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Otis Wilson: “I was Von Miller before he knew anything about it”

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Windy City Gridiron sits down with Otis Wilson and talks Urlacher Hall of Fame, Trubisky, and the state of today’s game.

Super Bowl XX
Otis Wilson, world champion
Photo By Mike Powell/Getty Images

Otis Wilson, Chicago Bears legend on the vaunted 1985 defense, has a new tell-all book out, “If These Walls Could Talk: Chicago Bears.” I reviewed that book a few weeks ago, and if you missed it, you can read that here. After the review published, I was offered the opportunity to speak to Otis to ask him any questions I might have and given some of the events of the past year that weren’t captured in the book, I took him up on it. We talked Urlacher, Trubisky, and he revealed what he would have done for a living had he not played professional sports.

Let me note off the top that guys from that ’85 team have given a ton of interviews over the years and I already read and reviewed a “tell-all” book as spoken by one of the greats. Much of that ground has been harvested by many interviews and so I tried to keep it current. If you’re looking for a deep dive into the ’85 team, the book that Otis has out is your source for that. However, Otis’ frame of reference is the time he played and the people he played with, so there is plenty of talk of those days. Below represents the highlights of my interview with Otis – he gave me an hour but I think we could’ve spoken for 3 without a problem. He was gracious with his time and honest in his opinions. The interview took place last Wednesday, before the Bears win against the Bengals.

Jeff Berckes: “My first question for you has to do with Brian Urlacher and the Hall of Fame. You talk a lot about the Hall of Fame in your book – the organization itself, the players that have been voted in, those who haven’t been that deserved to be, so I’m curious as someone who watched Urlacher play – does he deserve to be a 1st Ballot Hall of Famer?”

Otis Wilson: “Deserves it? Yes. He played the game very well. He was a throwback, he could play on my team any day. He’d play second string, don’t get me wrong. I’ve gotta give my honest opinion – who are you going to sit? Wilbur? Mike Singletary? Naw. I’ve gotta give my honest opinion again, I think Urlacher should have to wait behind the guys on the ’85 team that deserve to be in.”

JB: “Okay, who specifically? You mentioned a few guys you played with in the book that should be enshrined but I’m curious how you’d stack them against Urlacher. Wilbur Marshall? Steve McMichael?”

OW: “Sure, those guys and Jimbo Covert. Those guys all deserve to be in the Hall of Fame and until they put those guys in, I just don’t know, I guess they’ve slowed down picking guys from that era. You know the Chicago Bears have the most Hall of Fame players of any team out there? Maybe they’re just trying to spread it out.”

JB: “So, let me ask it this way; if you could put one more of your teammates in the Hall, who is the most deserving of those that have been snubbed?”

OW: “I wouldn’t put in one person over another. If you have 32 teams, you’re trying to be fair and spread it out. There are some players in there that shouldn’t be there.”

JB: “Whoa…I don’t suppose you’d be willing to give me an example or two of some guys who you think shouldn’t be in there?”

OW: “No, not going to do that. When there’s only one championship, that negates a lot of things.”

JB: “Meaning if the ’85 era Bears had more championships, there would be more players in the Hall of Fame?”

OW: “Absolutely.”

JB: “So let me ask you about that as there’s been a lot written about why that team, so talented, could only win one. What’s the reason?”

OW: “Buddy Ryan leaving – he took the aggressiveness with him. In this business, in any business, if you reach success, you want the next step. He saw… anyone who coaches, their ultimate goal should be to be a Head Coach, right? So, he had the opportunity to leave and he took it. With Ditka’s attitude, and everyone got into it with him (Ditka), everyone, with Ditka’s attitude he wanted to leave. I don’t blame him.”

JB: “Okay, let me circle back to my original question here, given the constraints of the voters – at this point the only chance for some of your guys is a senior committee vote – but, if we focus on just the modern era players that are eligible, what do you think of Urlacher’s chances this year?”

OW: “Oh, he’s got a great chance. He’s one of the most notable names so he has a great chance.”

JB: “I’m curious, do you think the designation of ‘1st Ballot Hall of Famer’ means anything to players or is that just a media construct?”

(Pause)

OW: “You know, I don’t know, that’s a good question. I would think that whether you’re 1st or 2nd or 3rd, who cares, once you’re in, but I don’t know. You know, I’m going to talk to some guys to see what they say.”

JB: “Right because Singletary and obviously Walter Payton were 1st ballot whereas guys like Dan Hampton and Richard Dent had to wait a long time.”

