To his former players, he is part Cupid, part Lucifer. And now Buddy Ryan has come to town, preceded only by his reputation. The Philadelphia Eagles are reacting to him the way the Plains Indians must have reacted when they first spotted the iron horse.
They see Ryan's strengths and, although they are not quite sure what drives him, they've heard what can happen if you get in his steam-engine way.
"I wouldn't say there is a fear of him as much as there is a desire to keep your job," said Wes Hopkins, the Eagles' all-pro safety. "Yeah, well, maybe that is fear, huh?"
What if Ryan calls Philadelphia "a wasted city"? What if he calls all-pro receiver Mike Quick slow? Can veteran quarterback Ron Jaworski take being called pipsqueak? Tackle Kevin Allen didn't perform well as last year's No. 1 pick, but what if Ryan comes in and calls him The Big Fatso, as he did The Refrigerator?
"I'm just Buddy Ryan. What you see is what you get, and if you don't like it, you better move on down the road," Ryan said.
For the time being, anyway, James (Buddy) Ryan is football's preeminent thinker, by virtue of the fact his "46 defense" appears to be one step ahead of the rest of them. Gentlemen named Bill Walsh and Joe Gibbs are former preeminent thinkers in the league, men who used to be one step ahead. Of course, Walsh and Gibbs also serve as proof that circumstance and the opposition tend to catch up quickly in the NFL, so you should enjoy the cushy throne while you have it.
Just when NFL defenses seemed ready to drown in an offensive riptide, Ryan threw out his "46" life preserver. Now, history is Ryan's ally. The last time the Bears won the NFL title (1963), their defensive coach later left to become a head coach. The guy had a pretty good head-coaching career, at that. His name was George Allen.
It doesn't seem to matter that Ryan, 51, appears to have been Eagles owner Norman Braman's third choice as head coach, behind Miami's David Shula, 26, and Jim Mora, now of the Saints and formerly of the U.S. Football League's Baltimore Stars. Typically, Ryan noted that his name is on the front door of the head coach's office and his pipe is on the head coach's desk and that's all that really matters.
Since he signed a five-year contract, Ryan has been active. He has said he wants to acquire another veteran quarterback. He has talked with the Bears about acquiring their holdout linebacker, Al Harris. He received a standing ovation at the Philadelphia Sportswriters' Banquet when he arrived at the podium wearing a white headband that read "Eagles." And he has been involved in verbal crossfire with Bears Coach Mike Ditka, both apparently trying to ascertain whose ego is smaller.
"You've read what Ditka said since I left there, that I got too much recognition?" said Ryan, who bossed Chicago's defense for eight years. "The only recognition I ever got came from the players."
When asked how his Eagles offense will work, however, Ryan cooed to one reporter, "I'll probably give my offensive guy the same kind of leeway I gave Ditka."
Ryan has been an NFL assistant for 18 years, reaching the Super Bowl with the Jets, Vikings and Bears, and he summed up his resume in five easy words: "Always been with a winner." His modus operandi might be summed up even more briefly: "Taunt, teach and succeed."
Weeb Ewbank, the former Jets coach who brought Ryan to the NFL from the University of the Pacific in 1968, recalled how Ryan lit a fire under former Jets defensive end Verlon Biggs and how "when Biggs left as a free agent and went to play for Washington, he wasn't the same player without Buddy."
Ewbank also recalled that he visited both New England Coach Raymond Berry and Ryan in their respective locker rooms at the Superdome about one hour before Super Bowl XX. "Ray was relaxed and calm. When I went to see Buddy, he asked me, 'What are you doing around 10 o'clock tonight? Why don't you come to our victory party?' " Ewbank said. "I told him, 'I hope your players didn't hear you say that.' Buddy said, 'Shoot, I just told them the same thing.' "
In practice, Ryan has a practice of his own: he antagonizes players by referring to them by their two-digit number or by some four-letter word. "Like a cold wall hitting you," is how Bears linebacker Otis Wilson described Ryan during Super Bowl week. It's difficult to know whether Ryan's players love to hate him or hate to love him. Maybe it's both.
