It is not unusual in the fiercely competitive world of American football for head coaches to make enemies. What makes Ryan different is that he finds them on his own side.
In Chicago a decade ago it was his head coach, Mike Ditka. Ryan, the defensive co-ordinator, had fashioned a brilliantly intimidating unit that were largely responsible for the Bears' success. Instead of observing the usual niceties, however, and allowing his boss to take the credit, Ryan let it be known that this was his defense and he deserved the applause. The end to an abrasive relationship came as the Bears celebrated victory in Super Bowl XX. Ditka was chaired off the field only to see Ryan hoisted by his own troops in a gesture of open defiance.
Soon afterwards, Ryan left for Philadelphia and his first head coaching job. There, he soon fell out with management. He continually referred to Norman Bramen, the team's owner, as 'the man in France', a sobriquet he insists was not demeaning despite Bramen's reputation for spending little time with the team. Relations were beyond breaking point with Harry Gamble, the general manager, who Ryan once called the owner's 'illegitimate son'.
Ryan often sided with his players as they sought more money from a notoriously frugal organisation and all but supported them in the strike of 1987. His tenure would certainly have been brief but for the fact that within a couple of years he had transformed a lamentable outfit into one of the league's best. He lasted five years, but, having guided his team into the play-offs for three successive seasons, was unceremoniously sacked. 'I never enjoyed firing anyone more,' Bramen said recently.
His reputation as a troublemaker now established, Ryan was out of work for nearly two years. When he returned 12 months ago, as defensive co-ordinator to the Houston Oilers, it was clear that he had lost none of his appetite for conflict. He told reporters that he had been hired 'to save the head coach's job', but he reserved his real salvoes for the offensive coordinator, Kevin Gilbride. Gilbride's controversial 'run-and- shoot' policy was potentially dazzling but, with its emphasis on passing and big plays, also extremely vulnerable.
To Ryan, it was anathema. In Philadelphia he had scornfully labelled it the 'chuck and duck'; at Houston he saw no need to revise the assessment. Within weeks there was open hostility between the two areas of the team, with Ryan doing his best to stoke the fire.
The civil war reached a bizarre climax in early January against the New York Jets. Enraged by one of Gilbride's more hazardous decisions, Ryan stormed along the touchline and threw a punch at his opposite number. The incident, perhaps the most flagrant example of coaching indiscipline in the sport's history, was replayed endlessly. Typically, Ryan was, and is, unrepentant. 'The guy was a dumb-ass,' he said.
Ryan's liking for friction stretches to his own players. Where some head coaches like to foster a communal atmosphere and save the real aggression for the opposition, Ryan uses his training camps to put his players to the test. When his offense and defense confront one another he likes to see fights breaking out, and discourages others from breaking them up. It is here that he sees whether his men can play, whether they will 'put their face in the fire for him' as one put it.
For all that he is a remarkably popular leader, at least among those he thinks can play. 'You had to pay a price to get in that circle,' Dan Hampton, one of the greatest players on his Chicago defense, said, 'but once you did it was like the Green Berets. An aura. A badge of courage. You'd look at those who couldn't pay the price with disdain.'
The loyalty and commitment he inspired among these hugely athletic and violent men has always been the key to the Buddy System. Looked at from afar, his frontiersman mentality may appear crass, but it strikes a chord with many players. More than most, he understands the extreme violence of the sport. 'You've got to realise this isn't hockey or basketball,' Hampton added. 'This isn't striped shirts and a tie. This is football. Buddy's way works in football.'
In Chicago, Ryan's '46 defense' was brutally watchable, its continual blitzing placing opposing quarterbacks under relentless pressure. When he arrived in Philadelphia he publically bemoaned the lack of talent, but within a couple of years his eye for a player and ability to motivate had forged another legendary defense - including perhaps the greatest defensive line ever assembled. Again the basis was pressure, power and placing trust in his players to make positive decisions once a play was underway.
His punching of Gilbride prompted a national controversy. Was Ryan was a great coach or a jerk? Or both? In his defence, it was said that he simply did what all coaches would like to do, but the general conclusion was that he had blown his last chance of returning to head coaching.
Within a month, that prognosis proved premature. Bill Bidwell, the owner of the Cardinals, had fired his third head coach in eight years and chose Ryan as the new man to lead his team.
The move astonished the NFL and it was soon predicted that Bidwell, reputedly meddlesome and tight-fisted, would be the latest in a long line of Ryan's foes. So far it has not happened. Ryan insisted in having total control and Bidwell has ceded it, even to the extent of allowing Ryan to appoint two of his sons to assistant coaching positions.
Bidwell's good humour is understandable. Ryan's arrival has ignited a spark in Phoenix, which is far from being a footballing town. Buddy Ball is all the rage. Season tickets sales have soared, a boom that Ryan has craftily cashed in on by having a clause in his contract give him a share in every extra ticket sold.
The pre-season optimism is well founded. The Cardinals are in considerably better shape than the Eagles were when he arrived in Philadelphia, and to a promising nucleus of talent he has added three of his favourites from previous employers: Seth Joyner and Clyde Simmons of the Eagles and Wilber Marshall of the Bears. One area for worry is the running game where Garrison Heart, their oft-injured No 1 draft pick last year, is already in Ryan's dog-house.
Ryan appears unconcerned. A characteristic welter of bold predictions has included just about everything short of winning the Super Bowl. One in particular may be significant. 'You look at films from last year and they didn't finish anything,' he said. 'Games, quarters, plays. They will learn to finish, finish, finish.'
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