Buddy Ryan died on Tuesday at age 82. I spent a couple of days hanging out in Phoenix before the Vikings played his first Cardinals team on Oct. 2, 1994. Here's a column that appeared in the Star Tribune:
PHOENIX -- A group of investors and bar-restaurant operators opened a sports bar called Majerle's in downtown Phoenix a few years back. The name on the awning belongs to Dan Majerle of the Suns. Majerle signed on for a percentage of the profits and makes regular appearances, and the nightly crowds indicate it has been a financial success.
Buddy Ryan was hired as the coach and general manager of the NFL Cardinals in February. Buddy came in with full bluster, promising an immediate winner. This created such an outpouring of enthusiasm that Majerle's investors came to Ryan and offered to put his name on an establishment.
Buddy Ryan's Sports Bar and Grill opened a few months back, just around the corner from Majerle's. The new bar was jammed throughout the summer. If Ryan happened to stop by, the crowd would roar its approval and call out salutes, such as: "You tell 'em, Buddy" and "Did you punch any coaches today, Buddy?"
Amidst all of this anticipation and good humor, plans were made for regular Thursday night appearances by a player and a coach during the season. They would answer the patrons' questions and accept congratulations on those victories that Ryan had promised.
The exhibition schedule had started with an overwhelming victory against Buddy's old rivals, the Dallas Cowboys. The new sports bar was bursting with people - talking Cardinals, talking turnaround from the franchise's perennial standing as one of the worst in professional sports.
The next three exhibition games were losses in which the Cardinals' offense was pathetic. "The newspapers and the people calling the talk shows were saying, `It doesn't mean anything, they're only exhibitions,' " patron Brian Felty said.
The season opened against the Rams in Anaheim Stadium. Ryan promoted the game by saying the Cardinals' players were better and their coaching was better than that of the Rams. Los Angeles won the game and Joe Vitt, the Rams' assistant head coach, went looking for Ryan at midfield.
"Where is he?" Vitt shouted. "If we play him 16 times a year, we could be undefeated."
Back in Phoenix, the Cardinals' newfound zealots were told not to panic. "Everyone said it was the first-game jitters - with all the hype about Ryan - and now the Cardinals would settle down and start playing some real Buddy Ball," Felty said.
The New York Giants came to Arizona, the offense was again hapless and the Cardinals lost. Steve Beuerlein, a popular athlete in these parts, was benched in the second half and replaced by a futile Jim McMahon.
"People were starting to worry," Felty said. "They didn't want to talk about it."
The Cardinals went to Cleveland for Week 3. They were whipped 32-0. McMahon took a severe beating - similar to the thumping he took for the Vikings in Giants Stadium last January - and was knocked out of action.
Jay Schroeder, a washout with the Raiders, Washington and Cincinnati, became Ryan's third quarterback in three weeks. Schroeder will start today against the Vikings, indicating Ryan's desperation.
"The talk shows have gone crazy," Felty said. "All you hear is people ripping Buddy. Personally, I think he sold us a bill of goods. Look around here. This crowd tells you how popular Buddy's football team is in this town right now."
Felty was sitting on a stool at Buddy Ryan's bar, next to his friend Paul Bonin. The two 30-year-olds were among not more than 40 people at this good-sized establishment, waiting for the weekly appearance by a coach (defensive coordinator Ronnie Jones) and a player (linebacker Eric Hill). A DJ from Power 92 was giving away hats and T-shirts and trying to muster some enthusiasm.
Jones was soon sitting on a small stage, reciting the statistics that have the Cardinals' defense rated No. 1 in the league. Hill talked of the great two weeks of practice - including a bye week - that the Cardinals had gone through in preparation for the Vikings.
Bye week? "Bye is a two-touchdown favorite over the Cardinals," a local sports columnist suggested.
Across the bar, a woman said into the DJ's microphone: "It's a new coach, a new team. Why doesn't everyone show support and give them time?" A couple of patrons applauded. The rest looked at the woman as though they were Rush Limbaugh fans and she was defending
Later, Jones reminded the audience that most championship teams had started slowly - "The Cowboys were 1-15 with Jimmy Johnson" - and said: "I guarantee we're going to have a championship team here."
This was all Bonin could take. He asked for the microphone and said: "That's quite a guarantee. Do you really think you're going to be here next year?"
This was a reference to a popular theory - that Bidwill will see the folly of hiring Ryan and run the whole bunch out after one lousy season. Jones did not like the question.
"I know I'm going to be here next year," he said, angrily. "I don't know if you'll be here, but I will."
After the Cleveland abomination, the Arizona Republic did a panic-in-the-streets story on the Cardinals. Dave Wilcox, 25, said: "Everyone said, `We've got a winner in town,' when Ryan got here. When does that flight get in? I'm still waiting for it."
It is such open season on Ryan that Chris Cobbs of the Phoenix Gazette wrote of the coach's porcine stature. In training camp, Ryan had cut 350-pound Keith Rucker and called him "Fatso" in the process.
Sally Anderson of the Arizona State Fitness Center told Cobbs: "If Ryan wants his players in such great shape, why is he so out of shape?"
Outside the walls of the Cardinals' practice complex, Tom Fitzpatrick is about the only person in town to vociferously defend Ryan. Fitzpatrick was hired from Chicago to write for the establishment papers in Phoenix. One of the first columns he wrote was a hatchet job on Barry Goldwater.
"What's next?" a colleague asked. "Are you going to rip the Grand Canyon?"
Fitzpatrick wound up at New Times, a successful alternative paper. From there, he remains the most opinionated newspaper voice in Phoenix. He wrote this week:
"Buddy Ryan is a better football coach and a better man than all his detractors rolled into one big fat jelly roll. . . . The locals are hot on his trail. They want nothing less than Ryan's scalp. They also want to humiliate him and turn him into a joke. Some even have the temerity to suggest a rehiring of that greasy-haired cheerleader, Joe Bugel.
"The surprising thing is that everyone seems to think it would be a terrible injustice to fire Beuerlein and his $2 million salary. The wonder is not that he was the Cardinals' No. 1 quarterback, but that he is in the league at all. He can't run. He can't throw adequately. On top of that, he's a whiner. Ryan called the shot correctly on Beuerlein."
For Buddy Ryan these days, it's nice to have a friend in Phoenix, even if there is only one.
ADDENDUM: The Arizona defense shut down the Vikings and Warren Moon 17-7 that Sunday for Buddy’s first victory with the Cardinals. He finished 8-8 that season.
In 1995, the Cardinals went 1-7 in the second half of the schedule for a 4-12 record and Ryan was fired. That was Buddy’s last job in NFL.