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He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not/ A Dilbert Pickle



By Michael Miner

He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not

Jay Mariotti writes as though there's no tomorrow. And no yesterday either. "Wannstedt needs a long, long rest," he decreed the other day. The Bears had lost again and fallen to 0 and 4. It was time to speak plainly.

Dave Wannstedt and his offensive coordinator behaved like "cowards" at key moments, Mariotti asserted. The Bears coach had gone "suffocatingly conservative." His "blunders in judging talent" betrayed the "desperate mindset of a desperate coach." It was a "dreadful season" and a "failed regime."

There isn't a lot of delicacy here. There never is with Mariotti--"I call a spade a spade," he tells me. Which is why, in his space a few days earlier, Bears owner Michael McCaskey was the "Winnetka wimp" who'd re-signed Wannstedt to a contract paying him more than $1 million a year--"one of the most generous deals ever rewarded for mediocrity." Mariotti made it clear: "No one respects Wannstedt anymore--not his players, not the fans, not even the NFL people who once shouted his praises."

Which is why, a few days before that, he suggested the Bears veer off "the roads to hell being navigated by Wannstedt" and hire Philadelphia's Ray Rhodes as coach. For Chicago, according to an even earlier Mariotti column, had wearied of Wannstedt's "wayward, purposeless regime" and anointed him the "pariah of a lost football era." And why not? Weren't the Bears, as Mariotti put it with the season but one game old, continuing "to swirl in their sub-mediocre muck"?

Mariotti gets no pleasure out of saying these things. "We like Wannstedt, know he doesn't sleep," he confessed in his swirling-in-muck column. But Mariotti's a plain-talking man who speaks truth to power, as they say, and isn't paid by the nuance. You can read him for weeks on end (if you're of a mind) before you come across a single line where you don't know exactly what he means.

But I recently encountered something of a head-scratcher. It was in the "Winnetka wimp" column. "Anyone who calls McCaskey cheap these days isn't enlightened," Mariotti was arguing. "His problem is, he hired the wrong guy to replace Ditka. That's where you blame Mike McCaskey--and, if you must, this columnist for presenting Dave Wannstedt as a candidate during a playoff trip to Dallas the weekend after Da Coach's ouster."

"If you must"? Was Mariotti, so obliquely you were sure to miss it, coming clean?

I searched for that Dallas column, written in January 1993. Ditka had just been booted, and Mariotti was surveying the pretenders. He sneered at Vince Tobin--"nausea in a headset." He sneered at Bo Schembechler--"Isn't there a pizza franchise he can run somewhere?"

Mariotti's preference was Richie Petitbon, but he added this: "One delicious name that came up here Wednesday is red-hot Dave Wannstedt, defensive coordinator of the Dallas Cowboys....'He has an excellent reputation,' said McCaskey, who actually has heard of the guy."

Today Mariotti remembers: "All the New York writers are surrounding Dave Wannstedt at the complex there. Everybody thought he was heading to the Giants then. I think, jeez--at this point the Bears had not contacted him--maybe I should go talk to him. 'Do you have any interest in Chicago? Everybody assumes you're going to New York.' He said, 'I haven't locked anything out.' I decided to do some research on him. I wrote a column on Dave Wannstedt the Pittsburgh guy, the facial similarity to Ditka. I said this is a guy they might want to consider.

"Sure enough, a couple days later Mike McCaskey begins to consider Dave Wannstedt. The paper does a poll--it turns out the fans liked Wannstedt. He gets hired--a very odd sequence. A coincidence, whatever."

At the time Mariotti played the role of mentor, wise old Nestor to McCaskey's bumbling Agamemnon. "A close friend of Wannstedt, a high school chum who lives in Schaumburg, called to suggest Wannstedt is interested in the Bears," he wrote. But reeling him in, Mariotti knew, wouldn't be easy. "We just figure Richie Petitbon and Dave Wannstedt will rush to town, drop to their knees and petition The Great Papa Bear In The Sky for a chance. Believe me, they won't....Once again, I find myself in the awkward position of having to counsel McCaskey, lead him along his tightrope. So far, he's been listening. He was told here not to hire Vince Tobin. Sure enough, Tobin pulls out of the race, something McCaskey could have prevented if he wanted. Very good, Mike. Now, let's give you three important pointers on how to land a good coach."

McCaskey must have clipped that column and pinned it to his refrigerator door. Because exactly one week later Mariotti could write this: "Yeah, Michael McCaskey fired Mike Ditka. But today he's prepared to hire the finest young coach in the business, Dave Wannstedt, who could make Chicago forget Mike Ditka as quickly as Dallas forgot an icon named Tom Landry....Wannstedt is a likable guy, Ditka without the rage. He'd fit in fine in Chicago. His work with the Cowboys' attacking defense, which has overachieved to the level of No. 1 in the league, speaks for itself. He's extroverted, open, intense, emotional. But he's also a player's coach."

The next day Mariotti added to the psychological profile. "He showed a certain likable savvy that could lead to a charmed existence in Chicago," he wrote. "The more we cruised with became more apparent he'll be the cool head in a house of chaos....Wannstedt, with calm words and a slight smile, somehow shoos away concerns."

Mariotti not only approved of Wannstedt, he took credit for him. "McCaskey listened when we advised him to fire Ditka," he could be found writing before the Super Bowl. "He listened when we told him to hire Wannstedt. One last wish, dearest owner. Say goodbye to Harbaugh and hello to free agency."

The Cowboys won the Super Bowl in a rout. Acknowledging that the team's owner and head coach had a hand in the victory, Mariotti asseverated, "The rout was every bit as much Wannstedt's victory. It was his game plan, his strategy, his inspiration.... Having shed concerns he might not be ready for the [Bears] job, Wannstedt has a new problem. Expectations. As in, when do the Super Bowl rings come?"

