Home Sports Column: Spirit of ’78? Chicago’s 5 struggling legacy sports franchises are turning back the clock

Column: Spirit of ’78? Chicago’s 5 struggling legacy sports franchises are turning back the clock

by staff

The Chicago Bears mercifully take their bye this week, while the Cubs and White Sox attempt to fill gaping holes on their rosters at the winter meetings in San Diego.

The Bulls stumble along at the quarter-pole of the NBA season, while the Blackhawks continue their prescheduled tank job.


By all accounts it has been a very, very bad year for Chicago’s legacy franchises, drawing comparisons to the darkest days of the 1970s.

“As an old guy nearing 80 this has got to be one of the worst years for Chicago teams in history,” Bob, a Bears fan, wrote in an email after Sunday’s loss to the Green Bay Packers. “Now of course we have had a lot of bad years …”


That goes without saying. Fans of a certain age group have gone through plenty of awful years in Chicago with teams as bad, or worse, than the ones we’ve watched flop in 2022.

Maybe this year just seems worse because all five teams have won at least one championship since the 1985 Bears ended a collective title drought that lasted 22 years. Or perhaps the utter disappointment of the Sox, who were touted as World Series contenders, and the sub-.500 start by the Bulls, our best remaining postseason hope, make it feel like another low point in Chicago sports history.

Either way, 2022 has felt a lot like 1978, a year almost every fan who grew up in Chicago would just as soon forget.

There were new coaches in the Bulls’ Larry Costello and the Bears’ Neill Armstrong and a bona fide new slugger in the Cubs’ Dave Kingman. Stars such as Walter Payton and Artis Gilmore made things a bit more palatable.

But like 2022, four teams missed out on the postseason altogether, while the one that made it — the 1977-78 Hawks — was immediately bounced.

Coincidentally, the 1978 sports year also included talk of the Bears being unhappy with their stadium deal and a rumor of doming Soldier Field. Tribune architecture critic Paul Gapp wrote in December that a stadium study committee was “leaning in favor” of saving the iconic columns and “adding more seats and putting a roof on top,” proving that a bad idea in Chicago never really dies.

It just skips a generation or two.

The Bears started the year by watching coach Jack Pardee flee to Washington. It was a shock to the system, even for the comical Bears. Pardee had been named NFC Coach of the Year in 1976 and led them to a 9-5 record in ‘77 for their first playoff appearance since the 1963 championship.


Pardee, strangely, pointed to the Bears’ shoddy facilities upon leaving town. The Bears held training camp at Lake Forest College, but once school started they were forced to dress in a women’s dorm, then take a bus to a city park to practice.

“The Bears at that point had a pretty good foundation laid to be a decent team,” Pardee later said. “But they didn’t have any practice facility or a place to train.”

The Bears coaching search, so to speak, became the talk of the town. General manager Jim Finks told reporters he received more than 100 applications, but he wound up hiring an old college friend in Armstrong, the longtime Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator.

Tribune coverage of the Bears' hiring of coach Neill Armstrong in February 1978.

Because he shared a name with the first man to walk on the moon, Armstrong quickly became the butt of jokes. He was on no one’s radar but the Bears’ after a previous head coaching stint with Edmonton in the Canadian Football League, where he compiled a 37-56-3 record over six seasons.

When introduced to the Chicago media, Armstrong admitted he never had applied for an NFL head coaching job.

“I guess any assistant has aspirations,” he said. “But I didn’t sit around and wait for the phone to ring.”


The ‘78 Bears, led by Payton and quarterback Bob Avellini, started out 3-0, making Finks look like a genius. But they lost their next eight games and finished 7-9. Like Justin Fields, Payton and running back Roland Harper were basically the entire offense. They finished 1-2 on the team in both rushing and receiving, accounting for 3,227 of the 4,459 total yards the Bears gained from scrimmage.

Baseball fueled some early optimism in Chicago. The Cubs had signed Kingman, who was tailor-made for Wrigley Field, while the Sox returned most of the players from the beloved “South Side Hit Men” — although not the two best, Richie Zisk and Oscar Gamble.

Hope was quickly vanquished on the South Side. When the Sox lost 8-7 to the Baltimore Orioles on April 30 — their 11th defeat in 13 games — they fell to 6-12 and 8½ games out of first place.

“Oh, well, tomorrow is another month,” designated hitter Ron Blomberg said after the loss.

“And indeed it is,” wrote Dave Nightingale, the Sox beat writer for the Tribune. “But the Sox have been saying the same thing throughout April. To losers, every day seems like a month.”

The Sox wound up firing manager Bob Lemon midseason. Lemon went on to manage the New York Yankees, who won the World Series. The Sox finished 71-90 and in fifth place in the American League West.


Cubs manager Herman Franks kicks dirt on umpire Doug Harvey during a game at Wrigley Field on Sept. 7, 1978.

On the North Side, the Cubs started out well and were 11 games over .500 and in first place on June 19. But they finished 79-83 and 11 games out.

By the time fall rolled around, there was cautious optimism about the Hawks and Bulls. The Hawks had won the Smythe Division in 1977-78 but were promptly swept by the Boston Bruins in the first round.

The ‘78-79 season became a long, slow march to mediocrity under coach Bob Pulford. While the Hawks would go on to win their lowly division in spite of a 29-36-15 record, they again were swept in the conference quarterfinals, this time by the New York Islanders.

Like Armstrong with the Bears, Costello — who had won an NBA title with the Milwaukee Bucks — was immediately under the microscope in his first year in Chicago. After being hired to turn around a team that went 40-42 in 1977-78, he turned out to be a minor blip in Bulls history.

Bulls center Artis Gilmore (53) and guard Norm Van Lier (2) try for a rebound during a 1978 game against the Washington Bullets at Chicago Stadium.

Management had released popular guard Norm Van Lier before the season, and the Bulls were 20-36 when Costello was fired late in the season and replaced by Scotty Robertson. Costello blamed GM Rod Thorn for “panicking” to appease angry fans, whom he compared unfavorably with those in Milwaukee.

“The fans in the cities are like night and day,” Costello said. “It’s different than in Milwaukee. The fans in Chicago don’t give you a chance. They’re so hungry for a winner that it makes it tough for players to relax.”


Chicago fans remain hungry for a winner in 2022, but they’re not so sure the team owners feel the same way. That makes 2023 a prove-it year for all five teams.

But bad times don’t last forever. By the early 1980s the fog began to lift for the Sox, Cubs and Bears, and the Michael Jordan era of the Bulls was soon to follow. The Hawks mini-dynasty in the 2010s was next.

Still, the lessons learned back in 1978 remain true today.

When a new year begins in Chicago, always proceed with caution.

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