He is a 56-year-old man in an aquamarine running suit. A series of stylish white stripes cuts through the aquamarine. The stripes seem to accentuate Buddy Ryan's round shape, putting back the pounds that a certain liquid diet made him lose. He is a 56-year-old beach ball rolling across the floor of the Philadelphia Eagles' locker room toward a table containing a buffet lunch. The beach ball has gray hair, bifocals with metal frames and little blood vessels that have risen with age on its checks.
"Hey, Buddy," a voice from one locker shouts. "You get a new suit?"
"Nice suit," another voice says.
October 29, 1990
Heh-heh-heh. Buddy laughs. Isn't this where he belongs? He is a man's man, not only in a man's world, but in a man's world he created. His men. His team. His place. Heh-heh-heh. He has a mound of food on his paper plate and a mound of love in this room. He brought these guys together. He bleeds for them. They bleed for him. They bleed for each other.
Isn't this what he promised nearly five years ago when he became the Eagles' coach? The doubters and the bobblers and the weak of heart have been dismissed with scorn. He has control. Total control. He came here when this team stunk, and he just about had to rip everything down before he could rebuild it to his own tough specifications. Five years of hard work. Five years of hard and noisy work. The end result is the love.
"People have the wrong idea about Buddy," says linebacker Al Harris. "The public doesn't know. I mean, he came to my wedding this spring. It was the same weekend as a scouting combine in Indianapolis, which was an important time because of all the juniors coming out in the draft. Buddy sent the coaches instead. He didn't have to come—I would have understood—but he did. That's Buddy."
"He sent a limo for me at the airport when I came back," says All-Pro tight end Keith Jackson, a late arrival this year after his unsuccessful contract holdout. "I wasn't surprised. I kind of expected something like that from Buddy."
Does any other team in pro football have its own bowling league, with 36 of the 47 players getting together on Monday nights? (The standings are posted near running back Keith Byars's locker.) Does any other team laugh together, sing together and get mad together as much as this one? One player is running after a teammate with a mop covered in shaving cream. There's Jim McMahon, the reserve quarterback, playing dominoes on the floor with two other guys.
This is Buddy's team. This is Buddy's vision. He wanted his own platoon filled with his own specially selected men, men he gladly would have taken into combat when he was an 18-year-old Army master sergeant so long, long ago in the Korean War. Heh-heh-heh. This is exactly what he has.
There is only one problem. The vision started this season with four losses in the first six games. The offense has stuttered under Buddy's new coordinator, Rich Kotite. The defense hasn't made the big plays like it used to. Buddy is in trouble.
"I don't want to talk about the contract," he says. "I don't want to talk about any conspiracies. I don't want to talk. Maybe, if we were 9-1, O.K.?"
Buddy not talking is like...fill in the blanks. Pavarotti not singing? Carl Lewis not running? Ed McMahon not explaining the intricacies of the American Family Publishers Sweepstakes? For five years in Philadelphia, and even before that as defensive coordinator of the Chicago Bears, he has been the NFL's master of bombast, invective and general all-around bluster. He is Roseanne Barr's father. He is Archie Bunker's next-door neighbor in Queens. He is Jackie Gleason's spiritual descendant. (Bang! Zoom! To the moon, Alice!) He has demeaned opponents, feuded with their coaches, cut a player he said was worth "about two beers...and they don't have to be cold ones."
He has called Eagle owner Norman Braman, the auto-sales mogul who vacations at his summer home in Cap-d' Ail, "the guy in France." He has called Harry Gamble, the Eagles' president and chief operating officer, Braman's "illegitimate son." He has his own TV show and radio talk show. He even has a 900 number, which, according to the ad, allows fans to listen to Buddy's "uncensored opinions" for 99 cents a minute.
Not talking? For five years he has been as forceful as one of those real estate evangelists on late-night television, promising fortunes for housewives in their spare time. Now that the market has fallen, he doesn't have much to say. The early season has been a bungle. The fireflies of controversy have begun to blink as they always do around a loser. They blink faster around a loser who has specialized in alienation.