Mariotti's enthusiasm didn't waver in the fall of '93 when Wannstedt's first season commenced. "Has turned in one of the NFL's best rehab jobs," he wrote. "His popularity quotient this week is higher than Tom Turkey's." "His eyes, dancing these days, demand gusto and panache." "Wannstedt has forged a locker room unity not thought possible." "If this keeps up, Mike McCaskey is going to stand atop the John Hancock Building and thumb his nose at all of us. He did, after all, hire Wannstedt."

What went wrong? I asked Mariotti. "Dave Wannstedt was not the personnel guy he should have been," he said. "Dave Wannstedt made some brutal draft picks. He doesn't have a lot of communications skills with his players."

Mariotti had an inkling I was soliciting repentance, at the very least second thoughts. "He went sour. That doesn't mean I'm hypocritical," he insisted. "I'm covering a story, a man's era, his career over five years. Sure, I think he was a fine young coach. That doesn't make me wrong when things go wrong two and a half years later."

Not wrong, exactly. That's going to extremes.

A Dilbert Pickle

"Wasn't the Hubble telescope ruined over one digit?" syndicate comic-strip czar Amy Lago was musing. "I'm sure wars have been fought over one digit."

A wayward digit is no laughing matter. Or is it? What no one can say for sure is whether a joke was ruined because a Tribune comic-page editor changed a digit in Dilbert.

That's because no one, including the editor who changed the strip and Lago, who distributed it, knows for sure what the joke was supposed to be.

The strip ran last Wednesday. "I'm putting you in charge of getting ISO 14000 certification," says Dilbert's boss.

"What's the difference between that and ISO 9000?" asks Dilbert.

"Oh, about 6000, ha ha ha ha!!" says the boss. "Hey," he goes on, tickled pink by his own wit, "I think I'll use that one at the stockholder meeting!"

"Yeah, that'll wake them up," says Dilbert.

When the strip arrived at the Tribune, comics editor Barbara Schaffner made a quick computation. The difference between 14,000 and 9,000 is 5,000, not 6,000. She changed the six to a five and in that form the strip ran in the Tribune.

Did Schaffner's alteration sharpen the strip's humor, did it blunt it, or was it humor-neutral? Cartoonist Scott Adams has been incommunicado working on a book and didn't answer his E-mail, so we have no way of knowing what his point was supposed to be. His editors at the United Media syndicate do not know either.

"That art is copyrighted," a United Media spokesman pronounced. "No one is allowed to change our artwork."

But Lago, the syndicate's executive editor of comic art, spoke gallantly, as one would expect a high-profile comic-strip purveyor to speak of a huge metropolitan daily that buys lots of comic strips. "That's her prerogative," Lago said. "I'm sure they thought they were correcting a mistake. It was an automatic change. I wouldn't necessarily agree with the change."

Though Schaffner didn't call the syndicate for clarification before redacting Adams's work, another paper did. Since Adams was unreachable, Lago and her associates huddled around the strip and tried to fathom his intentions. Did the humor lie in the broad blunder of faulty subtraction? Or in the attitudinizing of Dilbert's literal-minded, self-satisfied, thick-as-a-post superior?

Did Adams mean it to be funny that the superior couldn't subtract 9 from 14? Or that he was so clueless he would, if asked the difference between Windows 95 and Windows 3.1, presumably reply, "91.9"?

And while we're asking, what about ISO? If you have no idea what that is does the strip sail over your head?

Lago and her associates gave the artist the benefit of the doubt. "We thought it was right as is. Because it was the boss in the strip who made the mistake, I assumed--all three or four editors we had reading this assumed--it was correct as written. He's a dullard--well, not a dullard. Prone to mistakes. We looked at it and we said, no, we think it's the boss making a mistake. We wouldn't worry about it."

But a vigilant reader who noticed that last Wednesday's Dilbert said one thing in Chicago and another in Peoria did worry. He thought that by deleting 6,000 the Tribune had deleted the joke. He called me looking for answers.

Schaffner didn't wish to be quoted. Her boss, Denis Gosselin, called the syndicate, was informed of the executive decision that the strip should have stood as drawn, and then called me. "An honest mistake is all I can say," he said. "I suppose you can read it two ways, and one is that the boss is pretty stupid."

No, I said, interrupting him. Both are that the boss is pretty stupid. The point's just made a lot more subtly one way than the other.

I think Schaffner saved Adams's bacon. She lifted that day's Dilbert off the low road and put it back where you expect to find it, on the high. Possibly less certain of that, Lago at least expressed compassion. "Part of the problem is, if she has picky readers she may think she, as editor, will get phone calls, and she may not want to get those phone calls. She was really in a no-win situation."

News Bites

The Sun-Times devoted an entire Fashion page last Wednesday to Mary Cameron Frey's coverage of a Marshall Field's fashion show. At the top of the page the paper ran a box touting the full-page Field's ad on page five. Another box touting the same ad ran at the top of the front page of the Showcase section, and further back in the section Frey's full-page report on the annual Rush-Presbyterian-Saint Luke's fashion show noted that "Marshall Field's bridal scene closed the show, as it has for the past 71 years."

It's unusual for newspapers to link editorial matter to advertising matter quite so blatantly, but Field's and the Sun-Times have been blazing a trail.

What the Sun-Times neglected to do was publish a box at the top of page five alerting readers who enjoyed the ad that they could read more about their favorite store in articles on pages 35 and 57.

Tuesday headline in the Tribune: "Studs Turkel adds color to White House medal fest." When it comes to doing right by old lefties, the Tribune doesn't have a clew.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Dave Wannstedt photo by Phil Velasquez.

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