By Barry Wilner
AP Pro Football Writer
Buddy Ryan took a back seat to no one. Neither did his fierce defenses that won two Super Bowls.
The pugnacious coach and defensive mastermind whose twin sons have been successful NFL coaches, died Tuesday. He was 85.
His death was confirmed by the Buffalo Bills, where Rex Ryan is the head coach and Rob Ryan an assistant. James Solano, Buddy Ryan’s agent, said he died in Kentucky but did not give a cause. Ryan lived on a ranch in Shelbyville.
“He was many things to many people —outstanding coach, mentor, fierce competitor, father figure, faithful friend and the list goes on,” Rex Ryan said in a statement. “But to me and my brothers Rob and Jim, he was so much more. He was everything you want in a dad —tough when he had to be, compassionate when you didn’t necessarily expect it, and a loving teacher and confidant who cherished his family. He truly was our hero.”
Ryan was a linebackers coach for the 1968 champion New York Jets and coordinated the ground-breaking 46 defense for the title-winning 1985 Chicago Bears, one of the NFL’s greatest defenses. He was a head coach for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1986-90 and for the Arizona Cardinals in 1994-95, compiling a 55-55-1 overall record.
“Buddy Ryan was arguably one of the greatest defensive masterminds in NFL history and forever left his mark on the Eagles organization and the city of Philadelphia,” Eagles chairman Jeffrey Lurie said.
A few years ago, Ryan attended a Cowboys-Jets game, traveling to New Jersey despite cancer to see then-Jets head coach Rex go against then-Dallas defensive coordinator Rob.
“Buddy Ryan was the architect of the greatest defense our league has seen,” Bears chairman George H. McCaskey said. “He was brilliant when it came to the X’s and O’s of the game, but what made him special was his ability to create an unwavering confidence in the players he coached.”
Rams coach Jeff Fisher played for and got his coaching start under Ryan.
“His knowledge, passion for football and the love he had for his players and coaches are traits that have shaped and influenced so many careers, including my own,” Fisher said
James David Ryan was a Korean War veteran who went to Oklahoma State, then earned a master’s degree from Middle Tennessee State even while coaching. He got his first major job in the pros in New York, then of the AFL, in 1968. Ryan was the linebackers coach for the Joe Namath-led Jets, a boastful, confident team that fit his personality.
Those Jets led the AFL in defense in his first season on staff, then shocked the Colts in the Super Bowl, 16-7.
“That’s something my dad was very proud of,” Rex Ryan said. “When (former Jets coach Weeb) Ewbank hired him, he had to make a difference. If he felt he wasn’t making a difference, then his career as a professional coach would be short.”
Instead, it was very long.
Ryan’s first job as a defensive coordinator came in 1976 with the Vikings under Bud Grant, like Ewbank a Hall of Fame coach. He spent two years there, with the 1976 team losing to Oakland in the Super Bowl. He then moved to the rival Bears, where he concocted the 46 defense that overwhelmed the league with its aggressiveness and unpredictability.
Ryan’s defenders, featuring such Hall of Famers as linebacker Mike Singletary and ends Dan Hampton and Richard Dent, came from all angles and was nearly impossible to budge on the ground. Not that teams had more success in the air, either.
“Some say the 46 is just an eight-man front,” said Ryan, who named the scheme after safety Doug Plank, who wore that number. “That’s like saying Marilyn Monroe is just a girl.”
Ryan and head coach Mike Ditka often feuded during that 15-1 season and Super Bowl run. They nearly slugged it out at halftime of Chicago’s only defeat, at Miami on a Monday night in December. (Ryan would punch offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride on national TV on Jan. 2, 1994 when both were assistant coaches in Houston.)
His work in Chicago got Ryan the Eagles job.
At a meeting the night before the Bears beat New England in the 1986 Super Bowl, Dent said a teary Ryan informed his players that he was going to Philadelphia:
“You guys are going to be my champions. Let’s kick some tail,” Ryan said.
Hampton then kicked a film projector out of defensive line coach Dale Haupt’s hands, and defensive tackle Steve McMichael flung a chair across the room, its legs impaling a chalkboard.
Such was the devotion players felt for Ryan, who guided the Eagles to the playoffs in 1988, ‘89 and ‘90. But they lost all three playoff games, and he was fired after the 1990 season by Eagles owner Norman Braman despite a 43-35-1 record.
Earlier that season, Ryan bragged that his Eagles would so badly beat up the Redskins in a Monday night game “they’ll have to be carted off in body bags.” The Eagles’ defense scored three touchdowns in a 28-14 win and knocked nine Redskins out of the game, including two quarterbacks.
A year earlier, Philadelphia routed the Cowboys 27-0 on Thanksgiving Day with hardly any holiday feelings in the air. Cowboys kicker Luis Zendejas claimed Ryan put a $200 bounty on him, something Ryan laughed off as ridiculous.
After one season as an assistant at Houston, Arizona hired Ryan as head coach in 1994 and the Cardinals went 12-20 in his two years there. He never coached again, letting Rex and Rob carry on the family legacy.
Ryan’s Shelbyville home was about 30 miles east of Louisville. No one seemed to know about Ryan or his presence at two small restaurants attached to convenience stores, just a mile away from his golf course development. Fire and police officials said the coach also had a horse farm about 20 miles west in Simpsonville, Ky.
“There is no way we can possibly begin to measure how much football we have learned from him over the years,” Rex Ryan said. “And we are forever thankful to him for instilling within us his unwavering love for the game of football.”