The day Buddy Ryan got fired

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Former Eagles head coach Buddy Ryan. (Rick Stewart/Getty Images)

(This story was first published on January 9, 1991.)

Rich Kotite stood in the frigid hallway outside the fourth-floor Veterans Stadium press lounge. It was 4:04 p.m., and inside the room, Eagles owner Norman Braman, flanked by president Harry Gamble, was squinting into a galaxy of television lights, explaining yesterday morning's firing of Buddy Ryan after five seasons as the Eagles' head coach.

 As Braman spoke, Kotite stood nervously outside, smoothing the wrinkles of a green and white Philadelphia Eagles sweater he had selected from a pile of extras in the team offices.

 "How do I look, my friend? " Kotite said as he pulled the collar of his white golf shirt out of his new sweater. "Did they introduce me yet?" Then, turning to Ron Howard, the club's director of public relations, Kotite said: ''Is it time to go in?"

 A minute later, Kotite was being led, like a boxer heading to the ring on fight night, through a swarm of bodies in the jammed media lounge. As he maneuvered around and through friendly and strange faces, he no longer was the Eagles' offensive coordinator.

 He was the 18th head coach in Philadelphia Eagles history.

 "I'm overwhelmed," he said, appearing almost to the fact that, after 13 years as an NFL assistant, he suddenly had a team to call his own.

 At 2:45 p.m., the 48-year-old Kotite had been summoned from the coaches' bunker in the basement of Veterans Stadium to Braman's executive-level office and informed of the promotion. He was given a three-year contract that sources said will earn him $250,000, $300,000 and $350,000 over the next three seasons, with several incentives that could push his total package to $1.2 million. Like Ryan, he also was given control over player-personnel decisions.

 An hour and a half later, it was Braman's turn to explain the stunning series of events that began at 10 a.m., when the club released a statement saying Ryan would not be rehired as coach.

 Braman dodged no missiles in his 44-minute press conference. He made it clear that his decision to fire Ryan was based on both the team's inability to ascend beyond its first playoff game, and his distaste for the team's arrogant, undisciplined image around the league.

 "I told Buddy I was grateful for the job he did here over these past five years," Braman began, "but I felt the team had not reached the level where we could progress into the future. That it was time to stop being the bridesmaid, basically, and become a bride.

 "Essentially, we've been blown out of two playoff games over the last two years. The easiest thing in the world would be to say, 'Hey, I'm satisfied, I'm happy we've been in the playoffs three years in a row. ' That's not what I'm interested in. I don't consider that to be the standard of excellence that I expected from this club when I came here in 1985.

 "We hope we've made the moves today that will get us, hopefully to the Promised Land."

 The more Braman talked, the more it became obvious that Ryan's abrasive style and brash personality had bothered the owner almost as much as the team's three consecutive failures to get past its first playoff game.

 Braman trumpeted the hiring of Kotite as an end to the days of the Eagles' ''bad boy" image of the past three seasons. Asked if he hoped to see a change in that style, Braman flatly said, "Yes."

 "I think," he added, "you can win in the NFL without being a 'bad boy.'"

 Braman went on to say that the hiring of Kotite would bring "discipline and precision on both sides of the ball that Harry Gamble and I think are going to make a difference."

 "I hope that will be the hallmark of the Philadelphia Eagles in the future," Braman said. "I don't want to get into a Buddy Ryan-bashing contest. I respect Buddy Ryan. I respect the job he's done here. I just don't want this to degenerate into a Buddy Ryan-bashing situation."

 Uncharacteristically, Ryan had refused to say anything critical of Braman in a venomless press conference held at 12:30 p.m. in the team's first-floor meeting room.

 "I've been fired before, but usually it's for losing," said Ryan, who learned of his ouster in a 10-minute meeting with Braman yesterday morning. ''I've never been fired for winning before. Like I told (Braman), it's his football team and he can do whatever he wants to. It's no big deal.

 "Buddy Ryan's going to land on his feet somewhere. I always do."

 Ryan's agent, Robert Fraley, told The Boston Globe he felt Braman had not been completely candid about the reasons for the firing.

