Buddy Ryan ordered his payers to flatten an opponent’s kicker. He made jokes about Jimmy Johnson and challenged Tom Landry. He punched a fellow assistant coach on the sideline, then said that coach would be selling insurance in two years.
He was brusque, blunt, rude and unapologetic.
Football will miss him.
Ryan died late Monday night. He was 85.
I don’t know how Ryan’s personality would have played today. Characters seem to have shorter shelf-lives when everything they say or do is parsed in real time.
In the 1980s and ’90s, football fans often couldn’t wait to open the morning newspaper to see what Ryan had said, or done.
Because he said things like this, about a player: “Trade him for a six-pack. It doesn’t even need to be cold.’’
He also said of Cris Carter: “All he does is catch touchdowns.’’
ESPN’s Chris Berman used that as a punchline during Carter’s career, conveniently ignoring context.
Carter played for Ryan in Philadelphia, and made a mess of his life. Ryan was right: Carter lacked the discipline to become a complete receiver, so his value was primarily outleaping opponents in the end zone.
When the Vikings claimed Carter off waivers during the 1990 season, Carter arrived at Winter Park as the same surly personality who had worn out his welcome in Philadelphia.
In 1991, during his first training camp with the Vikings, I asked Carter to talk. He told me no, then approached me the next day to say: “I’ll tell you everything. If I like the way you write it, we’re good. If I don’t, I’ll punch you in the eye.’’
We sat in the lounge of Gage Hall on the grounds of what was then known as Mankato State. He talked nonstop for an hour.
Given Carter’s reputation, I expected him to blame Ryan for his problems. He didn’t. He said Ryan had made the right decision in cutting him.
Carter became a Hall of Fame receiver with the Vikings. Had he stayed in Philadelphia, he might have continued his substance abuse. During Carter’s Hall of Fame speech, he thanked Ryan.
Ryan became famous for coaching the 1985 Chicago Bears defense that won a Super Bowl, but I’ll always remember him for the 1989 season, when he was the Eagles’ head coach.
The first professional sports team I covered daily was the 1989 Dallas Cowboys, who featured Jerry Jones, Jimmy Johnson and Troy Aikman in their first season with the franchise.
Johnson looked at his roster during the preseason, determined he had no chance of winning and decided to use the season as a mass tryout.
That’s what fooled Mike Lynn in 1989. He thought the players he sent to Dallas in the Herschel Walker trade would impress Johnson. Lynn assumed that Johnson had to win to keep his job. In fact, Johnson was playing the long game, and he traded Walker for the high draft picks that were tied to the players, not the players themselves. That’s how the Walker trade turned into a disaster for the Vikings.
The NFL had yet to recognize Johnson’s shrewdness, and Ryan in particular enjoyed figuratively mussing Johnson’s famously immovable hair.
Ryan publicly said the Cowboys should have hired an NFL assistant, instead of a college coach like Johnson. He ordered players to flatten Luis Zendejas, the Cowboys’ kicker. His defense gleefully bludgeoned Aikman.
My friend Tim Kawakami covered the Eagles and developed a strong relationship with Ryan. This was before e-mail, so every day Tim and I would talk on the phone to share what Buddy and Jimmy had said about each other.
Tim, now a columnist with the San Jose Mercury News, left Philly for the Los Angeles Times. When Ryan visited LA, he asked Tim to find an Italian restaurant with an extensive wine list.
When they were seated, the waiter brought Ryan a list as thick as “War and Peace.”
Ryan scanned it and decided.
“I’ll take a bottle of red,’’ Buddy said. “And a bottle of white.’’