In It Together

In 1995, the Chicago Bears and the City of Chicago were at odds.

The Chicago Park District owned Soldier Field, at a tidy annual cost to the taxpayers of $12 million.  The Park District wasn’t interested in using taxpayer moneys to finance a Soldier Field facelift that would only suit the mostly-non-Chicagoans who flooded the venue year to year.

The Chicago Bears, handed down to the McCaskey family from George Halas to his daughter Virginia, wanted more.  Halas, notorious for turning a profit, bequeathed a sentiment of occasionally underhanded shrewdness that the McCaskeys honed into a knife-edged modus operandi, and without more profits to the franchise, things would get ugly.

The major players:  Then-Team President Michael McCaskey, and then-Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley.

McCaskey, eldest granchild of Bears and NFL patriarch George S. Halas, had made his stance clear:  Renovations to Soldier Field would not be acceptable.  If a new facility wasn’t built, plans could be set in motion to move the Bears to Aurora, Los Angeles, Baltimore, or perhaps even Gary, Indiana.  By going to Gary, the city would need help from the other owners of the league to rescind the Bears marketing rights to Chicago, lest natives prefer to watch the Canadian Football League.

Daley, in the thick of his 22 years as Mayor, himself son of the infamous Richard J. Daley, was equally stubborn, refusing to permit McCaskey access to his stadium advisor Edward Bedore.   When threatened with the moves the Bears could make, Daley reportedly responded with, “They can go to Alaska.”

J. Daley and Halas were themselves no stranger to vitriol, having been at odds over relocating, so if anything Michael’s battle with Richard Jr. was the generational football equivalent of Hatfield-McCoy.  Both sides were more than comfortable getting their hands dirty, embracing nepotism, and wiggling around meddlesome legal and moral obstacles, and in late 1995 the storm clouds had gathered over Lake Michigan.

By the time families had begun hanging ornaments on their Christmas Trees, the McCaskey v. Daley talks had the air of hanging one another from the nearest sturdy bough.  Bears officials were still in talks with Gary, and the Daley crew was more focused on winning the battle of public opinion than triumphing in their negotiations.  Options were in discussion of a domed arena in McCormick Place, but once it became clear that was a pipe dream, hostilities between the city and the team returned.

Daley’s point man Bedore was finally in the same room with Bears chief negotiator and Vice President Ted Phillips, and the talks, meant to be private and professional, quickly devolved into crass and petty.

Daley publicly rejected a proposal, prompting Phillips to describe the mayor’s brusque outburst as “verbal diarrhea.”  Bedore then took Phillips to task and before you know it, discussions were taking place as to whether Daley and McCaskey would settle things in the old way – one on one, man to man, as their fathers did.

Phillips was no slouch in the war of words, posturing that the city was painting the Bears with a wicked brush, abusing the media and publicizing negotiations prematurely in order to control the narrative spin of a “greedy” Bears franchise.  Talks broke down, and Phillips countered the Daley PR machine in a statement before reporters that December:

“We have sat by, for the most part, and absorbed all of this with the hope that a measure of civility might return to the proceedings. We are not going to absorb it any longer.

“We have meetings with the city, the city meets with the media. It wouldn’t be so bad if the intent was to convey the message that we’re both working together, but they’ve painted us as the bad guys. Everything they propose is reasonable. Everything we propose is irrational and evil.

“That’s only one reason why there are no talks, and I don’t know if there will be any more. That’s up to the city. They really haven’t been negotiating at all; what they’ve done is given us an ultimatum, to sign their deal and go about our business. We have to protect the organization and the fans, and we’re not going to do that.

“While we’re remaining hopeful that there might be meetings down the road, none are scheduled. And that won’t happen until there are some understandings.”

The Bears negotiator indicated that while City Hall was pushing buttons and twiddling thumbs, the team was optimistic about Gary, IN officials getting tax legislation tabled for a stadium proposal by the start of 1996.  While Daley met with other fearful big-city political luminaries in Cleveland, the Bears reminded negotiators that one way to smooth over the financial impasse would be to turn over all profits from concessions and parking to the team.  That option would leave a $5M hole, however, that taxes would have to cover.

