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posted: 1/27/2010 12:01 AM

Del Negro's situation has familiar ring

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If the Bulls keep this up, head coach Vinny Del Negro just might pull a Ditka.

With a pair of four-game winning streaks and a current three-gamer, the Bulls advanced from a 10-17 record to 21-22 and into serious playoff consideration.

So what's a Ditka?

Well, it's hanging on to a job despite long odds created by negative employer sentiment.

Mike Ditka survived the storm in 1984, his third season as Bears coach and what started out looking like his last.

Bears owner George Halas, Ditka's sponsor, died a year earlier. Mike McCaskey, Ditka's nemesis, became club president.

The Ditka/McCaskey pairing couldn't work very long. McCaskey refused to give Ditka a new contract even as the Bears improved and the coach's popularity grew.

But in '84 Ditka's Bears won the NFC Central and a playoff game for the first time in 21 years. McCaskey had no choice but to give him an extension.

So how does all this relate to Vinny Del Negro and the Bulls?

Well, Del Negro was as unlikely a hire before last season as Ditka was in 1982. Ever since, it seems, Bulls management regretted bringing him to Chicago.

Then, as with Ditka and the Bears, a funny thing happened on the way to the firing line: The Bulls suddenly started looking like a legitimate NBA team.

Just as Ditka's Bears did, Del Negro's Bulls are winning games. Ditka also won the game of survival, but Del Negro has a ways to go before accomplishing that formidable feat.

The Bears started fast in '84. Then they slumped along with Ditka's prospects. Finally both the team and coach prevailed.

Early this season the Bulls lost to pathetic New Jersey and Del Negro looked doomed. Then they beat a good team and he was OK for a while.

Then they blew a 35-point lead and he looked doomed again. Then they beat another good team and he was OK.

Then they lost to two sub-.500 teams to start the current road trip and he looked doomed. Then they won the next three games and he's OK.

Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf says the Bulls should be a playoff team and lately they have performed like one.

How responsible Del Negro is - for either the ups or downs - is debatable. What isn't debatable is that he's the head coach of these improving Bulls just as Ditka was of those improving Bears.

Who knows what the unconventional Reinsdorf is thinking? In the past he determined that a coach or manager who took a team from Point A to Point B couldn't take it to Point C.

Maybe Reinsdorf would be correct if he feels that way about Del Negro. Maybe the Bears would have won more than one Super Bowl if McCaskey fired Ditka despite that '84 success.

Anyway, it looks more and more like Del Negro has bought some time to make management squirm a little over his future.

Then again, the Bulls might make him squirm even more by sacrificing this season by making a trade to create salary-cap room for the summer free-agency derby.

Should be interesting to see whether this coach can survive as deftly as Da Coach did.

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