The contract is his weakness. He is in his last year and Braman—"the guy in France"—already has said there will be no negotiations on a new contract until the end of the season. The local media are calling the situation the Elevator War: The Fourth Floor Against the First Floor. The Eagles' executive offices are on the fourth floor of Veterans Stadium. The locker room is on the first.
All parties have issued the proper denials of trouble, but Jackson dragged the situation into the spotlight when he returned—in the limo sent by Buddy—from his holdout two games into the season. He said he had come back after the two defeats only "to save Buddy's job." He said he heard there was a "conspiracy" in the front office to make Buddy fail and then fire him. "Was that just a lot of talk at the time?" Jackson is asked now.
"Oh, no," he replies. "I heard things said by people that Buddy would be fired."
"What people? Fans? Friends?"
"Oh, no. People up there. High up there. Call it "informed sources.' You guys have your 'informed sources.' I have mine. I came back because I want Buddy to be the coach here as long as I'm here. I love Buddy."
The line on the Buddy Success Chart has traveled in an upward progression. He arrived in 1986 in the substantial afterglow of the Bears' 15-1 season and their 46-10 wipeout of the New England Patriots in that year's Super Bowl. His feud with Chicago coach Mike Ditka was a grand Super Bowl sideshow. The Bears' defense carried Buddy off the field at the end of the game. Ditka said that "never again will an assistant coach get as much credit as Buddy Ryan got." The credit got Buddy the Philadelphia job.
"Mr. Braman read an article about him in The New York Times," says Gamble. "It was sometime during the season. He said, 'Read this. This guy sounds interesting.' The idea was that if a guy could build half a team so well, why couldn't he build a whole team? The problem was that we couldn't even talk to him until the week off before the Super Bowl. We worked things out. I remember the day we signed the contract [two days after the Super Bowl]. It was the day that rocket blew up. The Challenger? We didn't even know about it because we'd been working on Buddy's contract."
Buddy actually was the third choice. The Eagles had made abortive attempts to sign Don Shula's son David, who was the Miami Dolphins' 26-year-old assistant head coach, and Jim Mora, who had won a pair of USFL championships in 1984 and '85 as coach of the Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars. This did not matter to Buddy. He had been a career assistant, working his way from a high school job in Gainsville, Texas, through three college assistantships and three more in the pros. He arrived in Philly with his vision, which he was not afraid to share. How good would the Eagles be? They would win every game in their division during his first season. How soon would they be in the Super Bowl? Within five years. The bombast began.
"Anybody who knew a damn thing about football knew we didn't have a chance in '86," he said later. "But a lot of people swallowed it when I said we'd win 'em all in the NFC East. I knew what would happen. They put all their heat on me. They played right into my hands. They put the heat on the guy who could handle it. It's a good system—if you've got the guts to do it."
That '86 team won only one game in the division and finished 5-10-1. And Buddy dispersed some of the heat to his players, especially the ones he sent home. Referring to the roster moves before the start of the season, Buddy said, "My wife could have made these final cuts." He was not the locker room figure of today because these were not his people. Not yet. He was a meanspirited tornado.
"He came in and benched me for three games," says wide receiver Kenny Jackson. "I hated him. I couldn't see what he was doing. He was checking people out. He called everyone by a number. He said, 'Number 81 better catch the ball.' That was me. The second game of the season, it turned out, we played the Bears. Afterward guys from the Bears' defense came up to him and started hugging him. I couldn't believe it. There was Mike Singletary, probably the most respected player in pro football, hugging Buddy Ryan. I said, 'What are these guys? Crazy?' It took me time to figure out what he was doing. He was looking for his people."
Jackson is now in his third tour under Buddy, after having retired briefly in 1988 and spending '89 with the Houston Oilers, who signed him as a Plan B free agent. Cut by the Oilers in the preseason, Jackson was operating a delicatessen he owns in Camden, N.J., when Buddy appeared at the deli two games into the season. Buddy said, right there at Kenny's Korner Deli, eating an order of Honey Dipped Chicken, that he wanted Kenny to come back to the Eagles again. Kenny came. Just like that. For Buddy.
