The Joy Of Rex

New Jets coach Rex Ryan, Buddy's son, is doing it Dad's way, stoking the defense, instilling passion—and firing from the lip
June 21, 2009

There issomething you must know from the start: The Ryan boys will bring it. Theyalways have. If you wanted to run the football, they stuffed you. If you wantedto throw it, they hit your quarterback until he gargled blood. If you tried tofight them in a bar, they put you on your back. The Ryans are football coaches,and by god they are going to bring it like you're trying to deny them theirlivelihood. Because that's what they feel has happened to them, more than once.A Ryan boy gets up every day meaning to prove he belongs at the top.

First there wasBuddy. He coached for 30 years, including 19 in the NFL, before a pro team, theEagles in 1986, finally let him run the show. Buddy reinvented defensivefootball in the '80s, conceiving tactics that still resonate in meeting roomsaround the league, yet history recalls him as a grouchy whack job who promisedhis players bounties for knocking opponents out of the game and who punched afellow coach on the sideline. These days, at 75, he raises horses in the green,rolling hills of central Kentucky. One of them is named Fired For Winning.

Buddy's twin sonswere born in 1962 while he was on a recruiting trip as an assistant coach atthe University of Buffalo. ("He found out about the boys the next day,"says their mother, Doris Ryan. "Or maybe it was two days.") Twenty-fiveyears later Rex and Rob Ryan became coaches too, and now the family has fiveSuper Bowl rings: Buddy's two, as a defensive assistant for the Jets' legendarySuper Bowl III upset of the Colts and as the coordinator for the '85 Super BowlShuffle Bears; Rob's two, as a defensive assistant under Bill Belichick withthe 2001 and '03 Patriots; and Rex's one, as defensive line coach for the 2000Ravens.

It is a toweringfamily record that speaks for itself, but the Ryans are happy to provide avisceral explanation. "If we don't tell you about it, you might not hearthe truth," says Rob, now the defensive coordinator of the Browns."That's not bragging. That's reality. We take a lot of pride in our family.We're not the most political people, but we're great football coaches."

On Jan. 19 Rexwas hired as coach of the Jets, the franchise with which his father's NFLcareer began. At 46, he is the first Ryan to lead a team since Buddy was cannedin 1995 after two seasons with the Cardinals; his twin sons were assistants onthat team. "Best [assistants] I had," says Buddy. "People said itwas nepotism. Bulls---." Rex is motivated by a love of the game and itsplayers, a passion for the emotion and the intellect of teaching defense—and inno small part by past slights and omissions.

Such as when hisdad was fired by the Cardinals, and not one NFL team gave him or Rob aninterview. Rex took a job as the defensive coordinator at the University ofCincinnati. He would send a message to the NFL by crushing opponents, amind-set he adopted as a response to every perceived slight: "I'm going topunish people now. I'm going back to college, and I'm going to punishpeople."

Such as whenRavens coach Brian Billick passed over Rex in 2002 and promoted Mike Nolan, theteam's receivers coach, to replace Marvin Lewis as defensive coordinator:"Basically, I got f-----. Brian never knew me. Maybe I never fit his image.But it was a crock of s---." (Billick's take: "I felt we needed a moreveteran presence. But I knew Rex had coordinator capabilities. You don't spendfive minutes around Rex Ryan and not see his passion." Billick did promoteRex to coordinator three years later, when Nolan left to coach the 49ers.)

Such as two yearsago, when Rex interviewed with the Falcons and the Dolphins, as well as his ownteam, the Ravens, and none chose him to fill their head-coaching vacancy:"I'm going to take this out on the league."

It would beanother year before the Jets finally handed Rex the keys to a franchise.Replacing the stoic Eric Mangini (now the coach in Cleveland, and Rob's boss),Rex is a tornado after a deep freeze. That difference in coaching personalityis palpable at Jets headquarters in New Jersey.

Kerry Rhodesnoticed. In the Jets' first minicamp, the fifth-year safety tried to heed Rex'sinstruction to just be himself. "But every time I was ready to saysomething, I felt like I was biting my tongue, like I would have withMangini," says Rhodes. "I'm going to have to get used to this."

Alan Fanecanoticed too. A 12-year veteran who came to the Jets last season after a decadein Pittsburgh, Faneca says, "In my first meeting with Rex, he says, 'Let'shave some fun.' And then in the first practice, he misjudges a drill, and werun over the time schedule, so Rex apologizes to the team. He says, 'Rookiemistake.' We're not even in training camp yet, and he's already said a bunch ofthings you just don't hear from a head coach."

There is a lot ofthat in the Rex regime. In the Jets' first team meeting, he instructed thevideo crew to darken the room and play a brief YouTube clip entitled TheWorld's Longest Dead Snake, in which a camera pans the length of a supposedlydeceased reptile until, in the final seconds the snake—not dead—snaps at thecamera in a Gotcha! moment. "[Defensive end] Shaun Ellis just about leapedonto the guy's lap next to him," says defensive coordinator MikePettine.