 "Braman called me up and said he was letting Buddy go because he said Buddy could not take the team to the next level," Fraley said. "Everyone that knows what has been going on knows that is a crock. It had nothing to do with coaching; it had to do with what Buddy said, not what he did."

 The players, who had stood solidly behind Ryan since he supported them in the 1987 strike, reacted bitterly to the firing, particularly All-Pros Keith Jackson and Reggie White. Sources said several players later visited with or phoned management to applaud the hiring of Kotite and back off previous statements.

 There was no appearance or comment from quarterback Randall Cunningham, who was upset with Ryan's decision to replace him in the third quarter of Saturday's 20-6 wild-card loss to Washington. Team officials said Cunningham was out of town.

 Braman finalized his decision to fire Ryan late Monday evening, and plans were set in motion for yesterday's maneuvers over a late dinner with club officials. Kotite, who, like many coaches and players, declined comment on the Ryan firing when it was announced, was first approached about succeeding Ryan in an 11:30 a.m. meeting with Braman. He then re-entered the Eagles' executive offices at 2:47 and told a waiting reporter: "Don't slug me for not talking to you. I hope you understand." He did not exit until it was time for the press conference 75 minutes later.

 Braman said that Jeff Fisher, Ryan's 32-year-old defensive coordinator, was the only other candidate considered for the job. Fisher also made two trips to the fourth floor to meet with Braman and Gamble, one of the men who recommended Kotite to Ryan. It was during his second visit that Fisher was informed of the choice.

 "I really had a desire to stay within (the organization)," Braman said. ''We feel we have the nucleus of a fine football team. I didn't want to bring someone in here that would have to start from scratch, with new systems and an individual who basically was unfamiliar with the characteristics of our players. And I felt we didn't want to wait that one or two years to take that quantum leap forward that I've spoken about. That's why the list was really narrowed to Jeff Fisher and Rich Kotite."

 Most of Ryan's staff has been offered jobs under Kotite . Shortly after realizing his coaching dream, the new Eagles boss plunged into the task of searching for a new offensive coordinator. The name at the top of Kotite 's short list is expected to be Joe Walton, the Pittsburgh Steelers' offensive coordinator and one of his best friends in coaching. It was Walton, the former New York Jets head coach, who hired Kotite as receivers coach in 1983. Kotite became the Jets' offensive coordinator in 1985 until Walton's firing last year.

 Kotite , who handled the hastily arranged and potentially unnerving press conference with flair, expressed no uneasiness over the owner's stated goal of reaching the NFC championship game and/or Super Bowl very soon.

 "That's what I'm here for, to do it and to do it soon, do it next year," Kotite said. "And I certainly think we're going to have a good season next year, because a lot of things are intact. When you sign on as a coach, you sign on with that responsibility."

 Kotite described the Eagles team he hopes to mold next year as one rich in ''preparation, discipline and cohesiveness. " He said next year's Eagles team will have fewer penalties.

 "That's part of discipline, and everyone has a different emphasis," he said. "It's important for everyone to realize it's a 12-month commitment here."

 Pressed for needs on both sides of the ball in the future, etc., he begged off talking about specifics.

 "This morning I was uncertain about my future," he said, smiling. "I think we certainly have to be a more disciplined team throughout the whole team, all three aspects of the team, and just play hard and try to do the right things. I don't think there's any cookbook answers, and I don't think you have to be a genius.

 "I think you have to believe in what you're doing and get your players to believe in that and to believe in their own individual coaches and everything else takes care of itself."

 As he prepared to get some rest last night at the South Jersey hotel that he has called home since joining the Eagles 11 months ago, Kotite still was wrestling with the mixed emotions of being named a head coach on the day the man who kept his NFL coaching career alive last February was fired.

 Kotite celebrated with an elegant dinner with Braman last evening at the Four Seasons Hotel.

 "It wasn't an easy day. It was a very emotional one," Kotite said. "Even though I got some good news, it's never easy when coaches you work with and respect a great deal are let go.

 "Being head coach . . . it still hasn't set in, you know. Maybe tomorrow, maybe when I see my wife (Liz) and daughter (Alexandra), it will.

 "Right now, I'm just going to go through these 800 messages and get some sleep. I've got another long day tomorrow."

(This story was first published on January 9, 1991.)