A Child Of The Buddy Ryan-Era Birds On A Final Curtain-Call For Buddyball
In the winter of 1986 while growing up in South Jersey less than ten miles from Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia just shy of my tenth birthday, Buddy Ryan became the first coach (regardless of sport) to enter and take root in my developing sports-fan memory.
A few days after the ’85 Bears (the first cultural phenomenon pro sports team that I experienced as a 9-year-old) won the Super Bowl, news came down locally that the Philadelphia Eagles (a team most of us raised here find ourselves pre-ordained by regional mandate to root for or else be considered an embarrassment to the people who birthed us) were getting the guy who led the Bears’ famed 46 Defense and coming billed as “the first guy they carried off the field after winning the Super Bowl”.
Our previous coach in Philly, Marion “The Swamp Fox” Campbell, I have almost completely no recollection of nor outside of being in Eagles or Falcons gear could ever pick him out of a lineup today.
The coach that preceded him, Dick Vermiel, I remember primarily as the guy crying on TV when he quit the Eagles for reasons that I was too young and unfamiliar to understand. According to my mother watching the broadcast with me “he was working too hard, he slept at the stadium”. This theme would later became almost a prerequisite of an NFL coach years later, which we unfortunately found out along with Andy Reid to a literally tragic end during training camp at Lehigh University before his fourteenth and final season with the Eagles.
Following the icon in Vermeil (already now a national sports television star by the late eighties and endorser of a plethora of products locally) and the utterly forgettable aformentioned Swamp Fox entered James David “Buddy” Ryan, a short pudgy, grandfatherly big bespectacled man who cut a bowling ball figure along with hurricane-wind levels of bluster to match his swaggering earned confidence + schematic brilliance. This was a heady combination that had been cultivated not just in Chicago but in prior stops dating back nearly two full decades, first with the famed Purple People Eaters in Minnesota and even before that being responsible for the other side of the ball that aided in delivering on Joe Namath’s legendary Super Bowl III Guarantee.
My impressions and memories of this new character arrived in fits and bursts from there, many of those generated from the blunt, often braggadocios sound bites he would regularly provide.
1210 AM WCAU in Philly (this was pre-WIP era) used to run a promo for his radio show in with an older woman radio caller saying something to Buddy about how she didn’t like how he had “gotten rid of all our good players” to which Buddy responded curtly “well how good were they? All they did was get the coach fired” which made me chuckle every time.
On being asked about his lack of handshake with Mike Ditka following his return to Soldier Field during the first season, “Mike Ditka’s a jerk, what difference does it make?”.
But in contrast after that same game we then saw him embracing his old middle linebacker, Mike Singletary, both the student and the teacher embracing with tears welling up in their eyes that let you know there might be more than just some good quotes or X’s & O’s to this guy.
He seemed to develop a genuine loving and respectful connection with his guys that really never left once it was established who those men were. If you ever needed any more evidence of this than what we already had, check out the the brilliant recent 30-for-30 documentary on the aforementioned Super Bowl Shuffling squad upon their 30th Anniversary which essentially ended up serving as a love letter to Buddy Ryan who again upstaged Head Coach Mike Ditka.
And Buddy's guys were guys like the Minister of Defense Reggie White, the greatest defensive lineman of my lifetime bar none who happened to win the only Pro Bowl MVP award that ever stood out in my memory in a game I watched start to finish following his first season playing for Buddy, since this was back when I was too young to know that the Pro Bowl didn’t matter.
Jerome Brown, who was Buddy's first-round draft pick following Buddy’s inaugural 5-10-1 season after being part of a team not thought of fondly by most in the Philadelphia area. This was mostly due to the fatigue-led revolt (with a mic-drop-moment that contained John-Belushi-in-Animal-House “forget it, he’s rolling” levels of historical accuracy) that he’d just led at the dinner prior to the National Championship game against the pious, play-the-game-the-right-way-then-patron-saint of sports in the state Joe Paterno and his 1986 NCAA Champion Penn State Nittany Lions. Jerome was only a month or two earlier but from Day One after being selected by the Eagles he was already somehow being affectionately billed with the nickname “Little Buddy”. This before even getting the chance to display himself in a Kelly Green jersey but as soon as that started he started almost immediately showing himself to be a pretty perfect representation of his coach’s personality now displayed on the field.
Seth Joyner, the fierce leader of the linebacker coach who embodied Buddy’s militaristic teaching methodologies, shared his coach’s ability to deliver strong quotes in the media while also possessing the same strong sense of loyalty for the guys who went to battle with him.
Buddy would publicly reward that kind of trust and loyalty he had earned with his soldiers on the field in ways that would actually in the short term hurt his own cause.
