Rex Ryan, the son of legendary coach Buddy Ryan, was one of the most colorful and controversial head coaches in New York Jets franchise history.
Ryan became a head coach when he was 46 years old. At that point, he had been an assistant coach in the college and professional ranks for almost 22 years.
Ryan started his head coaching tenure with the Jets by leading them to consecutive appearances in the AFC Championship Game in 2009 and 2010.
It was never the same after that great start. He dealt with mediocrity calling the shots for the Jets and Buffalo Bills until 2016.
Although Rex Ryan hasn’t coached in the NFL since 2016, he made memories and headlines football fans won’t soon forget.
Rex Ashley Ryan was born to parents Buddy and Doris in Ardmore, OK on December 13, 1962. He has two siblings, an older brother, Jim, and a younger twin brother, Rob.
Buddy and Doris Ryan met in college at Oklahoma A&M (now known as Oklahoma State University). They divorced in 1964 when Rex and Rob were just two years old.
Doris Ryan felt she couldn’t continue being a coach’s wife. At the time of her split with Buddy, they were on their fifth stop during his illustrious coaching career. Fortunately, they got along well many years after their divorce.
Football ran deep in Rex Ryan’s blood – his dad Buddy was the Chicago Bears’ defensive coordinator and the mastermind behind the 46 defense that helped them win Super Bowl XX following the 1985 NFL season.
Buddy Ryan had earned his first Super Bowl ring as the New York Jets’ defensive line coach seventeen years earlier. Behind the exploits of quarterback Joe Namath, the Jets upset the heavily-favored Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, 16-7.
Six-year-olds Rex and Rob played in the sands of Miami when Namath guaranteed a Jets victory. They supported their dad Buddy in Super Bowl III against Baltimore.
Buddy Ryan coached a total of 28 seasons in the National Football League from 1968 to 1995. The headstrong Ryan made an indelible impression on his son Rex.
“I grew up wanting to be Buddy Ryan,” Rex Ryan wrote in his 2011 autobiography Play It Like You Mean It: Passion, Laughs, and Leadership in the World’s Most Beautiful Game.
As a youngster, Rex remembered seeing his dad watching football on television or going over film and drawing elaborate defensive schemes and formations on a legal pad or a napkin at the family dinner table.
On the other hand, Rob Ryan has been an assistant coach in the NFL since 2000. He is currently the senior defensive assistant of the Las Vegas Raiders. He is younger than Rex by five minutes, per SI.com’s Lee Jenkins.
According to Rex’s autobiography, his dad Buddy had no idea he and Rob were born until three days later. When their mom Doris conceived them in Ardmore, OK, their father was on the road working in the college football ranks as the Buffalo Bulls’ defensive line coach.
After Doris divorced Buddy, she earned her Ph.D. in education administration at the University of Chicago. As for her three sons, they lived with her mother Alabama “Bamma” Ward in Oklahoma.
— ABC 10News San Diego (@10News) June 28, 2016
Before long the three Ryan brothers moved in with their mother when she worked at the University of Toronto in Canada.
Rex remembered he and Rob watching the expansion of the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team when they were 15 years old in 1977.
However, the biggest sport in Canada was hockey. Rex and his brothers watched “Hockey Night in Canada” every Wednesday and Saturday evening.
Not only that, but they also learned how to play hockey. In fact, Rex’s older brother Jim, a lawyer, had been playing adult league hockey in St. Louis, MO for more than 40 years as of 2011.
Despite watching baseball and hockey, Rex and his brother Rob knew before they ever went North of the Border that their future lay on the gridiron.
One time officials kicked the two Ryan brothers out of a Canadian football game for hitting too hard. It turned out they had also hit the coach’s son. Their mom Doris stood on the sideline pleading her case – telling the officials that’s the nature of football, per Rex’s 2011 autobiography.
Back in high school in Toronto, the Ryan brothers had their fair share of shenanigans in the classroom. Rex wrote in his 2011 autobiography he and Rob switched classes especially if one twin brother wasn’t ready for an exam while the other one was.
Since Canada wasn’t a football country, Rex and Rob moved back in with their dad Buddy in the States in 1977. Buddy Ryan was the Minnesota Vikings’ defensive line coach at the time.
Rex and his brother weren’t fascinated with Edina, the city where they lived after moving in with their dad. They noticed that the high school kids hung out with their own groups and cliques. The Ryan brothers weren’t like that at all. They wanted to make friends with everyone.
They enjoyed a much-needed change of scenery when their father accepted the Chicago Bears’ defensive coordinator position in 1978. Rex and Rob loved living in Prairie View, IL where they attended Adlai E. Stevenson High School.
