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A night to honor Buddy Ryan

He arrived in Philadelphia more than 25 years ago with his chest out and two Super Bowl titles as an assistant on his resumé and promptly informed Eagles fans that "You got a winner in town."

The Eagles will honor former coach Buddy Ryan during halftime of Monday night's game. (Mark Elias/AP file photo)
The Eagles will honor former coach Buddy Ryan during halftime of Monday night's game. (Mark Elias/AP file photo)Read more

He arrived in Philadelphia more than 25 years ago with his chest out and two Super Bowl titles as an assistant on his resumé and promptly informed Eagles fans that "You got a winner in town."

Brash. Cocky. Bleep-you unapologetic. That was Buddy Ryan then and that's still Buddy Ryan today at 78, even as he endures five radiation treatments a week in an uphill battle with cancer.

"Everything's fine," he said yesterday morning when asked what doctors have told him about his illness. "I'm feeling great. They gave me a break [from the radiation treatment] so I could come back for this and the Otho Davis thing."

"This" is a halftime tribute tonight to Ryan and almost two dozen former Eagles players who played for him when he was the Eagles head coach for 5 years from 1986 to 1990.

The "Otho Davis thing," named after the Eagles' late trainer, is the 13th annual Otho Davis Scholarship Foundation awards dinner, which will be held tomorrow night at the Sheraton Society Hill. Ryan is one of the guests of honor.

Even though it's been more than 20 years since he last coached a game for the Eagles, Ryan almost certainly will receive a long and thunderous ovation from fans at the Linc tonight. With the possible exception of Dick Vermeil, Ryan might've been the most popular coach in franchise history, which is an amazing thing when you consider that his five Eagles teams managed to win just one division title and had an 0-3 playoff record. I mean, even Rich Kotite managed to win one postseason game, and I don't think they're going to be honoring him at halftime any time soon.

The same fans, or at least the sons and daughters of the same fans who so badly want Andy Reid run out of town for failing to win a Super Bowl even though he's taken the Eagles to the playoffs nine times in the last 11 years and the NFC Championship Game five times, still revere Ryan.

A lot of it has to do with the personality differences of the individuals. Eagles fans, especially the beer-swilling, blue-collar types who occupied the 700 level at the Vet, loved Ryan's brashness and candor. They loved the way he predicted victories and trashed opponents and referred to the team's car-salesman owner, Norman Braman, as the "man in France."

The former army master sergeant from Frederick, Okla., was them, and they were him.

"You've got to be yourself or people will think you're a phony," Ryan said. "You're not going to go very far being a phony.

"[Eagles] fans were very jubilant. They loved their team. They have great fans there. It's always a pleasure to get back and see those people. I remember the first radio show I did at the Rib-It. A girl came in with a T-shirt on that said, 'I pull for two teams - the Eagles and the team that plays Dallas.' We went from there. Dallas was always the key game for us."

Ryan stoked the fans' hatred for the Cowboys, and won their hearts by beating America's Team eight times in 10 meetings while he was the coach, including the last seven in a row. Once rubbed it in by having Randall Cunningham fake a kneel-down at the end of a lopsided win and try to throw for another touchdown. Exchanged insults with Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson. It's not likely you're ever going to see Reid do things like that.

Ryan was one of the best defensive coaches in league history, but he never had much respect for the other side of the ball. Thought you could build an offensive line with spare parts, including guys who couldn't cut it on defense. His idea of a creative offensive gameplan was telling Cunningham to run around and make four or five big plays a game and let his defense take care of the rest.

God knows he did build a dominant defense that included Reggie White (who was signed out of the USFL the year before Ryan was hired), Jerome Brown, Seth Joyner, Clyde Simmons, Byron Evans and Eric Allen. But Cunningham and the offense kept coming up small for Ryan in the playoffs, as the Eagles managed to score just 25 points in their three playoff losses under Ryan. Wonder how that would fly today.

"We had some great players," Ryan said. "If we had the owner they have there now [Jeff Lurie], we probably would've won five or six Super Bowls. The one I coached under [Braman] was very tough. The one you have there now is very good. He's done a great job of helping the team win. I think he's done a super job."

Anyone out there want to second that motion?

Braman was an absentee, nouveau-riche owner from South Florida by way of West Philadelphia who cared a lot more about what he liked to refer to as "fiscal responsibility" than he did about winning. Bragged that he "discovered" Ryan after reading a New York Times profile on him, even though Ryan was the defensive coordinator on the Bears' Super Bowl-winning team that year and hardly needed discovering.

Ryan and Braman were oil and water. The street tough and the snob. Their relationship went south pretty early on, and the only surprise was that it took Braman 5 years to fire him. The final straw was a disappointing, 20-6 playoff loss to the Redskins at home in January 1991.

"We thought we had a great team," Ryan said. "We needed one more draft to get there. We had opportunities to pick up a big offensive tackle and also [former Bears linebacker] Wilbur Marshall. We could've gotten him. But the owner wouldn't come up with the money.

"We needed to win a Super Bowl, but we didn't get a chance. We had been very successful against the people in our division. We should've continued that and went right on. One more year and we would've been there. That was a sin that we didn't get a chance to do it. I wish I had gotten the opportunity [to keep coaching that team]. I know I could've gotten it done. We had some great players that went on and won the world's championship at other locations."

Whether the Eagles ever would have won a Super Bowl if Ryan hadn't been canned by Braman is a question without an answer. All we know is what happened. Ryan was replaced by Kotite and the Eagles failed to make the playoffs in '91, despite a 10-6 record.

Made the playoffs the following year and finally won a postseason game before being eliminated by the hated Cowboys. A year later, White left for the Packers. Two years later, Simmons and Joyner bolted for Arizona to join Ryan, who lasted just two seasons in the desert.

The Eagles still haven't won a Super Bowl. Tonight, when the team pays tribute to Ryan and many of his former players, fans at least will get a chance to dream of what might have been.

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