However his public flogging of the “scabs” on his team during the 1987 player strike during their fight to gain free agency while saddled for three games with replacement players the likes of which on the Philadelphia Eagles side (led by a starting quarterback named Guido Merkins) was a group Buddy refused to even really attempt to coach along the way to badly tanking all three of their contests. And while this in the short-term cost Buddy his first winning season as a head coach that year (the real Eagles finished 7-5 in their 12 played 1987 games, one week of the cumulative year lost to the labor battle) but voicing public support for the Reggie White-s over the Danny White-s (who like a few other noteworthy Dallas Cowboys had crossed the picket line to run roughshod over Guido & Co) ultimately sealed Buddy's winning of the locker room. And when they came back from the strike, Randall Cunningham would go on to under the orders of his coach deliver the fake-kneel final nail in the great Tom Landry’s career coffin, just in time for Jerry Jones to buy the team and arrive with Jimmy Johnson in tow.
A fun rivalry began anew with those two in Dallas but really any game in the Buddy Era could be the next game to have its own trademark name, like a series of Roger Corman b-movies: Bounty Bowl, the Monday Night Masterpiece at The Meadowlands, The House of Pain Game on Monday Night Football after which Little Buddy (J.B.) famously quipped "They Brought The House, We Brought The Pain”, The Fog Bowl, Bounty Bowl II, The Pork Chop Bowl…….it just felt like every week between Randall, that defense and Buddy himself we'd be just waiting for the next crazy thing to happen so there might be a new title above the marquee as well as the Inquirer headline.
It was such an exciting time to be an Eagles Fan with that cast of characters, in no small part due to the fact that they might have the biggest character of them all as their head coach. It sorta felt like of our version of the Chicago Bears with less of the winning of course but with a defense equally or more ferocious, or like the Eagle version of the ’93 Phillies in terms of legend but for a half decade long with way more bonafide talent.
No amount of success that Andy Reid, Donovan McNabb or even the revered-second-only-to-Iverson in current Philadelphia sporting landscape of alumni Brian Dawkins ever had while winning a lot more games (including ten playoff game wins, four NFC championship game appearances plus a Super Bowl appearance) ever truly captured the town's imagination like the Buddy era did during the late eighties/early-nineties, which also includes the first two Kotite seasons back when Buddy's blueprint and handprints on the roster specifically the defense still loomed large before losing Brown fatally in the summer of '92, then Reggie to free agency the summer after that and then Seth/Clyde the year after that as they went to rejoin Buddy in AZ.
But Buddy Ryan did also assist in driving the nail in both his and that team's coffin before its time along with the cheapness of the owner Norman Braman (a tightwad, a used-car-dealership-chain owner who had acquired the Eagles via previous owner Leonard Tose's gambling/booze-soaked fire sale that later ended up with Tose suing the Atlantic City casinos for assisting him in reaching the depths via these vices) by Buddy's refusal or inability to properly address the o-line, for making Rich Kotite his offensive coordinator and for basically completely neglecting the offense or weekly game-plan altogether outside of telling Randall “you just go out there and make three big plays every game, we’ll do the rest” (the ‘we’ of course being him and the defense which seemed to be his sole focus).
Meanwhile famously referring to the Eagles’ notoriously spendthrift owner Braman repeatedly in public as “The Guy In France” was a big part of the reason that Buddy got sent his walking papers after five seasons (with the last three all having been playoff seasons) in January of 1991 while sitting in the cafeteria as a Haddonfield Memorial High School freshman sitting at a table in the lunch room with my buddy G-Man when he noticed the scroll above the entrance to the cafeteria line which normally would be announcing things like **SLOPPY JOE TUESDAYS** or **BULLDAWGS GAME 7:30 IN A-GYM** simply read **BUDDY RYAN FIRED** and directed me to it.
And just like that, our Buddy was gone.
I don’t really recall being all that mad or shocked about it either when seeing that news, somehow it may have maybe seemed premature but still also predestined anyway.
It was actually far more surprising a quarter of a century later when G-Man’s buddy in DC having-now-become-my-buddy-too (like Buddy & Seth, I'm a loyalist when it comes to the crew) and future Something In The Wudder Sixer content contributor TG sent me a text on December 29th at 7:22 PM reading simply “Chip Kelly Just Got Fired” regarding our last Head Coach, essentially the antithesis of Buddy Ryan in every single way as a man and a coach.
Eagles’ history being what it, whether it was back then while first gaining full life/sports awareness as a 10-year-old child aging into adolescence or now as a 40-year-old man with enough time spent on the planet to have learned a few more hard life lessons, the outcome ultimately results in a loss but neither me nor or anyone else who bleeds green that you could today ask would even hesitate for a moment to tell you they’d take my first coach over our last.
So at the end of this show let me cheer bravo and a long standing clap at this final curtain call of Buddyball.
Thanks for the memories, Buddy.
We certainly enjoyed watching you.
When you reach the gates of Heaven let the Doorman know “you got a winner in town”.