Rex Ryan took pride in his abilities as a baseball player during that phase in his life. He could hit for power through his first three years of high school.
A lost contact lens drastically affected Rex’s hitting prowess in his senior year in 1980. He was reluctant to ask his dad Buddy to get him a new one because he had his own issues at the time – the latter had to undergo a surgical procedure to remove soft tissue from his back.
Rex Ryan once asked Walter Payton, one of the absolute hardest workers in the NFL, if he could go back and start over what would he do different…he answered, “I would’ve worked harder.”#ItTakesWhatItTakes pic.twitter.com/8D0WcrLP0e
— Bob Starkey (@CoachBobStarkey) September 2, 2021
Rex was a Chicago Bears ball boy during his time in Illinois. He and his brother Rob adored Bears running back Walter Payton.
Rex wrote in his 2011 autobiography that Payton was a funny guy who liked to joke with him at Bears training camp. Payton also had a habit of pulling Rex’s pants down on the football field back then. He eventually became a fixture at Rex’s baseball games several years later.
It wasn’t all fun and games, though – Rex and Rob also had to earn their keep. The twins worked part-time at a Pepsi factory in Chicago.
They even worked as roofers one summer during their high school days. The Ryan brothers’ work ethic impressed the owner, who wanted to re-hire them after laying everybody off.
After finishing high school in Illinois, Rex and Rob attended Southwestern Oklahoma State University. The two pulled off a prank when they typed “summa cum laude” at the bottom of their graduation cards.
Consequently, school officials called them up to the stage where they gathered with students who graduated with high honors. Their father Buddy sat in the audience and got a good laugh out of that one – a throwback to their younger days in Canada when they switched classes.
Jokes aside, Rex and his brother were determined to follow in their father’s footsteps on the gridiron.
“Both Rob and I planned to get through college and land in the family business of football,” Rex mentioned in his 2011 autobiography.
True to his word, Rex Ryan embarked on a memorable and colorful 30-year football coaching career in the next phase of his gridiron journey.
Football Coaching Career
Ironically, Rex Ryan’s father Buddy, one of the greatest defensive minds in pro football history, discouraged his twin sons from coaching.
“The fact is our dad told us time and again that he didn’t want us to go into coaching,” Rex wrote in his 2011 autobiography. “He kept telling us to do something else, that coaching is a hard life.”
Buddy Ryan’s words didn’t dissuade Rex, whose first coaching stint was as a graduate assistant with the Eastern Kentucky Colonels from 1987 to 1988.
Rex Ryan’s duties as a graduate assistant included photocopying the game plan, dissecting film, keeping the players out of trouble, shuttling players to and from the airport, and making sure the head coach’s car was filled with gas.
Ryan barely got any sleep earning $1,500 per month as a graduate assistant at Eastern Kentucky for two years.
During the early part of Ryan’s tenure at Eastern Kentucky, he married his college sweetheart Michelle in 1987.
He climbed up one rung on the coaching ladder when he became the New Mexico Highlands Cowboys assistant head coach and defensive coordinator in 1989.
The 26-year-old Ryan had one major problem – none of his defensive players stood over six feet tall. Ryan and the Cowboys overcame that disadvantage and forced the most turnovers in his lone season at New Mexico Highlands.
Rex Ryan then served as the defensive coordinator of the Morehead State Eagles from 1990 to 1993. He turned the Eagles into a stout defensive unit during his four-year tenure.
After coaching at the college football level for seven years, Ryan had finally paid his dues.
Rex Ryan broke through to the professional coaching ranks as his dad Buddy’s defensive line and linebackers coach with the Arizona Cardinals from 1994 to 1995.
On the other hand, Rex’s brother Rob served as Arizona’s defensive backs coach during that two-year time frame.
Rex Ryan used to be a Cardinal coach alongside his father, former AZ HC, Buddy Ryan. pic.twitter.com/7sZL0THEdJ
— K1 is my QB (@TheRealBirdGang) September 25, 2016
By Rex’s estimate, he earned $80,000 per year when he was an assistant with Arizona. While his salary didn’t come close to what he earned as a head coach several years later, he still had the time of his life with the Cardinals.
It came down to two things: his passion for coaching football and working with his father and brother.
“Life was good,” Rex wrote in his 2011 autobiography. “When you’re doing something you love this much and you start making decent money – it’s a dream. You don’t feel like you’re working at all.”
Not only that, but Rex also helped the Cardinals rank second in the NFL in total defense, second in run defense, and third in pass defense in 1994.
