NEW ORLEANS -- Mike Ditka bet just about everything on Ricky Williams this season. On Wednesday, he paid with his job.
Ditka was fired by the New Orleans Saints after three consecutive losing seasons, and he said he would never coach again.
Beloved in Chicago for 11 seasons after leading "Da Bears" to the Super Bowl in 1986, Iron Mike could not stop a downward slide in New Orleans that saw the Saints finish 3-13 to match the second-worst record in franchise history.
"We tried, but we didn't get it done," Ditka said. "That's the bottom line. When you don't get it done you're going to get out of there, and in a hurry."
The 60-year-old Ditka said he had hoped to stay on as coach despite the team's troubles, but decided he would never lead a football team again.
"Nope, never, no," Ditka said.
Last spring, Ditka puffed an eight-inch cigar triumphantly after trading eight draft choices -- all the 1999 picks and the No. 1 and No. 3 for 2000 -- to get Williams. At that time, Ditka proclaimed the Texas running back the "final piece of the puzzle" for the Saints and again talked of taking the team to the Super Bowl.
But Williams, who was injured for much of the season, gained only 884 yards -- including 7 yards on 14 carries in the final game -- and had only two rushing touchdowns.
"I understand it fully: You're 3-13, you have the expectations we do, you bring in Ricky Williams, and it doesn't work out," Ditka said. "I mean, we got to be realists."
Ditka originally signed a three-year contract and said he should be fired if he couldn't accomplish his goals. He went on to rack up a 15-33 record, including a 6-23 record in the last 29 games, and a league-leading 14-game road losing streak.
This year's record is the worst ever for Ditka. His previous worst mark was 5-11 with the Bears in 1992.
New Orleans scored just 260 points this season, while giving up 434.
Also fired by owner Tom Benson were general manager Bill Kuharich, senior vice president Terry O'Neil and the assistant coaches -- in what Benson described as the first step in returning the Saints to the spot the team enjoyed in the late 1980s, when it had its only winning years and made four trips to the playoffs.
"This was a difficult decision," Benson said. "Mike Ditka is one of the greatest football people ever."
The Saints 45-13 loss to the Panthers on Sunday at the close of the season was among the worst in Ditka's coaching career. It wrapped up the seventh consecutive season New Orleans has finished without a winning record.
Despite the poor showing, Ditka said Benson's decision was surprising.
"I really thought we'd get another year," Ditka said.
Financial terms of Ditka's departure were not disclosed, but he signed a contract extension two years ago. The new deal runs through 2002 and is reportedly worth $2 million a year.
Benson did not meet with reporters or answer questions. His statement said the search for a new general manager and coach would begin immediately and continue until he finds candidates to "take us where our organization and our fans want to be."
Under Ditka, Chicago dominated the NFC Central with 52 regular-season victories between 1985-88. That was the most wins by an NFL team in any four-year period.
Ditka ranked second among Bears coaches in both tenure and victories. He coached the Bears to six NFC Central titles, three appearances in the NFC title game and a Super Bowl title in 1986. The Bears were 18-1 that year. After the Super Bowl, Ditka was honored as coach of the year.
After being fired by Chicago, Ditka worked as an NFL commentator for four years. He was hired by the Saints on Jan. 28, 1997.
His first year was marked by sideline tantrums, yanking players out of games and even a threat to quit, which he rescinded later. The Saints were 6-10 in each of Ditka's first two years.
"With all the ranting and raving that people saw, he always left it on the field," quarterback Billy Joe Tolliver said. "He had his say and moved on. He was never devious. He's a man's man and a stand-up guy and I have a lot of respect for him."
Ditka maintained close ties with Chicago, where he has a restaurant. His newly completed restaurant in New Orleans is scheduled to open Jan. 17.
Despite his Chicago connections, Ditka tried to adopt New Orleans as his own.
"I don't live in the past," he said in September. "This is my team now and this is my city."
After he drafted Williams, Ditka donned a dreadlocks wig and formal attire and posed with the running back in a wedding dress on the cover of a national magazine.
Ditka played in five Pro Bowls and two league championships (1963, 1971) and a Super Bowl during his NFL playing career with Chicago, Philadelphia and Dallas.
He was the first tight end to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was the NFL rookie of the year in 1961. Ditka was also an assistant coach with Dallas in 1977.
Ditka's firing was the fifth NFL coaching change since the end of the regular season. Ray Rhodes of Green Bay and Pete Carroll of New England were fired, and the New York Jets had a double resignation, with Bill Belichick following Bill Parcells.