Eagles get to see Buddy Ryan's boy Rex in action as New York Jets head coach

Rex Ryan, now coaching the Jets, was a ball boy when they won their only Super Bowl 40 years ago.
Rex Ryan, now coaching the Jets, was a ball boy when they won their only Super Bowl 40 years ago.
Posted: September 03, 2009

CORTLAND, N.Y. - In so many ways, he is his father's son. The chip on Rex Ryan's shoulder might not be quite as big as the one his old man lugged around all those years, but it's there.

So is the old man's you-got-a-winner-in-town cockiness, and the old man's brutal honesty, though he has a way to go to match the red-alert level of brutal honesty of Buddy Ryan, who, when asked to evaluate the play of Eagles first-round bust Kevin Allen, replied, "I guess he's OK if you're just looking for somebody to stand around and kill grass."

"Dad had blunt-force trauma," said Ryan, the first-year coach of the Jets, who will host the Eagles tonight at the Meadowlands in the final preseason game for both teams.

"But I grew up a lot different than he did. He was in the Korean War when he was 18 years old as a master sergeant. We'd probably be a lot different, too, if we had to do that. He was used to leading guys in a battle for their lives. So he probably wasn't the most patient guy."

Rex isn't the most patient guy, either. He still bristles about past career injustices, like being passed over for the Baltimore Ravens' defensive-coordinator job in 2002 in favor of Mike Nolan. He would eventually get the job 3 years later when Nolan left to become the San Francisco 49ers' head coach, and admits he learned a lot working under Nolan. But he still felt he should have gotten the job.

"To get passed over was an absolute joke," said Ryan, who at the time was 3 years into his 6-year stint as as the Ravens' defensive-line coach. "Brian [Billick, the Ravens' head coach] knew how I felt about it. He said, 'Well, that's why you're you.'

"At the same time, it ended up being one of the best things to ever happen to me because I got around Mike Nolan, who was a 3-4 guy. I was able to take what I learned from Mike about the 3-4, incorporate it into the '46' and the 4-3 and come up with a hybrid of all of them.

"I was a better coordinator because I served under Mike Nolan and didn't get promoted when I thought I should have been. But I know I could have done a great job. Like I told Mike back then, if Bill Arnsparger [Don Shula's defensive coordinator with the Colts and Dolphins] were sitting there, or if Buddy Ryan was sitting there, I'm still going to think I got hosed. But give me a couple of days and I'll be the best assistant you ever had."

When Ryan finally got his chance to run the Ravens' defense after Nolan's departure, he made the most of the opportunity. In two of the last three seasons, the Ravens finished either first or second in the league in total defense, fewest points allowed and most takeaways.

After the Ravens' unexpected march to the AFC Championship Game last season, the 46-year-old Ryan was a hot head-coaching commodity. Ended up with his choice of not one, but two jobs - the Jets and the St. Louis Rams. It just might have been the easiest decision he ever made in his life.

"I remember talking to my dad after I got interviewed here and in St. Louis," said Ryan, whose twin brother Rob is Cleveland's defensive coordinator. "I never had to tell him where I really wanted to be. He knew I wanted to be the coach of the Jets."

He knew because there is a history with the Jets for both father and son. A wonderful, rich history. Buddy spent 8 years as a Jets assistant on Weeb Ewbank's staff from 1968 to '75. He was the linebackers coach on the team that in January 1969 upset the Baltimore Colts, 16-7, in Super Bowl III.

Years later, even after winning another Super Bowl as the defensive coordinator of the Chicago Bears, even after becoming the Eagles' head coach, Buddy's fondest memories were the ones with Ewbank and the Jets.

"Every one of these [NFL head-coaching] jobs are special," Rex Ryan said. "But this one here, that was my team when I was a kid growing up. The Jets were my favorite team with my dad coaching there and me being the ball boy. Some of my first recollections are of being a ball boy here and watching the Jets play. I mean, I remember Super Bowl III like it was yesterday.

"I remember how George Sauer had a huge game. I remember Matt Snell was phenomenal. I remember him running over Rick Volk. I remember Jimmy Orr being open and Earl Morrall couldn't find him.

"I don't think Buddy could be happier [that Rex is coaching the Jets]. He would love for us to do what they accomplished. To win a Super Bowl in any town would be unbelievable. But to do it in this town, wow!"

The Rams would have been the "safe" job to take. Coaching a football team in a baseball city. Smaller expectations. Much less intense media scrutiny. But Ryan knew where he wanted to be.

"When it was all kind of happening and he knew through his agent that he was going to have his choice of both jobs, he called me into his office and asked me which one [he should take]," said Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine Jr., who had been the Ravens' linebackers coach under Ryan. (Pettine is the former North Penn and William Tennant coach and son of the legendary former Central Bucks West coach.)

"We both looked at each other and, I don't even know if it was a tenth of a second [before they both said Jets]."

Said Ryan: "I know there's more attention paid to you here, more scrutiny. You're not under the radar. It's a big story. The media is two to three times what it is in other cities. Plus, we're in a division with New England, who is about as good as it gets. You've got Miami, which won the division last year. You've got Buffalo with T.O.

"But I've never been a guy who ducked challenges. I see it as a challenge, but I think we have good personnel here. And my staff is way better than I thought it would be. I just thought this was the right spot."

Like his dad, Rex Ryan isn't the most polished coach to come down the NFL pike. He's more McDonald's than Morton's Steakhouse. More Peter Griffin than Donald Draper. His mouth doesn't have a filter and he often says things he probably should keep to himself.

"As he went through the interview process the first couple of times, I think he felt he had to be somebody different," Pettine said. "Be a little bit more conservative and not be himself.

"I think it finally got to the point this year where he said, 'You know what? I'm just going to be me. And if that's not good enough for them to hire me, then so be it.' "

It was good enough for Jets owner Woody Johnson and general manager Mike Tannenbaum.

"I think I was the right fit for them," Ryan said. "I think I was who they wanted. I don't think they really realized how much I loved this franchise and the history of it."

Ryan is trying to get his players to love the history of it as well. Outside the team's locker room in their gorgeous new training facility in Florham Park, N.J., he had all of the team's jersey numbers put up on the wall, with the list of players who wore those numbers written below them. He also had the team picture of every Jets team through the years put up on the wall leading into the cafeteria.

"I wanted to bring a sense of the history of this franchise and celebrate it," Ryan said. "I know it's been 40 years since they won the Super Bowl. But they've had a lot of great players come through here. I guess I'm trying to educate the players that, hey, this is a proud tradition. Take a minute. Get to know something about these guys. We're trying to bring that sense of pride back."

Ultimately, what will bring that sense of pride back is winning. And only time will tell whether Ryan can make that giant leap from successful coordinator to successful head coach.

"I think he can," said linebacker Bart Scott, who followed Ryan to the Jets from the Ravens, along with safety Jim Leonhard. "Rex has the ability to make guys run through a wall for him."

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