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Mike Ditka Retired Jersey #89

College Football Hall of Fame | Pro Football Hall of Fame
Pro Football Hall of Fame Induction Speech

One of the legendary figures in Pitt football history is MIKE DITKA, who played under Coach John Michelosen from 1958-60.

"Iron Mike" was a fierce tight end and defensive lineman for the Panthers, whose immense athletic skills and competitive drive earned him All-America honors at Pitt. He led the Panthers in receiving for three straight years. Ditka then went on, of course, to earn All-Pro honors as a tight end in the NFL.

He received enshrinement into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1986. Two years later, Ditka received his "Canton Call" and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

He was a member of the Chicago Bears' 1963 NFL championship team and the Dallas Cowboys' Super Bowl VI champions. He also worked as an assistant coach for the Cowboys for nine seasons and was part of another Dallas Super Bowl championship squad.

As the coach of the Chicago Bears for 11 seasons (1982-92), Ditka rebuilt that franchise into an NFL power. The Bears won Super Bowl XX under Ditka, and he took Chicago to the NFC Championship Game three times. He returned to the NFL coaching ranks from 1997-99 as the head coach of the New Orleans Saints.

"I have said it many times," said ESPN's Mike Greenberg. "If Jerry West is the NBA silhouette, then Mike Ditka should be the NFL silhouette. I think he sort of embodies what the sport is. I think Mike Ditka is the sport."

But it was at Pitt that Ditka first earned fame for his competitive fury and relentless will to win.

"You'd see him in the huddle, or on the sidelines waiting to get back onto the field, and you knew just by looking at him he was ready,'' remembered Foge Fazio, a teammate of Ditka's who later served as Pitt's head coach in the mid-1980s. "He was always ready. He was like a prize fighter in the ring. He just couldn't wait for that bell to ring and get back out there.''

Ernie Hefferle, who coached the ends under Michelosen during Ditka's Pitt career, said this about Ditka: "He was the damnedest player I ever came across; you get one in a lifetime if you're lucky. He used to forearm our own guys in practice. He used to complain that our practices weren't tough enough. He wanted more hitting. All he wanted to do was hit, hit, hit.''

Ditka was a three-sport athlete at Pitt. He was a baseball outfielder and a forward on the Panther basketball team. Bob Timmons coached Ditka in both football and basketball at Pitt. "He'll hit the first guy he sees,'' said Timmons. That was in both sports.

Ditka was also the intramural wrestling champion at Pitt. Rex Peery, the Panthers' legendary wrestling coach, was convinced Ditka could have been an NCAA wrestling champion had he wrestled on the varsity.

Ditka was a tenacious, incendiary competitor. He was not diplomatic. He once punched two Pitt guards in the same game during huddles because he didn't think they were putting out.

Wrote Jim O'Brien in Hail to Pitt: "In Ditka's senior season, he went after teammate Chuck Reinhold at halftime. Reinhold, a well-mannered, scholarly type, was a safety from Mt. Lebanon. He did something wrong near the end of the first half of the game with Michigan State, permitting Herb Adderly to escape his grasp and go for a touchdown.

"Not long afterward, as the Pitt squad clattered into the dressing room, Reinhold hollered, `Let's get `em in the second half.'

"Ditka cried out, `If you hadn't given up that touchdown in the first half we wouldn't be in the fix we're in!' With that, he went for Reinhold. It took about six teammates to restrain Ditka.''

"His last game against Penn State will always stand out in my mind,'' said Lou Cecconi, a former star running back for the Panthers who was an assistant coach at Pitt during Ditka's playing days. "He went in to block a punt and then played the whole game with a dislocated shoulder.''

Ditka was a marauding defensive end and claimed he may have even been better on that side of the ball.

"In the pros, Mike just played offense,'' said Fred Cox, a teammate of Ditka's at Pitt who went on to a 15-year career of his own as a placekicker with the Minnesota Vikings. "That was always a mystery to me, because he was such a fiery defender. He would have made one of the best linebackers ever to come near the NFL if he had been played there with the Bears.''

"The attitude of a defensive player is a little bit more aggressive, and that helped me on offense,'' Ditka says. "That aggressive attitude helps the way you approach blocking and catching the ball and running over people -- and everything else. Catching the ball means very little if you don't enjoy running with it afterward. It becomes a competitive one-on-one challenge that you really don't want just one person to bring you down.''

Ditka's aggressive nature as a player always earmarked him as a leader. He captained Pitt as a senior. He captained the East in the East-West postseason all-star game. He captained the college all-stars against the NFL champions. He later captained the Bears' offensive unit.

Ditka, a native of Aliquippa, Pa., has never forgotten his Pitt roots. He established a $100,000 endowed scholarship fund that provides valuable assistance to both male and female varsity athletes at the University of Pittsburgh from the Beaver Valley area who have distinguished themselves in athletic competition and in their academic pursuits.

"I think life is about paying your dues,'' Ditka said. "There were a lot of people that helped Mike Ditka along the way, and the University of Pittsburgh certainly played an important role during my formative years. Looking back at my college career, Pitt means to me my whole life -- what I am now.''

Ditka's number 89 was retired by the University of Pittsburgh at halftime of the Pitt-Miami game in 1997, 37 years after his final collegiate season.

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