Former Bears defensive guru Buddy Ryan dead at 85
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Buddy Ryan, the mastermind behind one of the top NFL defenses who helped guide the Bears to their only Super Bowl victory, died at 85, the Bears confirmed Tuesday morning.
Ryan served as coach Mike Ditka’s defensive coordinator during the 1985-86 season, building the now-famous “46 Defense” that remains one of the most dominant in NFL history. The Bears lost only one regular-season game, rolled through the playoffs and beat the Patriots, 46-10, in Super Bowl XX.
“Buddy was way ahead of his time,” Ditka told the Sun-Times. “What he did was so innovative. It took not only guts, courage, knowledge — it took a lot to do what he did, and he did it. And he was successful.
“He never backed away. The Bears defense became part of history, and was a main reason why the ’85 Bears were the ’85 Bears.”
Ryan coached for 35 seasons in the NFL, including stints as head coach with the Philadelphia Eagles — who he joined after the 1985 season — and Arizona Cardinals.
“Buddy and I, we were good for each other, because we were good for the Bears,” Ditka said. “He was ahead of his time and he was innovative with the way he coached defense, but his whole philosophy with football was, ‘You’ve gotta attack people. You attack people on defense.'”
ESPN — which released a documentary earlier this year detailing Ryan’s relationship with his defense during the 1985 season — reported he had suffered from the aftermath of a stroke and was battling cancer.
Ditka said he last saw Ryan six or eight months ago.
“I knew he wasn’t doing good, but I didn’t know it was this bad,” he said. “I’m really sorry to hear he’s gone.”
Former Bears Dan Hampton, Gary Fencik and Lenny Walterscheid visited Ryan in early May. The old coach would ask his caretaker for a week, excitedly, before the meeting whether the visit was that day.
“I played for Lou Holtz, I played for Jimmy Johnson, I played for Mike Ditka,” Hampton said. “They’re all Hall of Fame, incredible coaches, but there will never be anyone like Buddy Ryan.”
Fencik brought the letter that he and Alan Page wrote to George Halas in 1981, pleading with the Bears’ founder to keep Ryan on staff. They read it to him.
“He was smiling,” said Hampton, the Hall of Fame defensive lineman. “He had gotten to where he could barely talk, but you could tell by his eyes. He was so excited.”
Ryan fought two bouts of cancer, a stroke and two falls, Hampton said.
“Buddy was tougher than boot leather,” he said.
Ditka said the two will be forever linked. They had a complicated relationship — “Was our relationship rosy all the time? No, but it was respectful, and I think that’s what’s important,” Ditka said — but one that guided one of the great NFL teams. Both Ryan and Ditka were carried off the field after the Super Bowl victory.
“Sure they carried Buddy off the field,” Ditka said. “We wouldn’t have won without the defense. We had a good defense, but our defense was why we won. We understood that, and people understood that.”
Ryan joined the Bears as the defensive coordinator in 1978 before taking the Eagles head coaching job after the Bears’ magical 1985 season. While the 1986 Bears set NFL records, it was never the same. And the Bears haven’t won a NFL championship since.
“Buddy Ryan was the architect of the greatest defense our league has seen,” Bears chairman George McCaskey said in a statement. “He was brilliant when it came to the X’s and O’s of the game, but what made him special was his ability to create an unwavering confidence in the players he coached. From the day he was hired in 1978, his defenses bought into more than the scheme, they bought into him and took on his personality.
“Buddy was brash, intelligent and tough. He was a perfect match for our city and team, which is why George Halas took the extraordinary step of keeping him at the behest of his defensive players while transitioning to a new coaching staff in 1982. We will always be grateful for Buddy’s contribution to the Bears. He is one of the team’s all-time greats. Our prayers are with his family.”
Ryan’s players didn’t know what to make of him at first, but grew to love the coordinator.
“Initially when you came on that team with Buddy, you thought that he despised you,” said safety Doug Plank, who wore the No. 46 for which Ryan named the defense. “You thought that he hated you, that you were the most despicable person that ever played football. By the time you were done with your career there, you had a bond with him that was special. Taking you from laughter to tears in seconds. There just aren’t many coaches that can do that.”
He demanded greatness and didn’t suffer fools.
“If you didn’t want to sell out, if you want to be tough, if you didn’t want to be smart, if you didn’t want to fly around, Buddy had no use for you,” Hampton said. “And that was what made it special.”
During Super Bowl week, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera, a member of the 1985 Bears, said he learned, from Ryan and fellow coordinator Jim Johnson, that attitude was everything.
“Having the right type of attitude more so than anything else because if there’s one thing I learned – being around Jim Johnson, being around Buddy – it’s that playing defense is about an attitude, about a way of looking at things and a way of approaching things,” he said.
Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who served as the Eagles’ coordinator under Ryan, called him “a true genius as far as defensive football was concerned.”
Football flowed through Ryan’s family; his son Rex is the coach of the Bills, where his twin, Rob, is the associate head coach.
“He’s put two sons into the league as coaches,” Ditka said. “I think it’s pretty special when you look at what he’s contributed to the game of football and the National Football League.
“I don’t think anybody’s ever done it. And I don’t know if anybody ever will do what he’s done.”