Transition complete, McCaskey ready to lead Bears
Long before he replaced his brother Michael as the chairman of the board on May 5, George McCaskey served the Bears in far less prestigious roles.
McCaskey was just 14 when he began working for the team that his grandfather, George Halas, founded in 1920.
“I had just graduated from the eighth grade, and I asked my grandpa if I could work in the office during the summer,” McCaskey recalled. “He said, ‘Sure.'”
A fire had damaged the Bears' offices that year (1970) and whatever was salvaged from the blaze was transferred to a backroom of the new office.
“That provided my brothers and me with weeks of summertime employment,” McCaskey said. “Sorting through the debris from the fire and seeing what was worth salvaging and what needed to be tossed.
“I would go into the office with a tie and dress shirt, change into a T-shirt and go back into what was actually an old handball court and come out covered with soot, wash it off and change back into my dress shirt and tie to go home.”
From the ashes of that backroom, the eighth oldest of Ed and Virginia McCaskey's 11 children has risen to the position of representing the Bears in all NFL matters.
The transition was announced more than a year ago, and since then George, 54, has learned the ropes from Michael, who had served as chairman of the board since 1999.
Only two others have ever held the position: Halas and his son-in-law, Ed McCaskey, George's late father.
“I always dreamed of working for the Bears,” George said, “but I never had a particular role in mind all that time. I just thought any job working for the Bears would be a dream job. I had no idea this was my (destiny).”
The early years
There were many rungs on the ladder of McCaskey's success. After finishing the dirty work in his “office” job, he says he “finagled” a job at training camp, which he had been attending as a visitor and fan since he was 8 years old.
Coincidentally there also was a labor dispute that summer between the players and owners, and it resulted in a brief strike at the onset of training camp.
“My uncle Mugs (George S. Halas Jr.) said, ‘You can go to training camp when we get this labor situation settled,'” McCaskey recalled. “So we were on pins and needles waiting for an agreement way back when. As a 14-year-old, I desperately wanted to get to training camp.
He still considers his many summers at training camp “one of the best experiences of my life.”
That experience lasted until he began attending Arizona State University, and it taught McCaskey a valuable life lesson from the late Jim Finks, the Bears' general manager and executive vice president at the time.
“I asked Jim Finks for a raise, and he gave it to me,” McCaskey said, chuckling. “And then I was not invited back the next year.”
His summer job the following year was much less enjoyable.
“I worked for the Coca-Cola bottling company hauling vending machines,” he said. “Dropped them off, picked them up, it was backbreaking work.”
McCaskey laughs about the memory, but he's not laughing about the current labor situation in the NFL, which is not a pleasant experience for anyone but the lawyers, who continue to rack up huge bills.
As a fan, as an owner and as the Bears' chairman of the board, McCaskey is frustrated by the work stoppage, but he remains confident it will be resolved.
“Our whole family are fans,” he said. “We're all passionate about the Bears; we all desperately want to see football played. We've been through work stoppages before. They always get worked out.
“This one's going to get worked out. The frustrating part, at this point, is we could be negotiating, but we're litigating. And when people are litigating, there are built-in delays.”
Not until the arguments are made, the rulings are handed down, and the appeals are heard can the real work toward a new collective-bargaining agreement proceed.
“When we can get back to mediation and negotiation instead of litigation, we should have a good result,” McCaskey said.
In his frequent public appearances as an ambassador for the Bears, McCaskey has heard the opinions of longtime Bears fans regarding the lockout. As is his style, McCaskey doesn't attempt to sugarcoat what he has heard.
“The fans that I have talked to have said, ‘I don't care about the owners; I don't care about the players; I just don't want to miss my games.' I think that's important for us to remember. We're hopeful of getting a settlement and the sooner the better.
“I don't think it's negative. I don't think it's disillusionment. I think it demonstrates (the fans') passion for the game, how important it is to them, and their fierce desire to be heard. ‘Hey, don't forget about the fans in all this,' and that's important.”
Just the ticket
That interaction with fans is something with which McCaskey has a long history. For 20 years, he served the Bears behind the scenes as the team's director of ticket operations.