Buddy began to get close to his players during his second year in Philadelphia. That's also when the split with management began to develop. The NFL players went on strike, and Buddy sort of went with them. He took their side. He said he didn't want to coach the dreamy-eyed replacements—and he just about didn't, standing at the end of the practice field, saying nothing. He told the regular players either to stay out together or come back together, nothing in between. The replacements went 0-3. The regulars went 7-5. Randall Cunningham became the starting quarterback. The team's path to the future was laid. So was Buddy's.
"Sure [Braman] got mad," Buddy later said. "He said the NFL had been good to me, and why did I say those things during the strike. I told him it was all true. I'd worked too hard to get them where they were to let that strike destroy what had taken months to build. But that's all been overdone. The players liked me before the strike. Maybe they didn't realize I'd hang my butt out there for 'em, but they knew I was with 'em."
The finish in the third year was 10-6, a division title and a loss in the playoffs to the accursed Bears in the fog at Soldier Field. Last season the Eagles went 11-5 and again lost in the playoffs, this time to the Los Angeles Rams at home. After the game, Buddy referred to what he called L.A.'s "junior high school defense," to which one of the Rams replied that "sometimes junior high defenses are tough, especially when you're playing elementary school guys." Offensive coordinator Ted Plumb left in the off-season.
This brought Buddy to the present, the fifth year of the five-year contract. The opener was a 27-20 loss to the New York Giants, probably to be expected. The second game was a stunner, a 23-21 loss to the Phoenix Cardinals. The Eagles had been 13-point favorites. Keith Jackson returned (in the limo). The Eagles beat the Rams' junior high defense in Los Angeles 27-21. Everything was right again. But then the Indianapolis Colts rolled 82 yards down the field at the end of the game to beat Philadelphia 23-22 at the Vet. Sportswriters noted that Braman stayed in his private box afterward for a long, long time. Not happy. Buddy said he could not sleep after the game. The fireflies were blinking like crazy.
And the crowd at the Vet for the next game booed the Eagles relentlessly. So Buddy's team won one for itself. The Eagles scored 17 points in the last four minutes to squeak out a 32-24 victory over the stumbling Minnesota Vikings. They talked about how their luck had changed. Not so. The Eagles lost again on Sunday, 13-7 to the Washington Redskins at RFK Stadium. A touchdown with 43 seconds left prevented the first shutout of the Buddy Era.
"What you have to realize is how emotional people are around here about the Eagles," team broadcaster Merrill Reese says. "Emotions are tied to the Eagles more than they are to any of the other teams. Every Eagle win is a celebration. Every Eagle loss is a tragedy."
Will Braman stick with a Buddy who does not win? Will Braman stick with a Buddy who does not win enough? How much is enough? The talk shows on WIP, the local all-sports radio station, are filled with the debate. For Buddy. Against Buddy. The daily newspapers have pro-Buddy columnists and anti-Buddy columnists. Can Buddy win the big one? Can Buddy ever get to the big one? Didn't Buddy promise to arrive at the big one this year? What will happen?
Gamble says that waiting until the end of the year to discuss a contract is not unusual in the NFL. Braman says he will give no more interviews on the subject. Everyone else in Philadelphia says just about everything. There is little middle ground where Buddy is concerned.
What will happen?
He does not look so heavy in his green shorts and white golf shirt. He is wearing the black Eagle cap with the green bill, advertised as the Buddy Cap. (When the Eagles win, the cap is a hot item in Philly stores. It's not so hot when they lose.) He twirls his whistle in his right hand as he watches the end of practice on a field across from the Spectrum. His team looks invincible. Then again, all teams look invincible on a practice field.
"We'll be all right," he tells the local writers as they gather around him to pick up some daily notes. "We've started slow every year I've been here. We were 1-3 once and won the division. We've been 1-3 every year except one, and then we were 2-2."
His voice is soft. The most controversial thing he says is that he doesn't like the rain that has begun to fall. It is hard to imagine that this guy is in the middle of all this shouting. It is hard to imagine him shouting. He could be anybody's grandfather. The rain starts him walking toward his car. Shouting? He doesn't even want to talk. Not about his own situation.
"Nah," he says. "That's not what I should be doing right now. I should be trying to win football games."
There is no laugh. Heh-heh-heh. The warmth of the locker room is missing. The beach ball seems curiously deflated.