OW: “Yeah, that’s interesting, I mean I suppose there would be pride in it but I don’t know.”

~~~~~

JB: “Next question, with the Bears reeling at 3-9 in yet another lost season, John Fox looks like he’s on the way out of town. Brian Urlacher said recently that he hoped Fox would be allowed to stay and turn the team around. In the book, which covered through the 2016 season, you were on the fence with Fox but wanted Pace to go. What do you say now?”

OW: “After having another year to look at it – as a fan – I mean, I’ve talked to Fox, I understand what he’s trying to do, get his guys to perform at the best level they can. I understand that. And there are times when his guys just don’t perform and he just shakes his head. But at some point, it’s his job to get them motivated. If $9M a year or $3M or $2M don’t motivate you – what will? You have to have accountability in the locker room. The Coach has to delegate the right responsibility to the players. Ryan Pace has to make that commitment. And, since he’s been here, he hasn’t made great picks. The kid from West Virginia…

JB:Kevin White

OW:Kevin White – he’s been hurt the whole time. And when he is on the field he can’t get separation. From there on – you can’t blame it all on the coach. Seems to me, there’s enough blame to go around for everyone. My son coached as West Virginia and his (Kevin White’s) footspeed was, he just running past people. But when you get to the NFL, everybody fast, they all run with you, so you gotta change your game to get open. He got hurt every time he went out there but Fox is the scapegoat.”

JB: “I guess, yeah, I’m curious because you were critical of Ryan Pace in the book, called him the ‘Kid GM’ and with Kevin White, coming out he had all the athletic measurable traits you could ever ask for but he couldn’t run the route tree – he didn’t seem like a polished guy, just a raw guy. And then you’ve got the situation this year where Pace moved up for Mitchell Trubisky and gave up…

OW: “Yes! We didn’t even get into that! He gave up a lot for the wrong guy!”

JB: “Right, in the book you called for the Bears to draft DeShaun Watson at #3 because he-

OW: “A winner, yes, he’s a winner. I know a winner when I see it. Instead you give a guy like Mike Glennon, who played like two quarters of football, a pile of money and then you draft this Trubisky kid when, look, they gave up a whole lot to get up for that. Back in my day, someone would be held accountable.”

JB: “Meaning?”

OW: “Meaning they’d get fired for doing that.”

JB: “You mean Pace?”

OW: “Yeah, you’ve got a second string QB signed for $25M, on the bench most of his career, didn’t do a whole lot. You left a guy who won national championships out there (on the draft board). I know what winners are – I know what the best is, I know what the worst is. Who’s driving this car? You’re driving it into the ditch!”

JB: “So, okay, right, but let me circle back to Mitchell Trubisky for a second, what are your thoughts on him specifically?”

OW: “Right now the offensive playbook is vanilla, but I don’t see him turning into (Tom) Brady or Dan Marino, or John Elway or a Steve Young, you understand I’m thinking of great quarterbacks. I don’t visualize it. Even if he knew what he was doing, I think he can be a good quarterback that can manage a game for you. You know who looked great was the 49ers kid…”

JB: “(Jimmy) Garoppolo?”

OW: “Yeah, Garoppolo looked great – he looked like he knew the offense, like he’d been running it for two years. And he’s a Chicago kid, you could’ve drafted him, but didn’t. And last year, you had the opportunity to get (Dak) Prescott – what the hell are you doing up there?”

~~~~~

JB: “Okay, well, let’s just say for the sake of conversation that John Fox is going to be gone by the end of the season - are there some of the Head Coaching candidates that you like?

OW: “No, I really don’t. It’s a good ole boys system so you get recycled. They just seem to move around, so no, I don’t pay attention to that. I mean, the guy’s brother got a job.”

JB: “What guy?”

OW: “The announcer’s brother”

JB: “Oh, Gruden? Jay Gruden in Washington?”

OW: “Yeah, Jay Gruden, he’s got a name so he gets a shot.”

JB: “Okay, well, let me ask it a little different way - are there specific characteristics that you want to see as a Chicago Bears coach? Virtues or points of emphasis?

OW: “Chicago is a tough city and we set the bar real high. They’ll never compare to the ’85 team – it was the best ever. The coach has to have some fire, hold people accountable. But, you can’t be too tough on these kids or they go into a shell and then you’re screwed. You couldn’t have any coach from my era coach today. It’s old school versus new school. But you’ve got to hold people accountable, have a toughness, that’s what Chicago wants.”

JB: “I think that’s right, I’m wondering, what teams do you watch – these guys wouldn’t be available for the Bears to hire because they aren’t going anywhere, right? – but who are the teams that you watch and respect and say to yourself ‘that’s what the Bears need’?

OW: “You just look at the teams that, well, New England, teams that consistently win 8, 9, 10, 11 games every year. Green Bay. Seattle. They stay focused, keep their team focused, that’s why they keep their jobs.”

JB: “I wonder, would you add Mike Tomlin to that list?”

OW: “Oh, yeah, they win all the time, right?”

