Buddy Ryan, the pugnacious coach who masterminded two fierce defenses that won Super Bowl titles and whose twin sons have been successful NFL coaches, died Tuesday. He was 82.
His death was confirmed by the Buffalo Bills, who are coached by Rex Ryan. James Solano, Buddy Ryan’s agent, said he died in Kentucky but did not give a cause. Ryan lived on a ranch in Shelbyville.
“Buddy was a legend in our league in so many ways,” the Bills said in a statement. “His defenses were innovative and he was a master at putting his talented and tough players in a position to succeed. He was a real game changer, and much of his philosophies and defensive tactics are still utilized effectively by teams today.”
Ryan was a linebackers coach for the 1968 New York Jets and coordinated the ground-breaking 46 defense for the 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.
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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.
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 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 before moving 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.
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.
“Buddy’s influence will be carried on by defensive coaches for generations to come, but none more so than by Rex and Rob,” the Bills said.
Ryan also is survived by another son, Jim, the Eagles said.