Jeff Fisher, 29, who retired as a Bears reserve safety recently to become an assistant coach for the Eagles, said, "Buddy called me a blank and a blankety-blank when I first got to the Bears as a rookie. I asked the veterans which was better. They said if Buddy calls you a blank you're okay, but if he calls you a blankety-blank, you're in trouble."
Fisher added, "But I realized if Buddy completely stops cussing at you, you'll probably find a roadmap and an apple in your locker."
Bears all-pro safety Dave Duerson said in the locker room after the 46-10 Super Bowl victory that if Ryan, Chicago's defensive coordinator, remained with the team, the Bears would appear in the next five Super Bowls.
"I won't retract that statement," Duerson said recently, upon reflection. "We have lost our orchestrator. But at the same time, it's the guys on the field who get it done. It's not like our team has been devastated.
"I haven't shed any tears. In fact, now that he's gone I've felt a burden lifted from my shoulders. I wasn't one of Buddy's favorites. I could have intercepted a pass and returned it 80 yards for a touchdown and it wouldn't have been enough for Buddy. No rookie has gone through what I have over the past three years with Ryan.
"There's such a thing as constructive criticism and there is a military approach. Buddy was military. I had five interceptions and I made the Pro Bowl and he was criticizing me all year. Just imagine what I might have done if I had him complimenting me all season.
"He'll get it done in Philadelphia eventually, but their success will come at the cost of losing valuable players. It will take the Eagles time to adjust."
The Eagles met Ryan for the first time at a minicamp in Tampa, Fla., in mid-March. Eagles defensive end Reggie White said, "When I heard Coach Marion Campbell was fired, if I could have picked a coach, I would have wanted Buddy. You have to admire him for saying he wants to win in Philadelphia in a year. I thank God he's got that attitude. Maybe it will rub off on the players."
And Hopkins, the safety, said, " Chicago's Richard Dent and Otis Wilson told me at the Pro Bowl that Ryan will take some getting used to, that he'll call you all kinds of names, but you have to keep it all in perspective. The No. 1 thing is winning."
Already, Ryan has cracked his whip of discipline. The Eagles had a dozen holdouts from last year's training camp because of contract disputes. This year, Ryan said that if the unsigned players do not show up for camp, they might as well stay home and play Parcheesi the rest of the year. At last count, all five of the unsigned Eagles starters attended the club's minicamp.
The Eagles finished 7-9 last season under Campbell. Ryan said there is talent on the Eagles' defense and even stoked a few embers by saying eight Eagles could start for the Bears' defense, "the front four and the back four." Ryan also said the Eagles must force more than 32 turnovers (fourth worst in the league last year) in the upcoming season.
"If this team was that great," Ryan said, "Marion Campbell would still be here and I'd still be coaching defense in Chicago."
Ryan grew up in Frederick, Okla., about 20 miles from the Texas line. His father painted houses and, before that, rode bulls in the rodeo. Perhaps this is where Ryan learned to combine a hug and a rap in his working relationships.
The night before the Super Bowl, Ryan told his defensive players, "You are all my heroes," and received a standing ovation. Ryan now says he knew then that he was going to Philadelphia. When he was asked recently, on camera, if that meeting represented an emotional moment, tears welled up in his eyes and he said, "Still is."
Amid the excitement of a new beginning, Ryan noted that he thinks he'll look good in a green Eagles windbreaker ("I always looked good in green with the Jets"), that he was pleased with the minicamp ("They really learned, really worked hard"), that he's not worried about the NFC East ("We can beat them") and most importantly, now that he's a head coach, "I'm still going to be Buddy Ryan and I'm going to run a disciplined ship, just like I've always done.
"I'd be crazy to be anybody but Buddy Ryan, because that's what got me here."