1000 Football Drive
The Chicago Bears Football Club, Inc. has one of the most colorful histories of any sports franchise in the entire world. One of the first professional football teams in the United States, the Chicago Bears have won nine world championships, including Super Bowl XX in 1986. Men who have played for the team comprise a who's who list of the best football players of all time, including such greats as Harold 'Red' Grange (the galloping ghost), Bronco Nagurski, Sid Luckman, Dick Butkus, Gale Sayers, and Walter Payton. The Chicago Bears have appeared in the playoffs 22 times and have more players inducted in the Football Hall of Fame than any other team. Yet, even with such a storied past, the franchise was not able to recapture its former greatness throughout the 1990s, when the team was plagued with poor management, poor draft choices, an unwillingness to pay high-caliber players, and a coach whose win-loss record went steadily from bad to worse. More recently, however, the franchise was making moves to redress these problems by replacing the president, reorganizing its management team, and hiring a more effective head coach.
Early 20th-Century History
The founder and impetus behind much of the success of the Chicago Bears franchise was George Halas. Halas grew up in Chicago, Illinois, in modest circumstances. Born into a middle-class family, Halas worked hard to save enough money in order to attend the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. A handsome young man with a quick smile and good physique, Halas was a born athlete and won letters in three sports while an undergraduate at the University. After he graduated, Halas spent a few years in the Navy and later joined the New York Yankees. Playing briefly as the Yankees' right fielder, the young man saw his baseball career cut short by a hip injury that severely hampered his ability to swing a bat. Disappointed and despondent, Halas returned to his roots in the Midwest and relocated in Decatur, Illinois.
Not long after establishing himself in Decatur, Halas found a job in a corn products business owned and operated by A.E. Staley. Staley was also a sports enthusiast who sponsored his own semi-pro baseball team and, as a result of their mutual interest in sports, the two men became friends. Recognizing Halas's passion for football, Staley reached a deal with Halas to form and organize an independent football team called the Decatur Staleys. With Staley's backing, Halas not only organized his own team but arranged to meet in Canton, Ohio, with the representatives of 12 other football clubs. There, in Ralph Hay's Hupmobile showroom, Halas was the driving force behind the formation of the American Professional Football Association, which was comprised of the 12 clubs at the meeting who agreed to play one another during the autumn of each year. Each team paid $100 to be a member of the Association, and thus the forerunner of the National Football League was established.
In 1920, with George Halas acting as player-coach, the Decatur Staley's posted a record of ten wins, one loss, and two ties, during its first year in existence, losing only to the Chicago Cardinals by a score of 7-6 in Normal Park. The team played its games all over Chicago that first year, but attendance remained low and it was anyone's guess as to whether or not professional football would catch on with the American public. Collegiate football, on the other hand, was one of the most popular sports throughout the United States, with teams like Army, Navy, the University of Michigan, Notre Dame, and the University of Chicago attracting thousands of people to each of their games. Still, the American Professional Football Association (APFA, later known as the NFL) was able to survive its first year of existence, and Staley and Halas payed their players $1,900 for the season, a very good salary at the time.
The following year, the team changed its name to the Chicago Staleys and played its first game in Wrigley Field, the home of the Chicago Cubs since 1914. Even though the team won its first APFA title with a record of 9-1-1, A.E. Staley was convinced that professional football was just a trend and would not last very long. Consequently, he decided to give the club to Halas with a subsidy of $5,000 on the condition that Halas retain the name Chicago Staleys for at least one year. Halas, ever the entrepreneur, accepted Staley's generous offer and found a new partner in Dutch Sternaman, whom he none too easily convinced of the viability of professional football. In 1922, Halas renamed the team the Chicago Bears and made the first player deal in the club's history by purchasing the contract of tackle Ed Healey from the Rock Island Independents for the total sum of $100. In spite of all his efforts, professional football just wasn't as popular as the college game, and by 1924 it looked as if the APFA was not going to survive much longer.
It is not an overstatement to say that Red Grange saved professional football. In 1925, Halas signed Grange to one of the most lucrative sports contracts of the pre-World War II era when he agreed to pay $100,000 for Grange to become a Chicago Bear. Grange had been known as the 'Galloping Ghost' when he played football for the University of Illinois. In fact, it was Grange that captured the imagination of the American public and brought success to the collegiate game. Halas was counting on Grange to do the same thing for professional football. Halas took Grange on a barnstorming tour that including 16 games in nine weeks across the United States. In his first game, which was played before 36,000 in Wrigley Field, Grange was held to 36 yards rushing by the Chicago Cardinals, and the score ended in a scoreless tie. However, when the team reached the West Coast and played the Los Angeles Tigers in front of 75,000 people at the Los Angeles Coliseum, the 'Galloping Ghost' ran for two touchdowns to post a win of 17-7. Halas had achieved exactly what he wanted: an impressive performance by his star player that impressed thousands of people. The remainder of the trip was just as successful. By its end, the Bears had posted a 11-4-1 record and, even more importantly, the American public was now flocking to see its favorite college athlete play professional football.
The Great Depression and World War II
The Chicago Bears, with Grange as its star player and attraction, posted winning seasons for the rest of the decade except for one year. Attendance continued to rise while revenues continued to increase. After the 1929 season, however, Halas decided to hire Ralph Jones in place of himself as head coach. Even though the team won the majority of its games under the coaching of Jones, due to the economic depression which was affecting every business across the United States, the financial health of the franchise began to suffer. With many people out of work, fewer and fewer individuals could pay for the cost of a ticket to attend a Bears game. Consequently, even though the team won the league championship in 1932, by the end of the season the franchise had lost approximately $18,000. Dutch Sternaman unloaded his half of the team ownership onto Halas, and Halas was forced not only to resume coaching the team in order to save the cost of a head coach's salary, but to pay many of the team's expenditures out of his own pocket.
