Via ESPN the Magazine

In 1997, the New Orleans Saints hired Chicago legend Mike Ditka as its head coach to try and turn around the historically downtrodden franchise. It did not work out.  In three years under Ditka, the Saints were 15-33, and he was fired after the 1999 season.

Ditka’s biggest blunder during his Saints tenure was spearheading one of the most lopsided and infamous draft day trades in NFL history.  On the day of the draft, the Saints, who were holding the 12th overall pick, traded all of their draft picks to the Redskins to acquire the 5th pick solely to draft 1997 Heisman winner Ricky Williams.  The trade, according to many, ended up setting the Saints franchise back for years.  Before the Saints traded him to Miami in 2002, Williams was productive for the Saints, but not close to enough to justify the colossal trade.

Two years before betting the farm on Ricky Williams trade, Ditka drafted another Heisman winner: University of Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel.  Wuerffel came into the draft as one of the most decorated QBs in college football history, leading the Gators to four straight SEC championships, and the 1996 National Championship. However, clear arm strength issues made him an unfavorable NFL prospect.  Despite being projected as a late round pick, Ditka pulled the trigger on Wuerffel in beginning of the the 3rd round and scoffed at Wuerffel’s critics:

“This guy is a winner. He’s a true winner on every level he’s ever played. I know you’re going to hear all these so-called experts that say “he can’t, and he can’t and he can’t’ but you’ve got to look at all the cans. His strong points certainly far outweigh anything he can’t do.”

Wuerffel was not much of winner in the NFL.  He started 6 games for the Saints during Ditka’s failed tenure and played for three more teams before ending his career after six seasons with a total of 12 touchdowns and 22 interceptions.

Weurffel was not the only former Florida Gator QB that Ditka fancied, as he once confidently proclaimed Wuerffel’s successor at Florida, Doug Johnson, would win a Heisman. From a October 11, 1997 Palm Beach Post article:

“Remember the guy’s name at quarterback, Johnson,” Ditka said. “Remember that. He’ll win the Heisman Trophy.”

Ditka made the statement when asked why Wuerffel was so advanced coming out of college. Ditka credited Florida’s system and coach Steve Spurrier’s knowledge of the game.

Johnson actually had a pretty good career at Florida, throwing for over 7,000 yards and 62 TDs in Spurrier’s fun-and-gun offense.   However, he was never a serious Heisman candidate and he couldn’t replicate Wuerffel’s success sofar as winning championships. The Gators failed to win the SEC in any of Johnson’s three seasons.

Mike Ditka retired from coaching after his Saints stint.  Of course he went on to become an analyst for ESPN for many years, and  once did this.



About Fred Segal

Fred Segal, 35, grew up in the Miami, Florida area and currently lives in Coral Springs, Florida, with his wife and two children. He is currently an attorney practicing in West Palm Beach, Florida, at the law firm Broad and Cassel. Fred is a graduate of the University of Florida and is a rabid, borderline unhealthy, supporter of the Florida Gators.