So you see the dilemma.

Months passed.  Talks carried on into the offseason.

The “McDome” proposal had returned, the Bears had begun to publicly provide hints at their “comfort level” of financial contribution toward this endeavor, but new options were also being floated about compromising the new stadium proposal with a Soldier Field renovation.

For a time all was quiet.

In late 1998, the expiring lease on Soldier Field just over two years away loomed large.  Bears representatives insisted talks were cordial, but lamented the impact Daley’s media spin had on the reputation of Michael McCaskey.  His father Ed, Chairman of the Bears, in particular found it troubling, but hoped fans would be above the charade.

Phillips, who has worked within the Bears organization in various roles since 1983, supplanted Michael as Team President in 1999, with McCaskey transitioning into a Chairman role, all at the behest of Virginia.  At the turn of the century, talks with City Hall were still ongoing, and with the dome idea shelved and negotiations entering yet another year, both sides were eager to have a deal struck.

In 2001, the Soldier Field renovation plan was finalized.

The total cost would near $700 million.  $432 million from the public, and the taxpayers to this day are still paying for the upkeep.  John Q. Taxpayer paid $36 million in 2016 alone for Soldier Field’s renovation bonds issued over a dozen years previous.  The Park District, once promised a great deal of resources and benefits tied into this arrangement, was drastically shortchanged in the end.

The Bears pay an annual fee of $5.7 million to “rent” Soldier Field through 2033, and covered roughly $250 million of the total renovation fees.

Phillips and the Bears had an arrangement in place to sell the naming rights for $300 million, but that insensitive plan was scrapped after pressure from Mayor Daley, American war veterans, and the public, all of whom were still reeling from the attacks on 9/11.

The iconic colonnades, designed with the lakefront and city aesthetic in mind, found themselves crammed under an enormous steel and glass seating bowl.  The architectural integrity of Soldier Field, Shedd Aquarium, and the Field Museum, was no more.  Daley and then-Governor George Ryan assuaged the Chicago Plan Commission to look the other way on the matter.  Similarly too the Illinois State Historic Preservation Agency had no opinion.

Phillips spoke glowingly of famed city architect Dirk Lohan, who’s endorsement of and assistant with the Soldier Field renovation greased many wheels, opened closed doors, and protected the Boston design firm hired to oversee the design from City Hall’s wary gaze:

“When we came to terms with the design, the issue became: What does the city need to make this a viable project? And that’s when Dirk (Lohan) got involved. He understands the permitting process, the building process; he knows the people and the politics. I don’t think we ever would have gotten a stadium at this site without the park improvements. What happened is, it became apparent to us that we weren’t going to be able to privately finance the stadium. So when we were able to come up with a much grander and more encompassing plan that included the park, it became the basis for a public/private partnership.”

For what it’s worth, Lohan’s words rang as heartfelt, even if they weren’t his own, describing his disdain for the criticism as counterfeit grousings from nostalgia-laced naysayers.

“There is this feeling that old things are good things and that the new and the novel are scary.  I’m turned on by modern, new, innovative things. The issue of how to modernize in a functional way an old building is an eternal architectural question. I’m sure that when they started building Gothic additions to Romanesque cathedrals in the Middle Ages, there were people who said, ‘My God, they’re ruining everything.’ 

“I would never say that Soldier Field is an architectural landmark.  Nobody has copied it; nobody has learned from it. People like it for nostalgic reasons. They remember the games and parades and tractor pulls and veterans’ affairs they’ve seen there over the years.  I wouldn’t do this if it were the Parthenon. But this isn’t the Parthenon.”

Soldier Field’s landmark status was waived in 2006 due to the renovations.

Over the years, many Bears fans have been leery of Phillips’ involvement in the organization’s football decision-making branch.  As President and CEO, Phillips appears publicly with now-Chairman George McCaskey, and some are rather ruffled that he takes some modicum of credit for the team’s few successes while shouldering little to no responsibility for their struggles.

