Legendary Bears defensive coach Buddy Ryan passed away at the age of 85 Tuesday.
Ryan was defensive line coach for the New York Jets under coach Weeb Ewbank and part of the staff that won Super Bowl III with Joe Namath. It was Ewbank’s obsession with protecting Namath that led Ryan to conclude that if keeping the quarterback from being hit was everything to an offense, then getting to the quarterback should therefore be the prime directive of the defense.
“If they ‘block’ [with] eight, I’ll rush nine,” Ryan once said. “Because I’m going to get him. If the most important thing is to protect the quarterback, then mine is to get the quarterback.”
Ryan broke into coaching in 1961 as the defensive line coach for the Buffalo Bills of the then-AFL. Fittingly perhaps, son Rex is the current Buffalo head coach (and other son Rob is the assistant head coach) and Ryan attended a Bills game last season. Ryan went to the Minnesota Vikings as defensive line coach in 1976, where he had a hand in the achievements of the “Purple People Eaters” (Carl Eller, Alan Page, Gary Larsen, Jim Marshall) before coming to the Bears as defensive coordinator on Neill Armstrong’s staff.
George Halas had a hand in hiring Ryan, a factor in 1982 when Halas fired Armstrong but retained Ryan after members of the defense signed a letter, written by Page, by then a member of the Bears, and Gary Fencik to Halas, imploring Halas to keep Ryan. Fencik, initially terrified that Halas would not take kindly to the player input, recalled later sidling over to the defensive coaches and reminding Ryan, “Buddy, now remember who wrote that letter for you.”
Ryan did remember, and in 2011 wrote a letter of his own to his players:
To my guys,
In 1981, many of you signed a letter to George Halas that saved my job. Now I’m writing a letter to all of you to say thanks. I wish I could be there to say it in person, but this will have to do.
Thank you to the Super Bowl champion 1985 Chicago Bears, the greatest team in NFL history. You gave me the best memories of my coaching life.
I’ll love every one of you until the day I die. I told you this a long time ago, and it’s still true.
You guys will always be my heroes.
Coach Buddy Ryan, 46
Ryan, the real center of ESPN’s “30 for 30” special last January on the 1985 Bears, clashed mightily with coach Mike Ditka, to the point of a fight in the shower room at halftime of the Bears’ loss to the Miami Dolphins in 1985. He remained with the Bears through the 1985 season and its historic finish in Super Bowl XX, then left to become head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. He went on to coach the Arizona Cardinals, famously declaring, “You’ve got a winner in town” upon his hiring, and finished with a 55-55-1 record as a head coach.
While Ryan never again reached the victory pinnacle he and the Bears achieved in ’85, he was remembered just as well for many of the individual achievements his players managed because of his influence.
Dan Hampton first met Ryan on a trip to Halas Hall before the 1979 draft (in which the Bears made Hampton the fourth-overall pick). The two watched film together and Ryan told Hampton directly that he hoped the Bears would draft Hampton. When Hampton struggled badly in a game his rookie season against the New York Jets, Ryan looked straight at Hampton in a team meeting and said, “Big Rook, I expected you to always be one of those ‘core’ guys, to always be there and fight your [butt] off. You didn’t do nothin’ but embarrass yourself.”
Ryan had tears in his eyes, as did Hampton, who that night made a vow, “that never again would I let Buddy Ryan down,” Hampton said.
When Ditka arrived from the Dallas Cowboys to become Bears coach in 1982, he told Ryan that he wanted the Bears to run the “flex” defense that Tom Landry operated in Dallas. Ryan flatly refused, declaring to his players, “He is the head coach. He has the right to run whatever defense he wants. Now, I won’t run it. I’m going to be down on my farm in Kentucky. But he can run whatever he wants.”
Ryan did finish his days on his farm in Kentucky, but he ran his “46” defense. Period.