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They don’t make coaches like Buddy Ryan anymore

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Buddy Ryan was a bully, a tyrant, and an egotistical maniac. We loved him.

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Buddy Ryan was a bully and a tyrant, an egotistical maniac who gave two shits about most of the football players that crossed his path. That included guys like “Big Fatso,” number 28, and number 80. Buddy didn’t care enough to know names. You got a problem, rookie? Rub some dirt on it or get the hell out. And yet… a more deified coach in Philadelphia there isn’t. For good reason too, Buddy was ingeniously clever, a gut truster, a mind speaker. He villainized himself and his opponents, spit in the face of authority, and we absolutely loved him for it.

They don’t make coaches like Buddy Ryan anymore. Scratch that. They’re not allowed to make coaches like Buddy Ryan anymore. Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down and once-upon-a-time a Philly sports columnist, once introduced the anti-hero perfectly:

When Larry Sullivant saw blood spreading on the back of his hand, he was glad.

It had been a long, hot afternoon scrimmage, and this new coach, a squat tyrant with a flat-top crew cut, had accused him of being a slacker and had been riding him hard. Sullivant jogged off the football field anticipating relief.

Sure enough, the coach inspected the gash and said: “Looks bad. It`ll need doctoring.”

Then he grabbed a handful of dirt, spit on the wound and pressed the dirt over it.

“That`ll do you,” the coach said. “Now get back out there.”

Years later, Sullivant looked back fondly at his high school coach, “Oh, the ways he brought the toughness out of us. He walked up to me one day and said, ‘The boys told me you think you can whip me. Me and you are gonna go find out.’ Man, I'd never said that to anyone, but the more he prodded me, the more I wanted to knock the fire out of his ass. We got into our stances. He knocked me back so hard, I kissed the moon. He just laughed. He said, ‘Remember, son: Skill and intelligence always win out over ignorance and superstition.’ “

Sullivant held no grudge. He was merely a benefactor of Buddy’s carefully crafted brand of ball. “Buddy saved me,” he said. “My father had just had a stroke, was incapacitated in a wheelchair, and I was a 16-year-old kid at Gainesville High with no money for college, no self-confidence, no idea who I was… Buddy called all over the country, sent film everywhere. Got scholarships for 13 of the 14 in my graduating class, and half of them had no right to one. Because he cared so much, I got a scholarship. Became a lawyer and a district judge. He changed the course of lives. Somebody will bless him for that.”

Buddy had an odd way of showing he cared. But he did, when he wanted to. In 1989 Cris Carter was sentenced to three years’ probation, fined $15,000, and ordered to perform 600 hours of community service after being found guilty for lying to a grand jury in the investigation of agents who were convicted of racketeering and mail fraud. The Judge said to Carter, "I’m not going to send you to jail. You can do something for society better than anyone else I know can do." But Carter was addicted to cocaine and ecstasy. He tested positive and was warned by Ryan to get clean or be gone. Carter tested positive again, and Ryan was true to his word. He wanted Carter to do more than score touchdowns.

Carter wasn’t jaded. He expressed immense gratitude to Buddy in his Hall of Fame speech, “The Philadelphia Eagles’ organization, they took a chance on me. Buddy Ryan drafted me, and he tried to grow me up in the league. What Buddy Ryan did was the best thing that ever happened for me when he cut me and told me I couldn't play for his football team.”

And there’s the dichotomy. You either loved Buddy or hated him. It was hard to do the former, but it was really easy to do the latter.

You could ask legendary Dallas coach Tom Landry, who was victimized by Buddy running up the score against the Cowboys at Veteran’s Stadium. The Eagles were in victory formation with less than 30 seconds remaining in the game. Randall Cunningham faked a knee, smoothly took three steps back and tossed a ball down the left sideline intended for Mike Quick. Quick drew a defensive pass interference penalty, and on the next play, with two seconds remaining, Keith Byars carried the ball into the endzone.

You could ask another Dallas coach, Jimmy Johnson, who pitched a fit after losing to the Eagles, his eleventh loss in twelve games in his first year as head coach. He accused Buddy of placing bounties on Troy Aikman and Luis Zendejas. “Why in the hell would I place a bounty on him?” asked Buddy. “I just cut him last week.”

You could ask any of the players victimized by the “46” defense, a scheme so unabashedly built to attack the quarterback. Phil Simms once threw an interception against the Eagles and immediately saw ten players converge on him. He was knocked down once, twice, three times. Attack the quarterback, Buddy told them.

He was the Bill Belichick of his day, always pushing the NFL rules to the limit. Once, when protecting a 10-9 lead against Minnesota, he rolled out his “Polish punt team,” a max protect with fourteen players. When properly employed, it yielded a five yard penalty for too many men and wasted precious seconds off the clock. On this day, however, the referees failed to throw a flag and the punt was successful. When later asked about the play, Buddy admitted the blunder. “There should have been 15,” he said. “I’ve been in the league a long time and I know the rules. We throw a pass in the air off punt formation and they’ll change the rules. They’ll probably change this rule too.”

And he was right.

In the end, this is how he should be remembered: Buddy didn’t follow the rules. He made sure the rules followed him. How romantic an idea. In Philadelphia, where the Eagles football team is sewn into the fabric of being, that’s almost as good as winning a Super Bowl.