With the advent of the 1940s, the fortunes of the Chicago Bears franchise began to improve. In 1940, the team beat Washington by a score of 73-0, while introducing the T-formation offense which revolutionized the game. When the United States entered World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, however, Halas once again set aside his coaching responsibilities and decided to join the U.S. Navy. For the duration of the war, Halas remained in the Navy while his team continued to play in the National Football League (NFL). When the war ended, Halas resumed his coaching duties with the Bears and rode the wave of popularity that the public felt for the game of football. Ever-larger crowds attended Bear games, with over 58,000 people watching in 1946 as Chicago defeated the New York Giants for the NFL championship.
The Modern Era
Halas had always been at the forefront of new and innovative techniques that could be adopted for use by his team on the playing field. The T-formation, split ends, and the forward pass were all strategies used by Halas to win football games. During the late 1940s and throughout the decade of the 1950s, the quarterbacks for the Chicago Bears played an aggressive offensive scheme with the forward pass as one of their most important weapons. Sid Luckman, Johnny Lujack, and Bobby Layne were some of the best quarterbacks in the history of professional football, and the Chicago Bears were lucky to have them as players. In 1949, Lujack set an NFL record with 468 passing yards against the Cardinals. With the popularity and continuity of the game ensured, Halas decided once again to retire. In 1956, he turned the coaching responsibilities over to Paddy Driscoll and devoted himself exclusively to the administrative, organizational, and financial duties of the franchise.
Yet Halas was too much of a hands-on owner to ignore the team's development and win-loss record. So he returned as head coach in 1958 for his final tour of duty. By 1963, the Chicago Bears had once again won a championship title by defeating the New York Giants, 14-10, on a blustery winter day at Wrigley Field in Chicago. In 1965, the Bears drafted two of the best players ever to set foot on the field, Dick Butkus and Gayle Sayers. Butkus developed into one of the most outstanding middle linebackers professional football has seen, while Sayers set an NFL record of scoring 22 touchdowns during his first year with the Bears. By 1968, Halas was ready to relinquish his position as head coach of the Bears for the last time. When he did so at the end of the season, he retired as the all-time winningest coach in the history of professional football, with a record of 324 wins, 151 loses, and 31 ties during 40 seasons.
The 1970s and 1980s
During the 1970s and 1980s, the Chicago Bears franchise underwent many changes. In 1970, the Bears made a major change and switched their playing venue from Wrigley Field to Soldiers Field in order to accommodate more fans. Another major change occurred when the NFL and AFL merged, and George Halas was elected president of the National Football Conference. With his advancing age, and the growth of football as big business, Halas was no longer able to manage all of the details necessary to run a professional football franchise. As a result, in 1974 he hired Jim Finks as general manager and continued to give his son George 'Mugs' Halas, Jr., more and more administrative responsibility, having been appointed by his father to serve as president of the franchise in 1963. Under Jim Finks and Mugs Halas, the Chicago Bears began to draft players and hire coaches that once again brought them into prominence. However, the front office was hit hard when Mugs Halas unexpectedly died of a heart attack in 1979.
The Bears had reached the playoffs twice during the late 1970s, but even with players such as Walter Payton the team was unable to advance much further. In 1982, however, Halas and Finks decided to hire Mike Ditka as head coach of the team, a former tight end for the Bears from 1961 to 1968 and an assistant coach at the Dallas Cowboys. Ditka was a no-nonsense type of coach whose one goal was to win the Superbowl.
George Halas died in 1983, while Jim Finks resigned his position as general manager and was also to die soon from cancer. However, the groundwork had been laid, and during the 1983 and 1984 seasons the team gradually improved both on defense and offense. The loss in the 1984 NFL Conference title game to the San Francisco 49ers set the stage for the next season. The Chicago Bears posted an 18-1 season for 1985, beating each of their opponents with a strong offense and a relentless, punishing defense. The team shut out both of their playoff opponents, and then easily beat the New England Patriots 46-10 in the Superbowl XX game held in New Orleans. Richard Dent won the Most Valuable Player trophy for the game, and the Chicago Bears were clearly the team to beat during the following season. Unfortunately, the Bears failed to win an NFC title game during the next three seasons.
The 1990s and Beyond
The Bears were able to reach the playoffs during 1990 and 1991, and the team lost much of its talent as the players who appeared in Superbowl XX either retired or went to other teams. Unable to maintain the high level of intense play and tradition of winning, Coach Ditka grew more and more frustrated with both his players and with management. After George Halas, Sr., had died, the franchise was run by Michael McCaskey, the grandson of George Halas and a business school professor and consultant from Boston. As friction mounted between Ditka and McCaskey, McCaskey decided to fire Ditka and bring in his own choice as head coach. In 1993, McCaskey hired Dave Wannstedt as coach. Although the team posted winning seasons in both 1994 and 1995, the team began to flounder and both McCaskey and Wannstedt came under intense criticism from the press. Wannstedt was criticized for losing more and more games, and being seemingly unable to choose talented players, while McCaskey was criticized both for his apparent meddling in coaching affairs and for his focus on building a new Bears stadium over the team performance.
In 1999, Virginia McCaskey, George Halas's daughter, decided that the entire Chicago Bears needed new leadership and a more clearly defined vision. Consequently, she fired her own son, Michael McCaskey, and hired Ted Phillips as the new president and CEO of the Chicago Bears franchise. Dave Wannstedt was also replaced as head coach by Dick Jauron, completing the reorganization of the Bears front office. The shake-up led to a reinvigorated team and an improved record for the 1999 season, though the Chicago Bears had a long way to go before they recaptured the championship aura that typified the franchise throughout most of their early history.
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