The Chicago Bears had just devoured the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX and the victors were filing into the interview room at the New Orleans Superdome. Mike Ditka was accepting congratulations from Commissioner Pete Rozelle. Jim McMahon and William "The Refrigerator" Perry were entertaining reporters with tales of the Super Bowl Shuffle.
It was quite a scene, loud and colorful, which is what you would expect from the 1985 Bears. But off to one side there were two men having a private conversation. One was Eagles owner, Norman Braman; the other was Buddy Ryan, the Bears defensive coordinator.
As they parted, Braman said: "We'll be in touch." Ryan smiled and gave a thumbs up.
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Standing just a few feet away, I thought, "Looks like the Eagles have a new coach."
Two days later, Braman was introducing Ryan to the Philadelphia media, and for the next five seasons the city was swept up in Buddyball, an era that rejuvenated a dispirited fan base and produced some memorable moments, but ultimately fell short of greatness. The memories all came flooding back Tuesday morning with the news that Ryan had passed away at age 85.
But that day in the Superdome, knowing Ryan's hiring was imminent, I talked to the Bears to get their thoughts on the coach. They had heard rumors about him leaving and he had all but said goodbye in their meeting the night before the Super Bowl. Tackle Dan Hampton said Ryan choked up as he told the defensive players, "Regardless of what happens tomorrow, you'll always be my heroes." Hampton said many players were crying as they left the room.
The Bears crushed the Patriots, 46-10, setting Super Bowl records for sacks (seven) and fewest rushing yards allowed (seven). The Bears so overwhelmed quarterback Tony Eason that he was benched in the second quarter without ever completing a pass. When the game ended, the defensive players carried Ryan off on their shoulders, a first for an assistant coach in a Super Bowl.
It didn't sit well with Ditka, who got the traditional victor's ride from the offensive players, but it reflected the division within the team. Ryan and Ditka feuded openly that season and the defensive players took Buddy's side. That sort of divide would cripple most teams, but the Bears were so good they were able to overcome it. Indeed, it seemed to fuel them.
The '85 Bears had some very good offensive players, led by Walter Payton, but the real strength of their team was the defense. The Bears went 15-1 in the regular season and their defense led the league in fewest points allowed, fewest rushing yards allowed and lowest completion percentage. They posted back-to-back shutouts in the NFC playoffs, then dismantled the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Ryan was the architect of all that mayhem.
Braman had little regard for the Philadelphia media, but he did read The New York Times, and that's where he first learned about Ryan. Dave Anderson, the Pulitzer Prize winning columnist, wrote a glowing profile of Ryan as the Bears were rolling through the regular season. Braman handed the story to team president Harry Gamble and said, "Read this. This guy sounds interesting."
At the end of the season when Braman decided to fire head coach Marion Campbell, Ryan's name was on the list of potential replacements, along with Dolphins assistant David Shula and Jim Mora, who won two USFL championships with the Philadelphia Stars. As the Bears stormed through the postseason and Ryan's defense became more celebrated, Braman decided Ryan was the man for the job.
In Chicago, Ryan created what was known as the "46 Defense." He put six players on the line with the outside linebackers playing like standup defensive ends. He had a hybrid safety/linebacker named Doug Plank who wore jersey number 46. That's how the defense got its name. The scheme was built to put heat on the quarterback, and with the Bears and later with the Eagles, it was brutally effective.
But it wasn't just what Ryan put on the blackboard that made him successful, it was his ability to inspire the troops. The players in Chicago were devoted to Ryan and they were brokenhearted at the thought of him leaving. Hampton admitted to knocking over a film projector after the final meeting. Tackle Steve McMichael threw a chair against the blackboard.
After the Super Bowl, Mike Singletary, the great middle linebacker, talked for almost an hour, much of it about his relationship with Ryan. It did not start off well, Singletary admitted, but it grew into an emotional bond that was more like father and son than coach and player.
"Early on, Buddy never let up on me," Singletary said. "He'd say, 'You're fat, you're slow, you're stupid. I'm wasting my time with you.' He pushed me and pushed me and some days he almost pushed me out the door. But I came to realize Buddy was doing what he needed to do to make me a player. I know this: I wouldn't be where I am now if it wasn't for him."
Nine months later, Ryan was coaching the Eagles and on Week 2 of the regular season, he brought his new team to Chicago to face the Bears. The Bears, of course, were world champions and the Eagles weren't good at all, but shockingly, the game went to overtime with the Bears finally squeezing out a 13-10 victory.
My most vivid memory of that day was the scene after the game when Ryan and Singletary embraced. They both had tears in their eyes. When Singletary was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1998, he thanked Ryan for putting him on the path to Canton.
In Philadelphia, what we'll remember most about Buddy Ryan is his personality, his brash approach that often was at odds with his own front office and ultimately contributed to his firing. It is rare to refer to a coach as beloved when his résumé shows zero playoff wins, but Ryan is embraced that way by most Eagles fans. They still talk fondly of the Body Bag Game and the Bounty Bowl, and other occasions when Buddy's boys pummeled the opposition. Buddy got the Philly fans in a way few coaches do.
Buddy and I didn't always see eye to eye. When I wrote something critical, he often returned fire, but that's OK. It is all part of the give and take of our business. But he is certainly one of the most unforgettable characters to pass through this town, and covering him was never dull. To see him refer to Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson as "whatever his name is" and then flash that little smirk knowing the quote would surely find its way to Johnson's desk, well, you had to admit it was pretty funny.
Steve Sabol, my boss at NFL Films, had a saying: "You were born an original. Don't die a copy." Buddy Ryan was Steve's kind of coach. He was an original, right to the end.