Cleat Geeks

Former NFL coach, defensive mastermind, & friend Buddy Ryan dies at 82

Buddy Ryan was more than just a coach.  He was a mentor, a friend, and a leader.

Buddy Ryan died Tuesday morning after his long battle with cancer.  He was 82 years old.BuddyRyanOaklahomaState

James David Ryan attended Oklahoma State and earned four letters as a guard from 1952-1955. Later on, he would serve as a sergeant in the U.S. Army during the Korean War.

Ryan got his first coaching job as a linebackers coach for Joe Namath’s New York Jets in 1968.  Buddy would lead the charge, and the Jets had the top defense in the AFL in his first year on the staff.  The Jets would go on to win the Super Bowl that year, holding Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts to only 7 points. The Jets won Super Bowl 3 16-7.

Buddy Ryan’s next stop was Minnesota. The defense was nicknamed the “Purple People Eaters” with a motto of: meet you at the quarterback.  The Vikings appeared in three Super Bowls between 1973-1978 but never came out victorious.

It was in Chicago that Buddy Ryan truly made his mark in the NFL history books and a name that will live on forever.

The Chicago Bears were a mess. After the 7-9 1980-1981 season, players knew that coaching changes were bound to be made. But the leaders of the Bears defense knew that the defense had improved and Buddy Ryan wasn’t the problem.  So in 1981, the Bears defense wrote a letter to George Halas, the Chicago Bears owner, asking him to not fire Buddy Ryan. Halas showed up at practice and went to those players and said, “We are going to keep Buddy Ryan…you want him, you got him.”

Buddy Ryan went on to coach the best defense ever in NFL History.  The Bears ran the unstoppable 46 defense, a defense solely focused on blitzing more people than the offense could block. Ryan was a genius, a diabolical mastermind that put fear in opposing offenses. Yeah the Bears had scary guys, linebackers Mike Singletary, Otis Wilson,Dave Duerson, defensive lineman Dan Hampton, Steve “Mongo” McMichael, and Richard Dent, but where would they have been without Buddy Ryan.  As hall of fame linebacker Mike Singletary puts it, “Without Buddy, I’m just a guy.”

The night before Super Bowl 20, Buddy Ryan held a meeting and told the guys he would be leaving the team after the Super Bowl. Frustration and anger soared throughout the room as their leader and member of their family would not be on the sideline next season. The Bears would somehow have to play and run the defense without Buddy Ryan, the man who made them who they were.

Buddy Ryan took the head coaching job for the Philadelphia Eagles in 1986. The Eagles won at least 10 games every season during Buddy’s tenure in the city of brotherly love. He won a division title in 1988 and was the last time the Eagles won the division until 2001 under Andy Reid and QB Donovan McNabb. Ryan was fired in 1991 after five seasons with the team.  Buddy had a record of 43-38-1 but never won a playoff game going 0-3.

Buddy was an inspiration. His players and coaches all have great things to say about the defensive mastermind. Mike Ditka, head coach of the Chicago Bears from 1982-1992, may not have had the best relationship with Buddy, but has never talked bad about him. In fact he had this to say about Ryan,There’s no way we win anything without his defense and without his coaching. We had that great offensive line, the great Walter Payton, Jim McMahon and great receivers, but we won because of our defense. That’s just the way it was.”

Mike Singletary learned so much and was a better player because of Buddy Ryan. As seen in the ESPN 30 for 30 The 85’ Bears, Singletary went and visited buddy at his home in Shelbyville, Kentucky and reminisced about the time they shared together during their time in Chicago. He would go on to say: “Having the opportunity to go  and sit down with Buddy and look into his eyes, knowing that there’s so much that he wants to communicate but he really can’t, it’s just very difficult to put into words. But I love Buddy Ryan. And I’ve told him that many, many times.” In a sit-down interview, Singletary said something I think many feel and know after playing under Buddy Ryan: “ He was not only a mentor, he was a friend.” 

Buddy Ryan wrote a letter to his “guys” in 2015. Here is the letter that Buddy Ryan wrote to the Bears 1985-1986 defense.

To my guys,

In 1981, many of you signed a letter to George Halas to save my job. Now I’m writing a letter to all of you to say thanks. I wish I could be there to say it in person, but this will have to do.

Thank you to the Super Bowl Champion 1985  Chicago Bears, the greatest football team in NFL history. You gave me the best memories of my coaching life.

You all mean the world to me. I’ll love every one of you until the day I die.

I told you this a long time ago, and it’s still true: You guys will always be my heroes.


Buddy Ryan

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