 17 at Texas Stadium. If the teams continue to win, the Bears will be 10-0 and the Cowboys will be 9-1. Chicago newspapers are already speculating that Dallas and Chicago will meet for the NFC championship game -- in Chicago.
Landry said last Tuesday the the Bears have the best team in the NFL.
"I think they are the team to beat in the NFL," Landry said. "They are the team that has really been emerging. They're tough. When you go out and handle the 49ers as they did in their park, you will have to say they are a contender. The only other team that is going well is L.A. (Rams)."