Rex Ryan's coaching career began with a cold call.
Roy Kidd, the head coach at Eastern Kentucky University, picked up the phone and it was Buddy Ryan. The NFL coach - he already had won a Super Bowl as the Bears' defensive coordinator and was head coach of the Eagles - was trying to find a job for his son, who had just finished his playing career and was looking to get into the family business.
"I didn't know Rex and his daddy called me, wanted to know if I had a position open," Kidd recalled this week from his home in Kentucky. "I knew who Buddy Ryan was but I didn't know him personally. I said I had a graduate assistant position; that was all I had open then. So I brought him over."
And that's how Rex Ryan became coach Ryan. In title, anyway. According to those who remember him in those two seasons on the first rung of the coaching ladder - he was a GA and coached the defensive ends in 1987 and '88 at Eastern Kentucky - he was always the brash, truth-talking, competitive guy who will lead the Jets against the Chargers in an AFC divisional playoff game Sunday.
"What you're seeing now is about the same thing you saw when he was a graduate assistant," said Jim Tanara, the defensive line coach who first tutored Ryan at Eastern Kentucky. "He had a lot of confidence in what he was doing. The game came easy to him. He had great football intelligence; you saw that right away."
And he could relate to the players the way he does with these Jets.
"He understood what the game was about and how to give the players what they needed," said Eastern Kentucky offensive lineman John Jackson, who was drafted by the Steelers and played 14 seasons in the NFL. "He never came off as standoffish. He just came off as a players' coach, and that's what you see now. Guys want to play for him. I mean, I would play for him."
"It was obvious to me that he was enthusiastic, he was a lot of fun," Kidd said. "You get on some staffs and I've heard people say every day is like fourth-and-1. I never liked that. I think you have to work hard, put in the hours, but also you have to have a little fun. And Rex was very liked; he was popular with the players. It was obvious to me he was a heck of a football coach."
Tanara said that even though Ryan was low man on the coaching staff, he would roll up his sleeves and contribute to the schemes.
"We'd sit in a staff meeting X-ing and O-ing and he'd always comment on the things we were doing and some of the things that he wanted to do," Tanara said. "All good stuff. And at a young age."
Ryan had the acumen, but what he didn't have at the time was the ability to call the shots. He already was a proponent of the blitz-and-bluff defense, but Eastern Kentucky played a very conservative gap-control system. Its way to stop a passing attack was to rush three defenders and drop eight into coverage.
How could Buddy Ryan's son stand that for a minute, let alone two seasons?
"It would drive him nuts," Tanara said with a laugh. "I still see him sitting up there in that pressbox next to me and the dude's going crazy."
Ryan stayed at the school for only two years, but he left an imprint. After a short stint at New Mexico Highlands, he returned to the Ohio Valley Conference as defensive coordinator at Morehead State and played against Eastern Kentucky.
"After I saw him coach against us at Morehead, I thought, 'Damn, I should have thought more about that defense that he's using than what we were doing,' " Kidd said.
A few years later, when Ryan was a linebackers coach for the Ravens, he and Tanara - then the defensive coordinator for Eastern Kentucky - were on the phone catching up when Ryan stopped the casual conversation cold.
"He said, 'Before I forget, let me give you the best blitz for the two-man back set that you've ever had in your life,' " Tanara recalled. "I said, 'OK, what is it?' "
Ryan described it to Tanara, who jotted it down. He decided to call it the Buddy Blitz in honor of Ryan's father.
"Any time we were in a situation where we were playing somebody with an I-back or 21 personnel, it was awesome," Tanara said.
"If you ask Tony Romo today what was the hardest hit he ever got, I guarantee you it was from Eastern Kentucky on a Buddy Blitz," Tanara said.
Ryan is no longer a graduate assistant. He lapped the careers of most of the coaches he worked with and worked under. He spent time at Cincinnati and Oklahoma as a college coach and worked for the NFL's Cardinals and Ravens before joining the Jets.
But he hasn't gotten too big for some of the basics to still apply, the things that make Rex Rex. And once again, it was a phone call out of the blue that connected Ryan and Kidd.
When Kidd called Ryan last week, before the wild-card playoff game against the Bengals, he was ready to leave a message with a secretary or recite a voice mail. Instead, Ryan picked up the phone himself and wound up speaking with the guy who gave him his start.
"I wished him good luck," Kidd said. "He's such a likable guy."
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