Theres never been anybody in Philadelphia quite like Buddy Ryan. His teams never won anything, but hes still revered around these parts.
Ryan, a former Army drill sergeant during the Korean War, coached the Eagles from 1986 through 1990, and even though the Eagles went 0-3 in the postseason during that stretch, Ryan did put the Eagles back on the map after the franchise had fallen on hard times with four straight losing seasons from 1982 through 1985.
It was Ryans wild five-year tenure that really turned the Eagles into an obsession in Philly. In the 23 years since Ryans 1988 team won the NFC East, the Eagles have suffered through just five losing seasons. They rule sports coverage in Philadelphia, they rule the airwaves, they rule TV.
Its been like that since 1988, and thats the Buddy Ryan legacy. He made the Eagles relevant again nearly a quarter of a century ago, and their grip on sports fans across the Delaware Valley hasnt wavered since.
At my very first Buddy Ryan press conference as a beat guy -- it was during a 1988 voluntary camp practice on the east sideline of the grass field inside JFK Stadium, precisely where CSNPhillys office now is -- Ryan said linebacker Dwayne Jiles had reported to minicamp lacking fitness.
Heres how he put it: He looks like a big, fat washroom woman.
That was Day 1, and there was never a dull moment during the three years I covered Ryans Eagles for a suburban newspaper -- 1988 through 1990.
On Monday night, more than 20 years after he last coached on an Eagles sideline, the Eagles will honor Buddy at halftime of their nationally televised game against the Bears, the team Buddy led to a Super Bowl championship as defensive coordinator in 1985.
Buddy Ryan is 80 years old now and battling cancer. He leaves the trash talking to his two sons, Jets head coach Rex Ryan and Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob.
Itll be great to hear James David Buddy Ryan get one more cheer Monday night in South Philly. Love him or hate him, he deserves it.
That said, here are five random memories of my days with Buddy. There will never be another one like him.
Greg Bell, my ass
Its the Thursday before the Eagles-Rams playoff game in 1989, and the Eagles are finishing up a week of practice at the Falcons old facility in Suwanee, Ga.
Its Buddys turn at the podium, and hes asked by an L.A. writer about the challenge of facing Rams tailback Greg Bell, who had rushed for 1,137 yards and an NFL-leading 15 touchdowns that year.
Aw, heck, Ryan tells the media. Hes a tough running back. We gotta do a good job on him.
A few minutes later, the press conference is over, and Ryan starts walking out of the room. He passes the 10 or so Philly writers, who are sitting together on the right side of the room.
And then he smiles and mutters, under his breath: Greg Bell my ass.
Three days later, Bell runs for 124 and the Rams win 21-7.
Dinner at Mr. Stocks
One of Buddys favorite beat writers, Tim Kawakami, left the Philadelphia Daily News after the 1989 season to take a job with the L.A. Times. Since the Eagles were scheduled to face the Rams at the L.A. Coliseum in Week 3 of 1990, Buddy made plans to go out to dinner the night before the game with Timmy and all the Philly writers making the trip to California.
Buddy gave Timmy the assignment of finding the restaurant with the best wine list in Los Angeles, and Timmy took the task seriously. He spent weeks consulting with wine experts and after examining various menus and wine lists, he finally selected a fine Anaheim restaurant called Mr. Stox for the big feast.
The Eagles had opened the season 0-2 and rumor had it that owner Norman Braman was thinking of firing Buddy if the Eagles lost to the Rams and fell to 0-3. But Buddy was in great spirits that night, especially when we all arrived at Mr. Stox and were seated at a long, elegant table in the main dining room.
After we had all settled in, the wine steward approached Buddy and presented him with a wine list that must have had 500 wines on it. We all sat there in silence, waiting to hear what vintage bottles Buddy would pick out.
Buddy simply looked at the wine steward and said: How bout a bottle of white and a bottle of red?
