Saturday, April 9, 2016

Learning to Respect The Man

As a product of the late-sixties and early-seventies and witness to posters, t-shirts and bumper stickers offering variations of the era's don't trust anyone over thirty mantra, I was reluctant to admit The Man mattered.

I was more inclined to believe The Man was an out of touch, over-fed Republican intent on exploiting the masses for personal gain when he wasn't entertaining thoughts of shearing off my hair and packing my ass off to Vietnam.

Okay, so The Man was (and still is) looking to exploit the masses for personal gain. But as I would learn, he could also serve a useful function. 

One was reviving moribund sports franchises.

By the mid-seventies, the Chicago Bears were a pathetic sight. Offering some of the most anemic, unimaginative and uninspired football ever seen on NFL turf, the once-formidable franchise couldn't even lose well.

Their four, five and six-win seasons meant they weren't able to enjoy the restorative effects high draft picks could supply.

The watershed moment arrived when their once visionary owner looked in the mirror and realized what was wrong with the Chicago Bears. It was only then that George Halas stepped aside and hired a GM conversant in post-WW II-style football.

Jim Finks had masterminded the Minnesota Vikings' late-sixties rise to NFL prominence, after resurrecting the Calgary Roughriders of the Canadian Football League. He possessed an uncanny eye for evaluating talent and potential.

Just three years after Finks' arrival the Bears participated in the NFL playoffs, an once-unimaginable occurrence. Finks moved the franchise away from drafting players the frugal Halas believed he could sign on the cheap to drafting players Finks thought could excel at professional football.

During Finks' tenure Walter Payton, Mike Hartenstine, Doug Plank, Roland Harper, Dan Hampton, Al Harris, Otis Wilson, Mike Suhey, Keith Van Horne, Mike Singletary, Todd Bell, Leslie Frazier, Jay Hilgenberg, Jim McMahon, Jim Covert, Willie Gault, Mike Richardson, Dave Duerson, Tom Thayer, Richard Dent, Mark Bortz and Dennis McKinnon were either drafted or signed as undrafted free agents.

Castoffs like Emery Moorehead, Steve McMichael and Gary Fencik were signed as free agents. It's worth noting that twenty of the twenty-four starters on the 1985 Super Bowl team were acquired during Finks' tenure.

But The Man is relative. While Jim Finks appeared to be The Man for all intent and purposes, George Halas still owned the Bears and was still breathing. He had influence to exert and an ego to satisfy.

The first dent in the Halas-Finks relationship was Halas' hiring of Mike Ditka, during which the old man apparently forgot he had hired Finks. Further eroding the relationship was Finks' drafting of Jim McMahon, whom Halas didn't think highly of.

While history proved both decisions to be sound ones, the relationship was damaged beyond repair. Finks resigned shortly before the 1983 season began, and Halas died just two months later. The 1985 Bears famously won Super Bowl XX.

The raft of talented players Finks brought to Chicago did what players do. They got injured. They got old. A few held out and never regained their career momentum. Without Finks' unerring assessments to replenish the team, this talent was never adequately replaced, putting the franchise in a nosedive that, for the most part, it has never been able to pull out of.

Ironic that even The Man has to please The Man. It's always something.


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