Legendary former Eagles coach Buddy Ryan dies

Buddy Ryan, 85, the countrified, colorful, and controversial coach who could design a defense and find the talent to man it as well as anyone in NFL history but whose sneering disdain for what happened on the other side of the ball led to his downfall in Philadelphia, died Tuesday.

Mr. Ryan's age had been listed as 82, but his agent, Jim Solano, and his son Rex confirmed it as 85.

Retired on his Kentucky farm, where he raised horses and followed his twin sons' NFL coaching careers, Mr. Ryan suffered from cancer and had been confined to a wheelchair since a 2011 stroke.

The Eagles released statements from chairman Jeffrey Lurie and coach Doug Pederson:

"Buddy Ryan was arguably one of the greatest defensive masterminds in NFL history and forever left his mark on the Eagles organization and the city of Philadelphia," Lurie said. "Over the last 20-plus years, I had the pleasure of discussing football with Buddy, and I always came away from those conversations intrigued by his knowledge and passion for the game. On behalf of myself and the entire Eagles family, I'd like to offer our deepest condolences to the Ryan family."

Pederson said that Mr. Ryan "was one of the most creative and innovative defensive minds in the game of football. It was easy to sense his passion for the game and how much his players loved playing for him. His defensive philosophy remains a big part of the game today. He is a legend in our sport. My thoughts and prayers go out to [sons] Rex, Rob, Jim, and the entire Ryan family."

Poll

What made Buddy Ryan so popular in Philadelphia?

An assistant who helped build two Super Bowl-winning defenses _ the 1969 New York Jets' and 1985 Chicago Bears' _ Mr. Ryan has a legacy that figures to be defined by two numbers: 46  for the quarterback-terrorizing defense of the same name that he created in Chicago, and 0 for his postseason victory total in seven years as a head coach.

A longtime assistant and defensive coordinator with the Jets, Minnesota Vikings, and Bears, Mr. Ryan got his first head-coaching job with the Eagles in 1986.

He constructed one of his trademark defenses with the Eagles _ physical and ferocious, around linemen Reggie White and Jerome Brown and linebacker Seth Joyner. His improved teams reached the playoffs in his final three seasons with the Eagles but each time were eliminated in the first round. Finally, after  a home loss to Washington in the NFC playoffs following the 1990 season, owner Norman Braman fired him.

"It was a lot of fun, especially on the defensive side," said former Eagles linebacker Britt Hager, who played for Mr. Ryan in 1989 and 1990. "What I learned most from him was toughness, being tough-minded. Buddy was absolutely the best."

The reason for his ultimate failure with the Eagles was, in large part, the ineffectiveness of a one-dimensional offense that often relied too heavily on the talents of quarterback Randall Cunningham.

That side of the ball typically was an afterthought for Mr. Ryan, and he made no secret about it. His Bears defensive unit developed an "us-against-them" attitude, and he and head coach Mike Ditka had a genuine animosity. The defense became a separate entity, and when Chicago routed New England in Super Bowl XX, it was Mr. Ryan whom his unit carried off the field.

"We won a Super Bowl together, and we would have never did it without each other," Ditka told ESPN. "Buddy was far before his time, really. He did things defensively that people had no concept of. It took a long time for people to figure out what to do against his defense, not that they ever figured it out.

"What Buddy did was genius. He was way ahead of his time."

Later, as the Houston Oilers defensive coordinator, Mr. Ryan famously threw a punch at his offensive counterpart, Kevin Gilbride, during a nationally televised game. Asked about the incident, Mr. Ryan accused Gilbride of running a "chuck-and duck" offense.

As an assistant, his teams reached Super Bowls in New York, Minnesota, and Chicago. But as a head coach with the Eagles and for two years in Arizona, his overall record was a mediocre 55-55-1.

He developed the 46 defense in Chicago to harass opposing quarterbacks. Soon copied by coordinators around the NFL, the attacking, all-out defense helped the 1984 Bears set a still-standing NFL record of 72 sacks.

New England coach Bill Belichik said it was the success of the 46 that led to the disappearance of the two-running-back sets.

In 1985, Chicago roared through the regular season and playoffs with just a single loss. Mr. Ryan, in essence a co-head coach, developed a national reputation as the no-nonsense boss of the league's fiercest defense.

"I've never seen anyone better at bringing the animal out of you," said Gerry Philbin, a defensive end for Ryan at the University of Buffalo and with the Jets. "If you didn't hit as hard as he wanted, he'd humiliate you in front of everyone. Guys like me loved him, though. He was just so brutally honest."

Blunt and demanding, he wasn't afraid to criticize or demean anyone, often appearing to delight in doing so. He once ran up the score on legendary and much-loved Dallas coach Tom Landry. He ripped opposing players and sometimes his own. He feuded with his team's owner, Braman, in Philadelphia.

A defensive wizard, Mr. Ryan frequently forgot or mangled the names of his players. He called most of them by their numbers. One Eagles training-camp kicker was "Gus the kicking mule."

But he could speak X's and O's as well as anyone. Mr. Ryan's defenses played with a relentless fury that was mesmerizing to opponents and fans alike. The intent of his defenses, he once said, was "to find out who the backup quarterback is."

