Paul Sullivan: The Chicago Bears are the latest team labeled as 'winning ugly.' But should we care how a team wins as long as it wins?

Paul Sullivan, Chicago Tribune
·6 min read

Nick Foles cut to the chase last week when asked about the Chicago Bears’ allegedly ugly win over the Carolina Panthers.

“I would first say, ‘Would you rather lose pretty or win ugly?’ “ Foles replied. “We’d rather win ugly. That is the common thing, so it tells you a lot about our team.

“Is this who we are offensively? We want to improve. We want to get better. We want to have rhythm. But ultimately in the NFL, it’s about winning games. It doesn’t matter how you do it; it just matters that you get it done. If you put up 50 points and you lose a game, those 50 points don’t mean anything.”

The 31-year-old Foles wasn’t even born when the phrase “winning ugly” was first uttered 37 years ago by a baseball manager unimpressed by his rival in a pennant race. We’ve been hearing variations of that oxymoron ever since former Texas Rangers manager Doug Rader said it during the summer of 1983, referring to the play of the Chicago White Sox — then managed by Tony La Russa — who were winning games without recording any style points.

“They’re winning ugly, and I can’t wait for their bubble to burst,” Rader said.

Sox fans took umbrage at the remark, and when the Rangers came to Comiskey Park a couple of weeks later, they shouted, “Ugly,” whenever he ventured out of the dugout for a pitching change.

A new cliche was born.

“I never meant it as a bad reflection on them,” Rader told Chicago Tribune Sox writer Mike Kiley after that August game. “The last thing I want to do is alienate anybody.”

Rader was then asked if “ugly” actually meant “pretty.”

“Sure,” he said. “I’m pretty ugly.”

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The term later became the name of a Rolling Stones song from their mostly forgettable 1986 album “Dirty Works,” albeit with no mention of the Sox or credit to Rader. It was also used in the title of a book about uniforms, “Winning Ugly: A Visual History of the Most Bizarre Baseball Uniforms Ever Worn.”

“Winning Ugly” is now part of the sports lexicon with cliches such as “taking it one day at a time” and “next man up.” A search of the Tribune database found 418 articles mentioning the term since 1985. The ‘83 Sox still are referred to as the “Winning Ugly Sox,” and the throwback jerseys from that era that former Sox ace Chris Sale once delighted in slicing up are known as the “Winning Ugly” uniforms.

And now that the Bears are considered “ugly” winners in spite of a 5-1 record, the narrative continues unimpeded. They head into Monday night’s game against the Los Angeles Rams as six-point underdogs, and one oddsmaker recently compared them to the Detroit Lions, a sorry franchise renowned for losing ugly, as evidenced by their opening loss to the Bears.

The relevant question is whether anyone should care how a team wins as long as it wins. Why does it matter? As former Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi once said: “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”

Maybe it was back in the day, but in this era, fans and media frequently point out team’s deficiencies in victories. We witnessed that this baseball season with the Chicago Cubs, who won the National League Central in spite of an offense that made the 1906 White Sox team known as the “Hitless Wonders” look like Murderers Row.

The Cubs repeatedly pointed out that regular-season stats are meaningless once the postseason begins, and then they remained in their collective hitting coma while getting swept by the Miami Marlins in the wild-card round. In the end, the doubters were right to question the validity of their record.

That’s one reason so many Bears fans are skeptical of coach Matt Nagy’s offensively challenged team, in spite of the winning. The next time Foles is dancing to Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares” in Club Dub, he can just blame the Cubs.

Naturally, ugly wins are in the eye of the beholder, and that can often lead to testy responses from the likes of Nagy or Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, who resorted to sarcasm Saturday when asked about his top-ranked team’s “energy level” during a 47-21 win over Syracuse, which entered as a 46-point underdog in some betting quarters.

“I just want to make sure I’m at the right press conference here,” Swinney said afterward. “We did win the game, I think. Am I in the right spot? You don’t usually score 47 points if you don’t have the right energy. … We won the game by almost four touchdowns. I’m not getting any questions about, ‘Proud of you guys for winning the game.’ It’s a lot of negative questions. You’re not going to get any negative stuff from me.”

Swinney wants it both ways, of course. Unlike baseball and the NFL, style points are relevant in college football, in which an ugly win can affect a team’s ranking, which in turn can influence whether it is invited to the four-team playoff. And with an absurd 10-year, $93 million contract, Swinney needs to keep making those playoffs to make that deal worth it to the university paying his salary.

But Dabo’s gotta Dabo, so perhaps the media should open the next postgame news conference by asking Swinney how proud he is of his boys.

It would be the right thing to do.

A few hours after Swinney’s rant, the Tampa Bay Rays pulled off an unlikely win in Game 4 of the World Series on a game-ending play we’ve all seen in Little League games, complete with a kicked ball by Los Angeles Dodgers center fielder Chris Taylor and a dropped relay throw by catcher Will Smith.

Throw in baserunner Randy Arozarena, who fell down after rounding third and would’ve been out by 30 feet, only to get up and score the walk-off run, and you have the definition of winning ugly.

But when you’re on the World Series or Super Bowl stage, there’s no such thing as an ugly win, so no apologies were necessary and none was asked for.

Someday in the future, we may return to a simpler era when a win was a win, no matter how it came to fruition.

But until Twitter becomes obsolete, that day is a long way off.


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