JB: “Yeah, exactly. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on Mike Zimmer, Vikings head coach.”

OW: “Yeah, the Vikings look good, they did a great job against us this year. His decision making, pedigree, when the Bears played him it was clear he knows what he’s doing. But Chicago fans, they want a guy like Ditka.”

JB: “Do they want Ditka or do they want George Halas? I mean, I think the archetype of the Bears coach is Halas, not Ditka. I wonder if, and I’m certainly not trying to take too much away from Ditka but, I think he’s maybe a bit overrated but Halas was a true innovator.”

OW: “Yeah, and George Halas was involved with the team until the day he died. But Halas picked Ditka because of how he played the game with fire.”

JB: “So, I’m curious, I mean, the two of us aren’t going to figure this out tonight I guess, but is there a theme to what you’re saying?”

OW: “In today’s game, it’s wide open, so all those teams have those offensive coaches. You need a Bill Walsh today, and not a Buddy Ryan.”

JB: “But in those teams you listed, and I think that’s interesting, the teams you listed New England has Bill Belichick, a defensive coach with a linebackers specialty, Seattle has Pete Carrol, who’s a defensive guy, defensive backs guy, and Tomlin, even Zimmer, if we’re counting him, those are defensive guys. The only offensive guy is Mike McCarthy and you’ve got to give a lot of that credit to Aaron Rodgers.

OW: “Yes, you’re absolutely right. Those guys are defensive guys.”

JB: “So, you said accountability, to play with a fire, and your instinct was to name defensive-minded head coaches – do you think it’s actually better to have a defensive head coach and just make sure you have a great quarterback on the other side?”

OW: “Yeah I think so –I mean, defense wins championships, offense wins games. The defense is going to set you up with good field position every time. Walter Payton never really had far to run. Worst thing, you can kick a field goal.”

JB: “Yeah, kickers certainly seem to be an issue here too lately”

OW:Robbie Gould pulled it off, he can still do it.

~~~~~

JB: “What modern day player do you most identify with in terms of playing style, your skills, athletic ability?”

OW: “I don’t really watch the game much today, I don’t know the guys today. The last players I really watched – three of ‘em: Ray Lewis, Lance Briggs, Brian Urlacher. They played the game the way it’s supposed to be played. When I watch the game, I’m just always watching the defense, seeing what adjustments are made, watching the linebackers, but those are the guys that I respect a lot. Those are good kids, I’ve talked to them, they respect the game. The kids playing today? They don’t even… I give them my number, tell them to call, phone hasn’t rang. Today’s game is hard to watch – Rule #1, never let a player get inside you. That’s basic football, Rule #1, you can’t give them the middle of the field, you have to make them throw outside. Defensive players today, they aren’t enforcing that, they get picked on pass plays, it’s, you can’t allow that.”

JB: “So, this is interesting because I had been curious if you’d name some specific names because the way the game is played now, these rush outside linebackers are well payed and you see guys like Von Miller take over and win Super Bowl MVP-

OW: “I was Von Miller before he knew anything about it. I should’ve been the player that Lawrence Taylor was. I could play the run, play the pass, blitz the quarterback – I took pride on being a complete player. If I could’ve played on the other side, where Wilbur played, I’d be what Lawrence Taylor was but Buddy wanted me on the other side. I’m not mad, I had a great career but today, I’d be a $20M man, no doubt. When I talk to current players, honestly – it goes in one ear and out the other. They are going to play the way they want to play, and that’s the sad part about it. I talked to (Richard) Dent and he says the same thing, kids just getting paid.”

JB: “Yeah, that was something that came up in your book a few times but I’m curious, is that just something that every generation goes through? Let me ask it this way – did you listen to the guys that were players of the past when you came in the league or did you think you could do it all?”

OW: “You had to – in 1980, you earned everything. You needed to be a sponge. You played special teams, you earned your way on the field. You were a fool if you thought you were the best. Now, with free agency or whatever, kids move around so much. After four years, you’re either out of the league or somewhere else. Briggs, Urlacher – those are great guys. They give you the respect you deserve. But these young guys – they don’t even know about the (player) strikes. They don’t know what we sacrificed so that they could live the way they live.”

~~~~~

JB: “Last one. In the book you say that you would have played professional basketball or maybe even professional baseball had football not been an option. Hypothetically, what career would you have chosen had professional sports not been an option?”

OW: “Law enforcement. My sister, my nephew, a lot people I’ve been around in various areas were all in law enforcement. I’d walk a beat first, move on to the gold shield, earn detective, maybe even work for the FBI. But, definitely law enforcement.*

(*Imagine Otis Wilson in pursuit of a suspect fleeing the scene!)

~~~~~

Thank you to Otis Wilson for the chat and be sure to check out the book signings if you are in the area and check out the book!