Rex got his Junestarted by telling New York radio station WFAN that he won't defer to thePatriots, and, "I never came here to kiss Bill Belichick's rings." Thatfell in line with his response two weeks earlier, when it was suggested to himthat the best three defenses in the AFC in recent years had been Baltimore's,Pittsburgh's and New England's. "New England?" said Rex. "How manypeople are intimidated by that defense?"

And last week,during the Jets' final minicamp of the off-season, Rex was drawn into along-distance smackdown with Dolphins linebacker Channing Crowder, who blastedthe rookie head coach for his bravado. Rex opened a formal media briefing bysaying, "I've walked over tougher guys going to a fight than ChanningCrowder."

Remember: This isthe NFL, where "No comment" often passes for trash talk.

It is snowingsideways in central Kentucky, which is not unusual except that it's the thirdweek in May. An hour's drive from Churchill Downs, Buddy Ryan is caring for hisracehorses in a Shelbyville barn where he rents stall space. He owns fourbroodmares, four yearlings and six colts. They are not the type of horses bredto win the Triple Crown, but they keep a man busy just the same. Buddy, wearinga Jets windbreaker and limping because a horse stepped on his right foot a fewdays earlier, fills plastic feed tubs. He stops to point out a January foalhe's unofficially named Jetty.

Buddy moved herewith his second wife, Joanie, in 1995, after the Cardinals fired him, butretirement hasn't been easy. Joanie was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2001, andtwo years later Buddy moved her to an assisted-living facility in Louisville."She's not doing good," he says. "But we go to Mass everySunday." Buddy met Joanie while coaching with the Jets from '68 through'75; he and Doris had divorced in '66, after 11 years of marriage. In thewinter of 2005 Buddy fought off a case of encephalitis, but it left holes inhis memory.

His legacy,however, is solidly intact. First, there is the 46 defense, which reconfiguredthe football landscape in the early '80s. His teams attacked the line ofscrimmage with eight defenders in the box, denying the run and blitzingfrequently. It was the signature of the Bears' Super Bowl XX championship team.Second, there is the deep loyalty of his players. "Buddy was one of akind," says Doug Plank, the former Chicago free safety for whose uniformnumber the 46 was named and who is now a Jets assistant. "He touchedplayers mentally and physically. You did not want to fail him." And third,there are his sons, who have carried Buddy's best traits into the nextgeneration of the game.

The boys took along route to get there. After their parents' divorce, Rex and Rob (and brotherJimmy, who is six years older than they are and a lawyer in St. Louis) livedfor eight years with their mother in Toronto, where Doris, who had earned aPh.D in education administration, worked at the University of Toronto.

The twins tore upCanada in their own way. They tried to play football as fourth-graders, butDoris says they were thrown off the team after one of them drilled anotherplayer too hard for the locals' tastes. A college administrator but also anOklahoma girl, Doris ran onto the field and confronted the league president,saying, "This is a contact sport where I come from."

So they playedhockey (Rex was an all-star goalie) and baseball. Rex worked a paper route inthe morning and another in the afternoon; occasionally he attended school."Unless they were playing floor hockey or softball that day," says Rex,"I wasn't going."

In the fall of1977, when the twins were 14, Doris sent them to live with Buddy, who wasbeginning his second season as Bud Grant's defensive coordinator with theVikings. "It was time for them to be with their father," she says. Theylived with Buddy and Joanie for one year in Edina, Minn., and four years inChicago. Rex and Rob were ball boys for the Bears; Walter Payton was their bestfriend. They soaked up football every day, and in 1981 headed to SouthwesternOklahoma State to play college ball.

They weremarginally talented 215-pound defensive ends on the scout team who wreakedhavoc in scrimmages and in bars. "They got pushed around on the field, butthey scrapped," says Bob Mazie, the Southwestern coach during the Ryans'time on campus. "There were a lot of fights. Off the field too."

Rex says, "Ilooked at college as something that's supposed to be the best time of yourlife. We had a ball. And I got it out of my system." Rex eventually earneda master's in physical education in 1988 while an assistant at EasternKentucky, his first coaching job. (In the middle of all the carousing, he methis future wife, Michelle; they've been married 22 years and have twochildren.)

Even throughoutthe hell-raising in college, both Ryan boys paid attention to their footballand plotted their future as coaches. Buddy knew firsthand what coaching coulddo to a man's life and tried to steer his sons away from the profession. Butthey insisted, and in the spring of 1987, while he was coach of the Eagles,Buddy went to Oklahoma, rented a hotel conference room and taught his sons the46 using a black marker on a paper easel. They gave as good as they got."They knew plenty," says Buddy. "So I told 'em to go get somejobs."

Rex went fromEastern Kentucky to New Mexico Highlands to Morehead State—"The bigtime," he says—before joining his brother and his dad in Arizona. The Cardswent 8--8 in the Ryans' first year and ranked third in the NFL in totaldefense, but they slipped to 4--12 and last in scoring defense in '95. That gotBuddy fired.

