January 09, 2008|By Don Pierson, Chicago Tribune. Hall of Fame pro football reporter Don Pierson retired from the Tribune in August 2007. Tribune staff reporter Terry Bannon contributed to this report.
Jim Dooley, who succeeded George Halas as coach of the Bears and had one of the most innovative football minds of his time, died Tuesday, daughter Lisa said.
Dooley, 77, had been ill with complications from ALS, "Lou Gehrig's Disease," and died at Lake Forest Hospital.
"He was just a wonderful father and we had a very strong family," Lisa Dooley Trace said. "We were all there at his bedside when he passed. He had been on life support and he asked to die with honor and dignity."
He died a day after his 56th wedding anniversary.
Enthusiastic and innovative, a true "football man," Dooley presided over four of the darkest and worst years in Bears history as head coach from 1968 through 1971.
The first Bears coach after Halas' permanent retirement, Dooley labored under the founder's shadow and amid organizational chaos. At 38, Dooley came to the job as the culmination of a Bears career that began as the team's first-round draft choice in 1952 and featured major contributions as an assistant to Halas on offense and defense.
His future was bright, but a 1-13 season in 1969 combined with bad luck and worse quarterbacks doomed him.
"Halas never forgave me for the 1-13," Dooley said in a 2001 interview.
Loyal to the end, Dooley returned at Halas' request in 1981 as an "offensive assistant" on coach Neill Armstrong's staff, undermining the authority of both Armstrong and former general manager Jim Finks and paving the way for Halas to replace Armstrong with Mike Ditka.
Dooley served with Ditka as a quality control coach until 1990 but never developed a relationship with the present McCaskey family ownership
"He always had a tremendous football mind," Ditka said. "He [was] an expert at analyzing film. He could see things in that film that other people can't."
Halas' 1968 send-off of "Good luck, kid" to his successor immediately turned to bad luck and haunted Dooley through season records of 7-7, 1-13, 6-8 and 6-8.
He had the good fortune to coach Hall of Famers Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus, and the bad fortune of seeing both go down with knee injuries that would shorten their careers.
The only game the Bears won in 1969 was against the Pittsburgh Steelers, who also finished 1-13. The Steelers then beat the Bears in a coin flip for the draft rights to the No. 1 pick. The Steelers chose Terry Bradshaw, who could have solved their incessant quarterback confusion.
Dooley's tenure began with journeymen quarterbacks Jack Concannon and Virgil Carter, both of whom subsequently blasted Dooley for mishandling them. By 1971, Dooley was a desperate man who resorted to the desperate measure of moving into Bobby Douglass' bachelor apartment the week before a game in an effort to force-feed Douglass a diet of football knowledge. The plan worked for two games as the Bears climbed to a 6-3 record before collapsing.
An outstanding defensive back and receiver at the University of Miami in his native city, the 6-foot-4-inch Dooley intercepted four passes in the Gator Bowl and led the Bears in interceptions as a rookie. He led them in pass receptions his second year. His main playing contributions came as a receiver in tandem with Harlon Hill. When he retired, he was third on the Bears' career receiving list with 211 catches despite missing two seasons while serving in the Air Force.
Dooley's first coaching assignment under Halas was to help defensive coach George Allen incorporate the strategy the New York Giants employed under defensive coordinator Tom Landry. For the first time, pass coverage by linebackers became coordinated with defensive backs. Allen popularized the "nickel" defense of substituting a fifth defensive back for a linebacker, called the "Dooley Shift." Dooley also experimented with zone blitzes, dropping linemen into pass coverage, a tactic considered revolutionary when other teams adopted it in the 1990s.
After the Bears won the 1963 NFL title with a stifling defense, Dooley switched to offense and helped coach the high-scoring 1965 team featuring league-leading passer Rudy Bukich, rookie Sayers, fullback Andy Livingston and receivers Ditka, Dick Gordon and Johnny Morris.
"Dooley came up with combinations and pass patterns superior to anything I had seen in the game," former quarterback Bill Wade said.
When Halas retired because hip surgery made it impractical for him to prowl the sideline, Dooley's ascension to head coach was a foregone conclusion hailed by all. But the honeymoon was short.
Dooley could make strategy and statistics come alive and turn the mundane topic of field position into a passionate pregame speech, but he could not overcome the dearth of talent.
"He knew his stuff," former linebacker Doug Buffone said.
After Sayers returned from his first knee injury to lead the league in rushing on the 1-13 team in 1969, the Bears' rushing leader in 1970 was Ross Montgomery, who managed just 229 yards for the season.
Good players such as safety Rosey Taylor left the team and the Bears replaced them with what Dooley described as "Continental League players."
Dooley said he knew he was gone before the 1971 season when the Bears traded away promising center Bob Hyland without anyone to replace him. Despite a surprising 6-3 start, a 6-3 loss to Denver prompted Halas to bemoan "a deplorable game plan," and he fired Dooley after the season, ordering him to leave by the back door.
Dooley sank into a state of depression and, after briefly serving as an assistant coach with the Buffalo Bills, filed for bankruptcy in 1974.
A gambler who liked to play the horses, Dooley said Halas used to have security guards follow him home at night. Dooley remained a confidant of Bears Hall of Fame quarterback Sid Luckman, who supported Dooley emotionally and financially through tough times and persuaded Halas to bring him back in 1981.
"I was a broken man, disillusioned and ashamed of myself for failing," Dooley said in a 1986 interview. "I was a hot-shot coach and in four years I was a bum. I went nowhere, did nothing. I wasn't a wild man or anything, but I became indiscreet in my personal life, wasn't the father or the husband I should have been. Thank God I had a strong wife who was able to hold the family together. To me that is the best thing that ever happened to me, to see my family survive a troubled time in our lives."
Dooley never made more than $35,000 a year as a coach and Halas forbade radio and TV shows and endorsements.
"He lived to win in everything he did," Dooley said of the Bears' founder and patriarch. "No one ever went into his office and came out a winner. Everything was a contest and he won every battle. He was a person out of Charles Dickens. The only time he was generous was in death benefits or kindness to widows."
Yet Dooley never really succumbed to bitterness. In his later years he marveled at how lucky he was to be both a No. 1 draft choice and a head coach in the NFL. He proudly displayed a replica 1985 Super Bowl trophy in his apartment that was presented by Bears' owner Virginia McCaskey.
Late in his life, even as he needed more medical help, Dooley focused on helping the needy. Capitalizing on the sports memorabilia craze, he gathered some of his old Bears pictures to raise money for a soup kitchen at his family's church, Our Lady of Lourdes, on Chicago's North Side. In lieu of flowers, the family is requesting donations to the cause through St. Mary's Catholic Church in Lake Forest.
"It was a charity dear to his heart," Lisa said. "We were able to raise thousands and thousands of dollars for soup kitchens in Chicago and Waukegan."
With Luckman, Dooley was one of the last people to visit Halas the day he died in 1983.
"I kissed him on the forehead and told him I loved him," Dooley said.
Dooley often was described as a second son to Halas, who said when he rehired him in 1981: "If I had a choice of any other coach in the country, I would go to Jim because he was a great assistant coach. He wasn't much of a head coach on account of a lot of things we won't get into."
Dooley is survived by his wife, Elaine, children Jim Jr., Patrick, Tim, Bill and Lisa, and 16 grandchildren. Services are pending.