The McCaskey family is forever bonded and, in both the literal and figurative sense, indebted to Phillips for navigating the muddy waters of the Soldier Field arrangement that had been a complicated ball of twine between the organization and the city for decades.  The 2000s brought further achievements to Phillips as he brought the Chicago Bears Training Camp back to the state of Illinois, relocating from Platteville, WI to Bourbonnais, and overhauled the facilities at Halas Hall in 2012.

The only thing Phillips hasn’t managed to improve or renovate in all his years within the Bears organization has been his image with the fans.

George McCaskey, for all his flaws as a businessman, still has some smattering of a blue-collar ethic.  George, once the director of ticket sales, regularly meets with the fans on game days.  The McCaskey family themselves owns no major assets beyond the Chicago Bears, and have no intentions to sell, even when the venerable matriarch Virginia passes away.

Phillips, a New York-born accountant and Notre Dame alumni, has no such interactions, and when not smiling for the camera or putting a positive spin on things in Bears media releases, prefers to spend his time focused on the day-to-day business operations of team marketing, finances, and negotiations — things a team President and CEO should be occupied with.

The “verbal diarrhea” bug hasn’t quite caught up to Ted yet as he enters his 60s, and he is quite used to dealing with the criticism, whether it’s regarding the Soldier Field renovations, the hiring of a new General Manager/Head Coach, or the expense of tickets:

“(The fans are) going to be passionate.  If you don’t have thick skin in this business, and you can’t withstand the pressure, whether it’s from fans, the media, or everybody who thinks they can do your job better, then you need to find a new job.  That’s part of the deal – the pressure that comes from the outside.  You don’t let it get to you.”

“…we have — for better or worse, I think it’s for better — we have if not the smallest stadium, the second-smallest stadium from a capacity standpoint. We need to keep our ticket prices in the top quarter in the league just to have average ticket revenues. The goal ultimately is to keep our financial situation such that we give ourselves the ability to compete financially, whether it’s for players or facilities.”

“I know the type of leader I am. I don’t meddle. I never meddle. I’ve learned over time you hire people who are smarter than you, including that guy, and then you come together as a team and everybody trusts each other and you do great things. We haven’t done it on the field, that’s the one thing missing. But I know internally, we go to work every day, for me, as the CEO, I’m blessed every day. I’ve got great people around me. We’re all in it together and we haven’t tasted that sense of consistent success on the field, but we know we’re close.”

In a city that reveres toughness and a “fuck you” attitude, it’s a surprise to me that fans, including myself, find our fingers pointed in Ted’s direction so readily when the losses begin to pile up.  Same can be said for the McCaskeys.  They’re just another wonky family with a strange backstory, and run their organization with somebody who isn’t afraid to piss people off or work the system.

Their decision making isn’t a sequence of Bill-Wirtz-like self-inflicted gunshots, nor is it the expressway ramp to a title that Theo Epstein wrought.  There’s not the slimy indifference that Donald Sterling had with his Clippers, nor the contemptuous arrogance of Dan Snyder steering the Redskins.  This isn’t Moria bilking Florida into an empty ballpark or the sniveling incompetence of James Dolan and the Knicks.

The Bears, McCaskey family, and Ted Phillips are at worst clerical, boring, and misguided, but with Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy steering the football team aggressively toward an exciting 2018 season, a lot is riding on the success of Chicago’s most popular sports attraction re-emerging as an NFL powerhouse in the coming years.  If things come together as we hope, credit has to be given in part to the team brass, Phillips and McCaskey alike.

If it doesn’t, at least fans can sleep soundly knowing the team won’t ever leave Chicago.  At least until the rent’s up in 2033, when Phillips will be rounding into his 80s, and Virginia McCaskey would be nearly 110 years old.

At that point, we can only hope that the team can transition out of this regime with more than one Lombardi Trophy and an NFC Championship to show for it.


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