Rex went to workunder coach Rick Minter at the University of Cincinnati. Early in two-a-days,Minter called for a 9-on-7 inside running game drill, with the two safeties onthe field essentially as defensive props, not to tackle or be blocked. "Onthe first rep, Rex calls a free safety blitz up the A gap," says Minter."He just stones the running back. I say, 'Rex, my gosh, it's a 9-on-7drill.' Rex says, 'Coach, we've got to set the tone around here.'"

Three yearslater, after a stop at Oklahoma, Rex was hired by Billick to coach the Ravens'line, joining in the creation of one of the most potent defenses in recent NFLhistory.

Statistics tellone story. Only once in Rex's 10 seasons in Baltimore did the Ravens rank lowerthan sixth in the NFL in total defense. "Trust me," he says. "I'llstop your run. Say what you want about me, but if I want to, I'll stop yourrun." The Super Bowl XXXV champions allowed only 165 points, fewest in NFLhistory for a 16-game season. During the Colts' run to the Super Bowl XLI titlethree years ago, the Ravens held Peyton Manning's offense to five field goalsin a 15--6 divisional-round playoff loss. "We dominated them," sayslinebacker Bart Scott, one of two defensive starters Rex brought to the Jetsfrom Baltimore, along with safety Jim Leonhard, this off-season. "Rex wasdialed in."

Emotions tellanother story. Rex not only helped build—and eventually lead—the Ravens'defense, but much like his father he was an innovator who cultivated loyaltyand attitude. Rex's schemes have built on Buddy's devotion to pressure.("The more you hit the quarterback, the better you're going to do,"says Rob.) Baltimore's defensive playbook was endless. Faneca saw it from theother side as a Steelers offensive lineman. "Studying for those guys, therewas always something new," he says. "You were always trying to analyzenot only what they were doing but what they might do."

There was more.Plank says of Buddy's scheme, "It starts with a common mind-set. Andwithout that, the playbook the Ryan family has used for 30 years isirrelevant."

Scott concurs."Attitude can be developed by scheme," he says. "Rex's scheme—withthe blitzing and the attacking—lets you set the tone."

The Ravens did itwith passion. "Coaches are mostly pains in the ass," says Rob Burnett,who was a nine-year veteran at defensive tackle when Rex arrived in Baltimorein '99. "Rex has a humanity to him that most coaches don't have. It's rarefor guys to want to win for their coach in this league. But we would havejumped on a grenade for that guy."

In many ways Rexis Buddy Lite. Mike Nolan's promotion to coordinator in 2002 chapped him, buthe worked relentlessly for Nolan and learned from him. "When a decision wasmade, and Rex disagreed, he would give it to you with both barrels," saysBillick. "Then he would jump right on the company bandwagon." Rex willtell you in a heartbeat that he learned volumes about stunting from MarvinLewis and even more about the 3--4 front and two-gapping from Nolan.

Still, Rexexpected a head-coaching offer long before the Jets'. He even dropped weight,cut his hair tighter and got his teeth whitened after the 2006 season. No luck."The frustration mounted," says his wife, Michelle. "It was visibleat home. His work ethic never diminished, but away from the field his quick witwas gone. Instead of laughing with me and the boys, he was quiet and subdued.He was not the happy, charismatic man that I had known. It was like the joy ofcoaching was gone."

He interviewedwith the Rams and the Jets on the same day in January and felt a fresh calmthat comes with being ready. "The way I handled myself," says Ryan,"I knew I was going to get one of those jobs.

"This is myshot. We've got no excuses here. This team can win and win now. That's why Icame here."

The joy ofcoaching is back. The pristine, green-and-white hallways of Jets Central arealive with the new coach's vibe. "You can feel the culture," saysScott.

There is a Ryanboy in town.

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"New England?" says Ryan of his new AFC Eastfoe. "How many people are intimidated by that defense?"

Buddy went to Oklahoma and taught his sons the 46."They knew plenty," he says. "So I told 'em to go getjobs."

"Coaches are mostly pains in the ass," saysBurnett. "Rex has a humanity that most coaches don't have."

TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPHYSETTING THE TONE In minicamp this month Ryan (in black) fostered unity and got a good look at rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez (6). THREE PHOTOSPhotographs by MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPHY BELIEVERS Scott (57) and Leonhard (36), standouts on the Ravens' D, followedRyan (above, center) to the Jets. PHOTOROB CARR/APTWIN FATES From scout team players in college, Rex (left) and Rob have risen high in the NFL coaching ranks. TWO PHOTOSCOURTESY OF SOUTHWESTERN OKLAHOMA STATE UNIVERSITY[See caption above] PHOTOPhotograph by MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPHYFAMILY TRADITION After 22 years of paying his dues, Rex takes over the team that gave Buddy his first coaching shot in the NFL.