Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Wojciechowski [Print without images]

Tuesday, January 18, 2011
Updated: January 19, 7:33 AM ET
Rex's Rx a tried-and-true formula

By Gene Wojciechowski
ESPN.com

Rex Ryan stood in front of his players in a hotel meeting room the night before the game. They were on the road. They were underdogs. It was personal.

"Nobody's your friend on the field," said Ryan, working himself into a familiar four-letter-word rant. "You want friends? You can have friends after the game. Right now, it's you against everybody, and you have to prove yourself every time."

The next day, Ryan's sixth-seeded New York Jets sandblasted the heavily favored New England Patriots from the postseason bake-off. NFL Nation is still in shock. Now it's on to Pittsburgh to face the Steelers for the AFC championship.

Wait. Sorry. It wasn't last weekend that Ryan gave that speech. It was 22 years ago in Grand Junction, Colo. That's because some things never change.

Like Ryan.

"It ain't any different from when he was with New Mexico Highlands in 1989 and the New York Jets in 2011," said George Martinez, the former NFL assistant coach who first hired Ryan at Highlands University. "He didn't have to interview 10 minutes and I knew he was the guy. … I knew when I hired him that this guy is big-time stuff."

In 1989, Ryan was a rookie defensive coordinator making his professional debut as a full-time coach. Martinez's dinky Highlands team was playing NAIA powerhouse Mesa State. Not that Ryan gave a damn.

He had a bad mustache and an even worse mullet. He was making food and rent money working in the depths of college football and living in isolated Las Vegas, N.M., which shares its name -- but nothing else -- with the "Ocean's 11" Vegas a state away.

But Ryan did then what he does now. He finds a motivational pressure point. He creates a specific reason to play that game and to despise that opponent. Then, he invents belief.

By the time kickoff arrives, Ryan has his players convinced that the other team not only needs to be crushed, but that it deserves to be crushed. Doesn't matter if it's Mesa State or Bill Belichick's Patriots.

Rex Ryan
Rex Ryan wears his emotions on his sweater vest, it seems, and his players buy in.

"His No. 1 ability is to get his players to identify hate in the week," said an NFL team executive who knows him well.

Two seasons, two AFC championship appearances for the Jets with Ryan. Not bad for a guy whose first full-time coaching gig was at a pinhole on the New Mexico state map. A guy who's as corporate as a lap dance. A guy who so desperately wanted to become an NFL head coach that he had his teeth fixed and his waistline reduced.

The Miami Dolphins interviewed him, liked him, but didn't hire him. The Atlanta Falcons interviewed him, liked him, didn't hire him. The San Diego Chargers interviewed him, liked him, didn't hire him. Even his own Baltimore Ravens, for whom he was a star defensive coordinator at the time, made him put on a suit and tie for the team's interview committee. It liked him, but it didn't hire him.

The Jets did. They love that his personality is as oversized as Times Square. He is a players' coach, a tabloid's dream and an opponent's nightmare.

In the past two weeks alone, he outprepared Peyton Manning and outcoached Belichick. In the Jets' 28-21 AFC divisional playoff win over the Patriots on Sunday, Ryan's defense made the great Tom Brady look like he was lost in a corn maze.

Nobody in the NFL, with the possible exception of Brett Favre, has had a more controversial or headline-generating season than Ryan. Every time he opens his mouth, there's a 75 percent chance that he'll say something ridiculously provocative.

Then, he'll almost always back it up.

From his HBO "Hard Knocks" performance in training camp to January's playoff challenge to Belichick ("There's no question, it's personal"), Ryan's ego, mouth and confidence have never taken a sick day this season. Or any season.

It runs in the family. Buddy Ryan, inventor of the "46" defense, is his old man. Rob Ryan, the soon-to-be Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator, is his brother.

"Hell, I'll call them geniuses," said Martinez, who has worked with each of the three Ryans. "I've been coaching 33 years and I've never seen three guys who are so damn smart on the defensive side in my life. And their rapport with players is unbelievable."

Rex's defensive schemes against Manning's Indianapolis Colts in the wild-card game and against Brady's Patriots in the divisional game were sublime. Even more impressive is that he managed to hit the erase button on the Jets' past.

Manning had broken the Jets' hearts year after year, most recently in the AFC Championship Game in January 2010. Belichick and Brady had presided over a 45-3 humiliation just a month and a half ago. And by the way, Ryan had been ridiculed during a December stretch in which the Jets lost three out of four, including the Patriots' blowout.

Yet here Ryan and the Jets are, a victory away from the franchise's first Super Bowl since Joe Namath's guarantee in 1969.

Like him or loathe him, Ryan has withstood more heat (much of it self-inflicted) than a good pair of oven mitts. His players adore him. More important, they respect him.

Now, 22 years later, former Highlands linebacker Mike Ulibarri still respects him.

"My mentor," said Ulibarri, now the head football coach at West Las Vegas (N.M.) High School.

Ulibarri remembers Ryan as the guy "with the cheesy mustache" who cut off his prized mullet after Highlands pulled off an upset. A bet is a bet, right?

Ulibarri still remembers Ryan's speech the night before that Mesa State game in Grand Junction. He can recite it by heart.

And speaking of heart, Ulibarri remembers Ryan crying outside the visitors' locker room after a 28-6 Highlands loss the next day.

"He was telling our head coach that he was sorry that he had let the team down," Ulibarri said.

The head coach remembers it, too.

"That's true," Martinez said. "And here's the crazy thing about that whole deal: Mesa had a running back who averaged almost 200 yards a game. Against Rex's defense, he had like 27 carries for 40 yards. Are you kidding me? We threw five interceptions, three or four of them in the end zone.

"I said, 'Rex, ---damn, son, you didn't lose the game for us. You got nothing to feel bad about."'

That's Ryan for you. Three decades later, he's wearing his emotions on his sweater vest. And the Jets don't want to change a thing.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.

MORE COMMENTARY