"They went all out all the time," said Herman Edwards, the former Jets coach whose Eagles career ended when Mr. Ryan cut him in 1986. "They had to play that way because they knew if they  didn't Buddy would get their asses out of town fast."

In Philadelphia, fans seemed to love and hate him in equal numbers and with equal passion.

In the early days of talk radio in the city, Mr. Ryan, his mouth, and his contempt for offense were frequently the topic. His first Eagles team went 5-10-1. But drafting shrewdly and discarding players he disliked _ no matter their background or experience _ he saw his teams improve, going 7-8 in 1987, 10-6 in 1988, 11-5 in 1989. He went 10-6 in 1990.

On offense, he added running back Keith Byars, tight end Keith Jackson, and wide receivers Cris Carter and Fred Barnett. Many here were upset when he replaced popular quarterback Ron Jaworski, who had led Philadelphia to Super Bowl XV, with the mercurial Cunningham. He also released running back Earnest Jackson, who had twice gained 1,000 yards.

"You can say what you want about Buddy and his coaching ability," said Byars. "But the man knew a football player when he saw one."

In 1989, before a Thanksgiving Day matchup with rival Dallas, he allegedly placed a bounty on Cowboys kicker Luis Zendejas, who, following his release from the Eagles, had publicly criticized Mr. Ryan. The coach didn't forget.

"The week before the Dallas game, I heard Buddy say to [Eagles linebacker Jesse Small], `You know what you've got to do, right?' " former Philadelphia linebacker Mike Reichenbach recalled. "I thought he was just checking to make sure Jesse did his job because he sometimes struggled. And then when I saw what happened, I said. `OK, that's what was going on.' "

What happened was that, on the second-half kickoff in the Eagles' 27-0 victory that Nov. 23, Small weaved through several Cowboys and flattened the 5-foot-9 Zendejas. Afterward, Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson insisted Ryan had placed bounties on his kicker and quarterback Troy Aikman.

"I was so mad that after the game I went running after Buddy," Johnson recalled. "But he had waddled his big fat butt off the field by then."

Mr. Ryan's twin sons both followed their father into pro football. Rex is now the Buffalo Bills head coach, while Rob  is the team's assistant head coach.

James David "Buddy" Ryan was born near Frederick, Okla. That rural childhood bred in him a love of farming and horses that never left.

He was a football guard at Oklahoma A&M, now Oklahoma State. Drafted into the Army, he served as a sergeant during the Korean War.

In 1957, he accepted a job as an assistant coach at a Texas high school, Gainesville High. Two years later, he became the school's head coach, his last head-coaching job until the Eagles.

Moving up to the college level, Mr. Ryan was a defensive assistant at Buffalo, Pacific, and Vanderbilt from 1961 through 1966. Weeb Ewbank, then the head coach of the American Football League's New York Jets, brought him to the pros.

Noting the emphasis Ewbank placed on protecting Jets quarterback Joe Namath, Mr. Ryan developed schemes and blitzes designed to pressure and pursue the opponent's passer. In their historic Super Bowl III upset, New York's defense limited the high-scoring and heavily favored Baltimore Colts to just seven points.

After he left for Minnesota, to be the Vikings' defensive line coach, Mr. Ryan helped develop one of the most famous and productive lines in NFL history, the Purple People Eaters _ Alan Page, Jim Marshall, Carl Eller, and Gary Larsen. The 1977 Vikings made it to the Super Bowl but lost to Oakland.

It was in Chicago, where he arrived as defensive coordinator in 1978, that Mr. Ryan developed his reputation and built the defense that cemented it.

The blitzing 46 derived its name from safety Doug Plank's number. Its centerpiece, though, was Bears middle linebacker Mike Singletary, an extraordinarily physical and cerebral talent who became the coach's chief disciple.

When owner George Halas fired head coach Neill Armstrong in 1982, defensive players pleaded with him to retain Mr. Ryan. Ditka replaced Armstrong but ceded total authority for the defense to Mr. Ryan. The concession wouldn't prevent their mutual dislike.

During a nationally televised game with Miami in 1985 _ the Bears' lone loss that season _ the two volatile coaches nearly came to blows on the sideline.

A year later, Ryan was something of a surprise choice to coach the Eagles, but he immediately endeared himself to the city's fans, predicting the team would win the NFC East.

They did in 1988, but Ryan could never find postseason success in Philadelphia and after another 10-6, one-and-out season in 1990, he was gone.

Houston brought him back as its defensive coordinator in 1993, and his defense helped the Oilers run off an 11-game winning streak. But in the final regular-season game, he took a swing at Gilbride, apparently convinced Gilbride's  offense could have run out the clock late in the game. In a familiar story for Mr. Ryan's teams, Houston was upset by Kansas City in its playoff opener.

Despite the controversy that always seemed to follow him, Arizona hired Mr. Ryan as its head coach in 1994. As happened in Philadelphia, Mr. Ryan arrived with guns blazing.

"You've got a winner in town," he said at his introductory news conference.

The Cardinals went 8-8 his first season, but nosedived to 4-12 a year later and he was fired again, retiring for good to his Kentucky farm.

Mr. Ryan is survived by his three sons. Funeral arrangements were pending.

ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz