His father's son, Rex Ryan does it on his own

February, 25, 2009
2/25/09
4:20
PM ET
 
  Andy Marlin/Getty Images
  After success in Baltimore, Rex Ryan takes over the reins in New York.

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

INDIANAPOLIS -- Rex Ryan doesn't hear much about nepotism these days. His work has spoken for itself too long and too loudly for such mockery.

He's head coach of the New York Jets, thank you, after establishing the Baltimore Ravens as an elite defense and then maintaining it for nearly a decade.

"By me circling back here, busted down to college football and all that kind of stuff, I think I made my mark," Ryan reflected last week at his first NFL scouting combine as a head coach. "I know I earned it."

A dozen years ago, however, his coaching career was being defined by repeated accusations he and his twin brother, Rob, didn't belong in the NFL and wouldn't have been there if not for their father.

Buddy Ryan gave Rex and Rob their first NFL coaching jobs, hiring them as defensive assistants with the Arizona Cardinals. Neither of the twins had been a full-time coach at the Division I-A level, let alone in the pros.

What happened in Arizona wasn't pretty.

"That was brutal," Rex Ryan said last week with a weary smile. "We couldn't stop a nosebleed."

Arizona quickly grew tired of Buddy's act. He was brash before he arrived. Punching fellow coaches, public insults, bounties ... that behavior can be tolerated if you win.

But the Cardinals were losers. The Ryan boys came under fire. They were portrayed as symbols of their father's failure.

As for Ryan, his blatant nepotism is finally catching up to him, and those close to the situation now realize it. -- Atlanta Journal Constitution, Nov. 26, 1995

Buddy Ryan lasted two seasons as Arizona's head coach and general manager. He was fired, and the fact his sons were on the staff played a significant role. He also was criticized for signing tackle Larry Tharpe, whose agent was Ryan's oldest son, Jim.

"It was a nasty time because one bullet got all three of you," Rex Ryan said. "We're all gone. I think dad knew that was a possibility when he hired us.

"The first year, when we had the best defense in the National Football League, he really never heard a whole lot about nepotism, but the next year you did."

[Ryan] hired two clueless assistants who didn't have any pro coaching experience -- sons Rex and Rob. Players fought each other in locker rooms before games. Buddy's defense was 26th in the 30-team league, his offense was 27th in scoring. The only thing he led the league in was arrogance. -- Washington Post, Dec. 28, 1995

 
  Getty Images
  Buddy Ryan gave his son Rex his first NFL coaching job in Arizona.
Rex Ryan went on to run remarkable defenses at the University of Cincinnati for two years and the University of Oklahoma for another.

Baltimore head coach Brian Billick noticed. He provided Rex Ryan another shot at the NFL, this time without any help from Buddy.

"When Brian Billick called me to come coach the defensive line for him, I got right back in and I was there on my own merits," Rex Ryan said. "I think from that point on, all the nepotism stuff and all that [disappeared]. Now, I'm Rex Ryan. I just happen to be Buddy Ryan's son."

Working under Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis, Rex Ryan won the Super Bowl in his second year.

Rex Ryan stayed with Baltimore for 10 seasons. Over that span, Baltimore ranked second in total defense, first in run defense, first in fewest points per game, first in takeaways, first in third-down conversions and fourth in sacks.

Sure, he benefitted from superstar players such as Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, Peter Boulware, Chris McAlister and Rod Woodson.

But managing personalities is a significant part of coaching.

Rob Burnett, a Ravens defensive end when Rex Ryan came on board and now the team's radio analyst, delivered a line that sounded an awful lot like what Buddy's players used to say about him.

"Guys will jump on a grenade to save his job," Burnett said. "He has a history of guys playing their guts out because they want him around. Guys play for him, and in today's game that's rarely seen."

Miami Dolphins vice president of football operations Bill Parcells interviewed Rex Ryan for the team's head coaching vacancy last year before going with Tony Sparano, whom Parcells was more familiar with.

Now Parcells will face Rex Ryan twice a year in the AFC East.

"I enjoy his personality," Parcells said. "I think he's a real football guy. Football is very, very important to him. Those are the kinds of guys that I like.

"I'm happy he got a chance to be a head coach. He's good. You've got to welcome competition. That's the way it is. It's a highly competitive industry. I like to see young guys get a chance."

From the time Rex Ryan and his twin brother left Southwestern Oklahoma State as undersized defensive ends and went their separate ways, meeting up with their father for two turbulent seasons in Phoenix, a chance was all they wanted.

The first one didn't go that well.

Rex Ryan has received another -- perhaps a more legitimate -- opportunity.

"When you stop and think about it, there are 64 coordinators each year in the NFL," said Doris Ryan, Rex's mother. "Each one of them wants to be a head coach. You've also got all the current 32 head coaches and then the previous 32 who have been fired and also want to be head coaches again.

"It's really an elite group of men. To think he's made it is unbelievable. I know it's deserved, but you don't always get everything you deserve in life."

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