That job came after a few years of utilizing his broadcasting degree in jobs that took him from Peoria to Tulsa, Okla., to Channel 2 in Chicago.
Then there were stints as the assistant state's attorney in downstate Lee County and in DeKalb County. McCaskey's law degree also came from Arizona State, although continuing his education wasn't his idea.
“I graduated from ASU in '78 and my dad and my grandpa told me, ‘You're going to law school,'” McCaskey recalled. “And I said, ‘No, I'm not,' and they said, ‘Yes, you are.' I didn't want to do it, but I did it, and I'm glad I did.”
McCaskey's legal career ended shortly after a family get-together to celebrate the baptism of his son Conner in 1991. During the festivities, his brother Michael asked if he had a few minutes.
“We went upstairs and he asked me if I'd like to come and work at the Bears,” George said. “The rest, as they say …”
Since taking that job as the director of ticket operations, McCaskey has worked with many of the Bears' department heads and has a closer relationship with the heart of the fan base, the season-ticket holders, than anyone in the organization.
“I don't want to lose that,” he said.
McCaskey believes those experiences will serve him well in his new position, but he will now be infinitely more visible — and accountable — than he has ever been. While he has said he never planned for the job, he was more than ready when his mother, Virginia McCaskey, presented the opportunity.
“Like I said, I hadn't ever thought about this being THE job for me,” he said. “She asked me to do it. It was an easy answer, first, because if you ask any Bears fan, ‘Would you like that job?' I don't know who would say ‘No.' Secondly, our family is pretty hard on each other, but when there's a need, we band together.
“I'm excited for Mike because he loves to travel, he's relatively young, he's got his health and now he has an opportunity to do other things. He gave 28 years to the family, to the Bears. He did his bit for Ireland, as they say, so I'm just going to try to pick it up and run with it.”
The challenge doesn't seem to faze the plain-spoken McCaskey.
“When you think about being (just) the fourth chairman in the 92-year history of the Bears, and following people like George Halas and Ed McCaskey and Mike McCaskey, I supposed that might be daunting for some people,” he said. “But my thinking in just about anything is, if you're properly prepared, you shouldn't be too nervous about anything.
“With Mike announcing last spring that he was retiring and having this year to transition and talk to Mike and work with Mike and talk to Ted (Phillips) and work with Ted, I feel I'm prepared.”
No dramatic changes
Phillips, the Bears' CEO and president, will continue to handle the day-to-day chores of running the team, as he has since 1999.
“I don't see any dramatic changes,” McCaskey said. “My role will really be as a sounding board, an adviser if Ted wants me in that role, as a representative of the family, of ownership and the board, and to create as positive of an environment as possible.
“The way I see it, my job is to work with and in support of the president and CEO in creating a climate that's conducive to sustained success.”
Moving from the sanctuary of the ticket office inside Halas Hall to the public forefront will be an adjustment for McCaskey. Critics may say his role is more titular than substantial but, just as players such as Brian Urlacher and Jay Cutler are the faces of the franchise, so too is McCaskey.
It remains to be seen how he will handle the public demands of the job and how comfortable he is as the team's spokesman.
“I'm supremely comfortable talking about the Bears and football,” he said. “I'm far less comfortable talking about myself. What I've noticed is, when I'm somewhere as the sole representative of the Bears, like going to a school, the kids want any connection they can get to the Bears. They'll climb all over you and ask for your autograph and all that stuff.
“But, if I'm with a player, it's like I'm not even there, which is just fine,” he adds, laughing. “Because even kids understand who is really deserving of their attention.”
Art of diplomacy
Aside from his relationship with season-ticket holders, another carry-over from his previous job to his current position is the need for diplomacy.
Usually when McCaskey heard from fans in his previous job, it was because they had a complaint. That won't change much going forward, especially during the current lockout.
“Diplomacy is a necessary quality,” he said. “I hope I have enough of it. I'm a pretty plain speaker, a pretty blunt speaker. I think that shooting straight with people, that's an element of diplomacy all by itself.”
And the longer the lockout goes on, the more diplomacy will become essential.
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