Regrettably, the Cardinals averaged just six wins per year from 1994 to 1995. Although they had a stout defense, they couldn’t score. In fact, they mustered a measly 235 points in Rex’s first year in Arizona.
Since moving to Arizona in 1988, the Cardinals had extended their postseason drought to eight years.
After the Cardinals dismissed their entire coaching staff following the 1995 NFL season, Rex Ryan returned to the college football ranks for the next four seasons.
He spent two seasons with the Cincinnati Bearcats as their defensive coordinator from 1996 to 1997. They averaged seven wins per year during that two-year stretch and beat the Utah State Aggies in the inaugural 1997 Humanitarian Bowl, 35-19.
Ryan served the Oklahoma Sooners in the same capacity in the 1998 NCAA season. One of the highlights of that season was going against the Oklahoma State Cowboys on October 24, 1998.
The Ryan twins squared off on opposing sidelines as their respective squads’ defensive coordinators. Unfortunately for Rex, Rob’s Cowboys prevailed, 41-26.
Although Oklahoma won just five games in Rex Ryan’s lone year as defensive coordinator, they still finished sixth in the country in total defense in 1998.
After a four-year hiatus from the National Football League, Rex Ryan returned in 1999. New Baltimore Ravens head coach Brian Billick loved his passion for the game and hired him as defensive line coach – a capacity he served in for the next six seasons.
— WindyCityKeith @palehose2022🇺🇸 (@Palehose2022) January 9, 2019
The move to the Charm City paid huge dividends – Rex Ryan earned his first and only Super Bowl ring following the 2000 NFL campaign.
The Ravens, who moved to Baltimore from Cleveland just four years earlier, beat the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV, 34-7.
Rob Ryan was at the Raymond James Stadium stands in Tampa, FL for that particular game. Rex remembered his younger twin brother breaking down and becoming emotional after seeing the former win his first Super Bowl ring.
It was ironic considering Rob Ryan isn’t a very emotional individual, per Rex’s 2011 autobiography.
Ryan’s tenure in the Charm City wasn’t always rosy. Baltimore authorities charged him with assault following an alleged altercation with a neighbor in the summer of 2002.
During Rex Ryan’s tenure with the Baltimore Ravens from 1999 to 2008, he remembered his son Seth disappearing into the office of Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, who always accommodated him.
Ryan also marveled at Ravens quarterback Steve “Air” McNair’s ability to withstand bone-crunching hits during their time together in Baltimore from 2006 to 2007.
Even though McNair was already in the twilight of his memorable NFL career, he was durable – whenever the pass rush tried to lay him out, he got back up every time.
It was around that time when Rex Ryan won PFWA NFL Assistant Coach of the Year honors after helping the Ravens win 13 games in 2006.
Several months before Ryan became an NFL head coach, he announced publicly he had been dealing with dyslexia his entire life. He discovered he had it in when he was the Ravens’ defensive coordinator in 2007.
It turned out the disorder had a higher purpose – it forced him to rely on his strengths and work harder as a football coach.
“Just because I have dyslexia doesn’t mean I’m dumb,” Ryan wrote in his 2011 autobiography.
Ryan backed up this statement by finding ways to cope with dyslexia even before he knew he had it. He organized his play call sheets according to various colors so he could read them better. It drove Ravens’ staff assistant Mike Pettine – who became his defensive coordinator with the Jets – crazy.
With Ryan assuming defensive line coach, defensive coordinator, and assistant coach duties with the Ravens, they averaged nine wins per year during his 10-year tenure in Baltimore.
With defensive stalwarts such as Ray Lewis, Tony Siragusa, Rob Burnett, Michael McCrary, and Ed Reed, they made the postseason five times during that decade-long time frame.
After serving as an assistant coach for a decade in the professional football ranks, Rex Ryan became the head coach of the New York Jets on January 19, 2009.
It turned out Miami Dolphins executive vice president of football operations Bill Parcells recommended Ryan to become the New York Jets head coach.
Parcells, who was the Jets’ head coach and general manager from 1997 to 2000, told ESPN New York (via The South Florida Sun-Sentinel and The Baltimore Sun) in January 2011 that Ryan was his second choice behind Tony Sparano for the vacant Dolphins head coaching job in 2008.
According to Ryan’s autobiography, he weighed 310 pounds that year. Fed up with various diets that failed, Ryan decided to undergo lap-band surgery to help keep his appetite in check at NYU Medical Center in the spring of 2010.
Curiously, only Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez called him up and dropped by his house to see how well he was doing.
Sanchez’s high character impressed Ryan. According to the latter, the Jets signal caller always put others’ needs above his own.
