Tuesday, 28 June 2016
Buddy Ryan, defensive architect of 1985 Bears, has died
Buddy Ryan, the famed inventor of the 46 defense who was carried off the field by his players after the Chicago Bears’ victory in Super Bowl XX, died Tuesday morning, the Bears and Philadelphia Eagles confirmed. He was 82.
The team did not publicize the specific cause of death, but Ryan's health had deteriorated in recent years. An ESPN documentary in which Ryan was featured earlier this year reported he had been affected by stroke and cancer.
Ryan spent 26 seasons as an NFL coach and was a part of three staffs that appeared in Super Bowls, but his crowning achievement was as defensive coordinator of the 1985 Bears. “The 85 Bears was the best defense there ever was, and ever will be,” Ryan said in 2011. “They had a great scheme and great players.”
As a defensive assistant under Weeb Ewbank with the New York Jets in the late 1960s, Ryan began thinking of creative ways to rush the passer when he saw how pressure affected Jets quarterback Joe Namath.
According to Hall of Fame defensive tackle Alan Page, who played for Ryan in Minnesota and with the Bears, Ryan started tinkering with the 46 in the late 70s when he was the Vikings defensive line coach. Initially, it was a nickel defense designed to stop the pass.
When Ryan came to the Bears, he officially named it the 46 in honor of safety Doug Plank, who wore the number 46. “It really got going in 1981,” said Jeff Fisher, who played under Ryan in Chicago and coached under him with the Philadelphia Eagles. “It created so much havoc that eventually it became our base front. It allowed Buddy to dictate.”
The concept was to put Dan Hampton, who was the most difficult to block player, on the center, and crowd the offense with six men on the line and eight or nine in the box. Ryan usually blitzed between six and eight defenders from the defense, and his players loved it.
“We were so far ahead of what anyone else was doing,” safety Gary Fencik said. “It was so much fun to be a part of Buddy’s defense.”
Ryan could be abrasive and difficult to get along with. He made enemies of Bears personnel director Bill Tobin, who once called him “the most self-centered man I’ve ever met in the NFL,” Don Shula, Jimmy Johnson, Darryl Rogers, Barry Switzer, Steve Beuerlein and many others.
As head coach of the Eagles, he allegedly put bounties on the Dallas Cowboys' Troy Aikman and Luis Zendejas.
When he was defensive coordinator for the Houston Oilers, he derisively referred to offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride’s run-and-shoot scheme as the “chuck and duck,” and then took a swing at Gilbride on the sidelines.
His relationship with former Bears coach Mike Ditka was equally volatile. Ryan and Ditka had to be separated by players in Miami at halftime of the Bears’ only loss of the 1985 season.
When Ditka was hired to coach the Bears by George Halas in 1982, it was under the condition that he retain Ryan as defensive coordinator. Ryan had been in Chicago the previous three years, and as the 1981 season wound down, Page and Fencik wrote a letter to Halas asking that Ryan not be fired.
“Writing the letter was about what was in the best interests of the team,” said Page, who was retiring. “When you have a good thing, why throw out the baby with the bath?”
Shortly after Ditka was hired, Ditka told Ryan he wanted to run the Flex defense, which Ditka was familiar with from his time with the Cowboys. Fencik said Ryan told Ditka, “You are the head guy. You can do whatever you want. But I won’t be here. I’m not going to run that defense.”
Ditka backed off.
Ryan subsequently showed little deference to Ditka, ignoring his suggestions, telling his defensive players Ditka didn’t know defense, and referring to him as “that guy.”
When Ryan left the Bears after Super Bowl XX to become head coach of the Eagles, Ditka said, “I’m not happy he’s gone — I’m elated.” And he said, “Never again in history will an assistant coach get as much credit as Buddy did.”
The two carried on a feud for years, but when Ditka suffered a heart attack in 1988, Ryan called Ditka’s assistant to see how he was. It wasn’t until 2010, at a 25th anniversary celebration of the Super Bowl, that Ditka and Ryan buried the hatchet.
Ditka subsequently has spoken glowingly of Ryan. Ditka attended a 2011 dinner at which Ryan was honored and called Ryan the best assistant coach ever.
Ditka wasn’t the only superior Ryan shirked off. When he was coaching the Eagles, he referred to team owner Norman Braman as “that guy in France.” He would say Eagles general manager Harry Gamble was Braman’s illegitimate son.
Ryan could be difficult for players to get along with as well. He often referred to them only by their jersey numbers or unflattering nicknames. “My impression was that he couldn’t remember people’s names,” Page said.
His players came to loathe his postgame tape reviews. In front of the entire defense, Ryan would go over a play, mentioning first who made the tackle and who made an assist. Any other player who did his job on the play escaped notice. But many did not.
“You were either horse [expletive], dumb [expletive] or [expletive] hole,” Fisher said. “Horse [expletive] meant you missed a tackle or dropped an interception. “Dumb [expletive] would be you made a mental mistake. And you didn’t want to be an [expletive] hole.”
What could be expected from a coach who had been a master sergeant in the Army during the Korean War at the age of 18? His son Jim told Sports Illustrated in 1994 that Ryan still slept with his hand near his collarbone, where he used to keep his gun in Korea. It was a habit formed because the Chinese used to strangle soldiers with wire while they were sleeping.
“You lead men going into combat with you, and they trust you on ambush patrol,” Ryan said years later. “That prepared me for what was coming.”
As hard a man as Ryan could be, he had another side to him. “Gruff exterior, warm human being underneath,” said Page, who still spoke with Ryan every few months in recent years.
His first wife Doris said Ryan taught Sunday school and sometimes would be brought to tears by a hymn in church.
Ryan also teared up on the eve of Super Bowl XX. Knowing he was soon to leave Chicago, he told his defensive players, “I just want you guys to know that no matter what happens out there, you will always be my heroes.”
As many of his players wept, Steve McMichael stood up, picked up his chair and threw it across the room, impaling a blackboard with its legs.
The late Hall of Fame defensive end Reggie White once said players either loved Ryan or hated him, but most players White knew loved him. The late Jerome Brown, who played under Ryan in Philadelphia, once said, “I’d sell my body for Buddy.”
Hall-of-Famer Hampton said: “So many of us would have run through a wall for the guy. We all loved him, just loved him.”
Player agent Jim Solano, who also served as an advisor to Ryan, said three of his former Eagles clients — Clyde Simmons, Seth Joyner and Terry Hoage — wanted to follow Ryan so badly when he became head coach of the Arizona Cardinals that they accepted millions less than what they could have received elsewhere in order to play for him.
Ryan was known for his ability to teach as well as motivate. “What I learned about this game from then to now, he was the reason,” former Bears linebacker Otis Wilson said.
Ryan was not concerned that his players go by the book. He would tolerate players being late to meetings or lying on the floor while he spoke.
Page never liked to study opponents. He decided to run long distance races and had lost 20 pounds when the Bears acquired him. Page said the only thing Ryan cared about was that Page was making plays.
Ryan had survived two bouts with melanoma as well as a case of encephalitis. He spent his later years on horse farms in Kentucky.
Born Feb. 17, 1931, Ryan earned four letters as a guard at Oklahoma A&M. His childhood was spent in a house with no electricity or indoor plumbing. At Oklahoma A&M, now Oklahoma State, he studied the style of legendary basketball coach Hank Iba and learned how to motivate.
“Learning how to tear down a player with one sentence,” Ryan once said. “That’s what coaching’s all about."
Brad Biggs contributed to this report