Buddy Ryan, the alternately cantankerous and charismatic football coach who helped put together the Jets’ winning Super Bowl III defense and who was architect of the Super Bowl XX champion Bears’ “46 defense,” died Tuesday at his horse farm in Shelbyville, Kentucky. He was 82.
News of his death was announced by the Buffalo Bills, who employ twin sons Rex as head coach and Rob as assistant head coach/defense. Ryan also is survived by his oldest son, Jim. No cause of death was given, but Ryan previously had survived two cases of melanoma (severe skin cancer) and had suffered a stroke in recent years.
In a statement released by the Bills, Rex Ryan said of his father: “He was many things to many people — outstanding coach, mentor, fierce competitor, father figure, faithful friend. But to me and my brothers, Rob and Jim, 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 defensive line coach for the Jets under defensive coordinator Walt Michaels and helped formulate a game plan that held the Colts, who were 18½-point favorites, to one fourth-quarter touchdown in the Jets’ 16-7 Super Bowl III victory. The 1985 Bears defense is regarded by many as the greatest in NFL history. Ryan, the team’s defensive coordinator, was carried off the field by his players after the Bears’ 46-10 victory over the Patriots alongside head coach Mike Ditka, who was carried by the Bears’ offensive players.
All told Ryan coached 26 years in the NFL, compiling a 55-58-1 record as a head coach with Philadelphia (1986-90) and Arizona (1994-95). He also had college assistant coaching jobs at the University of Buffalo, Pacific and Vanderbilt, and he coached high school football in Gainesville, Texas, from 1957-59, the last season as head coach.
James David Ryan was born in Frederick, Oklahoma. After high school, he enlisted in the Army and fought in the Korean War, where he rose to the rank of master sergeant. Ryan played football at Oklahoma State before coaching high school football.
Known for instilling toughness in his players, Ryan never stood in the way of a good fight with an opponent or in practice among his own players. Defensive end Gerry Philbin, who played under Ryan at the University of Buffalo and on the Jets, told Sports Illustrated: “I’ve never seen anyone better at bringing the animal out of you. If you didn’t hit as hard as he wanted, he’d humiliate you in front of everyone. Guys like me loved him, though.”
Ryan moved from the Jets to Minnesota as defensive coordinator for a team that featured the “Purple People Eaters” defensive line, but they lost to the Raiders in Super Bowl XI. He joined the Bears in 1978 and was retained at the request of his players when coach Neill Armstrong was fired in 1982 and Ditka became coach.
Ditka gave Ryan autonomy over the defense, but the two of them didn’t get along. Ryan’s “46 defense,” which was named in honor of hard-hitting safety Doug Plank, who wore that number, was the driving force behind the Bears’ 15-1 1985 season. At halftime of their only loss, a 38-24 beating at Miami in a Monday night game, Ditka challenged Ryan to fight, and the two had to be separated.
The night before Super Bowl XX, Ryan told his defensive players that he planned to take the Eagles’ head coaching job the following season. “You guys are going to be my champions,” a teary Ryan said. “Let’s kick some tail.”
Defensive tackle Steve McMichael threw a chair across the room and defensive end Dan Hampton flung another that stuck in a chalkboard. The next day, the Bears’ defense recorded seven sacks, held the Patriots to minus-19 total yards in the first half and defensive end Richard Dent was named MVP.
Ryan constructed another fearsome defense with the Eagles, featuring defensive linemen Reggie White, Jerome Brown and Clyde Simmons and hard-hitting safety Andre Waters. The Eagles made the playoffs his last three seasons but failed to win a playoff game before owner Norman Braman fired Ryan in 1991. The coach later named one of his racehorses, “Firedforwinning.”
Ryan returned to coaching in 1993 as defensive coordinator for Houston and famously tried to punch Oilers offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride on the sideline in the middle of a game against the Jets. He was hired as head coach in Arizona the following season but went 12-20 in two seasons.
Ryan’s NFL legacy has been carried on by sons Rex and Rob, who are known for a colorful, outspoken style that mirrors their father. As former Jets coach Rex Ryan said, “The name ‘Ryan’ means something . . .That’s a family pride thing, and it’s certainly a big deal for me.”
1968-75 — Jets, defensive line and linebackers: Helped implement defense instrumental in holding Colts to seven points in Super Bowl III.
1976-77 — Vikings, defensive line: His defenses helped Vikings to consecutive NFC Championship Games and a Super Bowl.
1978-85 — Bears, defensive coordinator: Designed dominating “46’’ defense. The ’84 Bears had 72 sacks — still a record. A year later, defense fueled a run to Super Bowl XX — a 46-10 win over the Patriots.
1986-90 — Eagles, head coach: Was 43-35-1 (one division title) in five seasons, and 0-3 in the playoffs.
1993 — Oilers, defensive coordinator: Remembered for throwing a punch at fellow assistant coach Kevin Gilbride in regular- season finale vs. Jets.
1994-95 — Cardinals, head coach: 12-20 in two seasons.