Im not brain dead
Buddy Ryan had just been fired. It was the day after the 1990 playoff loss to the Redskins. Although the Eagles had won 10, 11 and 10 games the last three years, Ryan was unable to win in the postseason, and the Redskin loss was Buddys third in three years.
At a press conference moments earlier, Ryan had expressed shock at his ouster, saying, Ive been fired before for losing but never for winning. Ryan told the media he had no clue owner Norman Braman was thinking about firing him and said he was already looking ahead, preparing for the 1991 draft.
A few minutes later, the beat guys were summoned downstairs to the coaching offices at the Vet and quickly yanked into one of the teams film rooms, where Buddy was holding court with a huge smile on his face.
Hell, of course I knew he was going to fire me, Buddy said with a laugh. Im not brain dead.
Downhill, 100 miles per hour
Three years after leaving the Eagles, Buddy returned to the NFL as defensive coordinator with the Oilers under head coach Jack Pardee. Buddy was trying to maintain a low profile, since he was hoping for another head coaching opportunity (which he got a year later in Arizona).
With the Oilers on an 11-game winning streak after a 1-4 start, I decided to do a story on Buddys resurgence, but I was told by the Oilers PR guy that he wasnt doing interviews. I told them to let him know it was me, that we knew each other from his days with the Eagles, but I was told he almost certainly would turn down the interview request, and if he did talk, he wouldnt say anything controversial.
A little while later, I got a call from Houston. Buddy would be glad to talk to me. Just dont expect anything inflammatory.
So I spoke with Buddy for few minutes about the Oilers defense and how well Marcus Robertson, Cris Dishman, William Fuller and Sean Jones were playing. Blah, blah, blah.
Then I asked Buddy if he still followed the Eagles, who were in the process of losing six straight games, most of them in incomprehensibly ugly fashion under Rich Kotite, Ryans hapless successor.
Well, hell, they decided to go in another direction, Ryan said of the Eagles. And they are. A hundred miles an hour, straight downhill.
I aint cut him yet
When Buddy saw a sports writer he didnt know, he always gave the guy a hard time. Especially if the guy seemed in over his head or was taking himself too seriously. Then Buddy was relentless. It was Buddy being Buddy, and it could be hilarious.
We were in the dog days of one of Buddys endless eight-week training camps, and a nervous kid from a tiny little newspaper somewhere in the middle of Pennsylvania -- Shippensburg maybe? -- had made the drive out to West Chester to write a story on a local fullback who was in camp with the Eagles but who was essentially camp fodder and had zero chance to make the final roster.
After practice, when Buddy talked to the media, the kid gathered up the nerve to ask about his local fullback. Hows he doing? What had he shown Buddy during camp so far? What were his chances to make the team? The poor kid was just looking for a nice quote for his story.
Buddy just smiled and said: I aint cut him yet.
WHO is calling the plays?
There was a quiet old man named Mr. Braxton who used to work security at the Eagles entrance to the Vet. Nobody actually ever saw Mr. Braxton prevent anybody from entering the stadium, but thats another story. Nice old guy. Never bothered anybody, never said a word.
After Buddy was fired by the Eagles, he spent 1991 working as a halftime analyst for TNT, which used to broadcast the NFLs Thursday night games. As funny as Buddy was, his humor did not translate on TV. He seemed a lot smaller and less intimidating sitting on the broadcast set, and his insults seemed to ring hollow.
That was the year the Eagles had the NFLs top defense, but with Randall Cunningham out all year with an injury, the offense was inept.
During one stretch, when the Eagles scored just 26 points in four games under Pat Ryan, Brad Goebel, Jeff Kemp and Jim McMahon, Ryan was asked during a live TNT halftime show what was wrong with the Eagles offense.
He smiled, looked at the camera and said, Aw, hell, I think Mr. Braxton is calling the plays.
There might have been five people in the world who got the joke.
E-mail Reuben Frank at firstname.lastname@example.org