The Jets won nine games in Ryan’s first year at the helm. He and his family savored the Jets’ 24-14 win over the Cincinnati Bengals in the 2009 AFC Wild Card Game. It was the first postseason victory of any member of the Ryan family as a head coach.
For that, Rex handed his father Buddy the game ball, per the former’s 2011 autobiography. In the same book, the younger Ryan pointed out that his dad was 54 years old before he became a head coach. For his part, Rex became the Jets’ head coach when he was 46 years old.
Gang Green’s memorable postseason run ended after Peyton Manning’s Indianapolis Colts beat them in the 2009 AFC Championship Game, 30-17.
It was the second time Peyton Manning beat Rex Ryan in the postseason. The first time around, the Colts beat the Baltimore Ravens in the 2006 AFC Divisional Round, 15-6.
“Peyton Manning haunts me,” Ryan wrote in his 2011 autobiography. “You have to win against the best, and Peyton Manning is the best.”
The Jets became the center of attention in the NFL the following year.
I’m sorry, but *nothing* will ever top Rex Ryan on Hard Knocks… 😂😂😂 pic.twitter.com/DjwVKrddU8
— Kimberley A. Martin (@ByKimberleyA) July 2, 2021
First, HBO’s “Hard Knocks” featured Gang Green during the preseason. Some viewers thought Ryan’s language was offensive. Some people also got the impression the Jets were more interested in having fun than working hard on the gridiron.
Ryan refuted those mistaken impressions many times in front of the media, per his autobiography.
Next, Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis held out of the majority of training camp and the Jets’ four preseason games.
Revis subsequently signed his four-year, $32 million guaranteed deal on September 5, 2010. When he reported to Jets’ practice, an elated Rex Ryan – who wanted the Revis situation rectified as soon as possible – breathed a sigh of relief.
However, Ryan’s troubles weren’t over.
Inez Sainz, a Mexican female reporter from TV Azteca in Mexico, claimed Ryan and some of the Jets players acted inappropriately toward her in one of the team’s scrimmage sessions.
In his book, an exasperated Ryan claimed he didn’t even witness that particular situation. Despite Ryan’s best efforts to build a winning culture in New York, outsiders began having mistaken impressions of his team off the gridiron.
The Sainz controversy faded from the public limelight several days later.
Ryan led the Jets to an 11-win season in 2010. It was Gang Green’s best record in twelve years dating back to the Bill Parcells era.
Unfortunately, the Jets fell short in the AFC title game for the second consecutive season. Ryan and Co. lost to Ben Roethlisberger’s Pittsburgh Steelers, 24-19.
Rex Ryan stirred controversy several times during his tenure in the Big Apple. For instance, he ran with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain in 2013.
Several months later, local paparazzi snapped photographs of him sunbathing in the Bahamas sporting a brand-new tattoo of his wife Michelle wearing a Mark Sanchez jersey.
The Jets never won more than eight games per year in Ryan’s next four seasons in the Big Apple. They averaged eight wins per year and made the postseason twice during his six-year tenure from 2009 to 2014.
The Jets’ dismal 4-12 win-loss campaign in 2014 sealed Rex Ryan’s fate with the Jets – they fired him on December 29, 2014.
The Jets’ AFC East nemesis, the Buffalo Bills, hired Ryan as their 18th head coach in franchise history two weeks later. He signed a five-year, $27.5 million deal.
The Bills averaged eight wins per year under Rex Ryan’s leadership from 2015 to 2016. They extended their postseason drought to 17 years.
Bills management fired Rex Ryan and his brother, Buffalo assistant head coach and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, on December 27, 2016.
It was Rex Ryan’s final stint as an NFL head coach. He finished his eight-year head coaching tenure in the National Football League with a 61-66 (.480) win-loss record.
During Rex Ryan’s 30-year football coaching career, he thrived under pressure. While other coaches gave in to it, he actually craved it.
“There are a lot of people in the world, even in the coaching profession, who don’t want the pressure on them,” Ryan wrote in his 2011 autobiography. “I want that pressure. I am confident in what I can do.”
Rex Ryan and his wife Michelle have two sons: Payton and Seth. They named the former after Chicago Bears Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton.
Ryan joined ESPN as an NFL analyst in the spring of 2017. He has made frequent appearances on “Get Up,” “SportsCenter,” ESPN Radio, and other ESPN programs.
After an earlier verbal feud with New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh in November 2021, Ryan reached out to him and patched things up. Saleh then realized why Ryan is a respected figure within the Jets organization.
“No one’s ever said one bad word about Rex in this entire orgnization,” Saleh told USA TODAY’s Andy Vasquez. “He actually has a really good heart, and it was just good to have that conversation.”