Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera was a rookie linebacker in the fall of 1984 trying to learn the nuances of the Chicago Bears’ 46 defense.
From the back of the Bears’ defensive alignment, Rivera heard the gruff voice of the short, gray-haired man known as Buddy.
“Hey, Chico,” yelled Bears defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, calling Rivera by the nickname he’d given him. “Come here.”
Ryan saw in Rivera a smart, University of California-educated player whom he could mold into a sort of coach on the field. And for two years after that first time Ryan called Rivera to join him on the practice field, the two would stand 30 yards behind the defense, with Ryan explaining concepts and Rivera soaking it in.
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Rivera recalled those tutoring sessions Tuesday morning shortly after Ryan died at age 85 following a lengthy illness.
Rivera, a two-time NFL Coach of the Year, had not stayed in close contact with Ryan in recent years. But Rivera said Buddy Ryan – the father of Buffalo Bills head coach Rex Ryan and assistant Rob – had a big influence on his coaching career.
He would sit down with me and he would explain his concepts on other things – basically he explained situational football to me.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera on Buddy Ryan, who died Tuesday at age 85
Rivera said it was early in his rookie season when Ryan first summoned him to his spot overseeing the defense at the Bears’ practice facility in Lake Forest, Ill.
“We did it for the rest of my two years with him. It was a daily thing. He expected me to stand back there with him,” Rivera said in a phone interview.
“He wanted to explain to me why we were doing the things that we did, why he wanted to play certain types of coverages and certain types of blitzes. And there were times when he would sit down with me and he would explain his concepts on other things – basically he explained situational football to me.”
Those Bears defenses are still considered among the best in NFL history, featuring several future Hall of Famers who attacked offenses from all angles in Ryan’s groundbreaking 46 scheme. The Bears used the 46 – named after safety Doug Plank, who wore the number – to overwhelm offenses with aggressive eight-man fronts.
Rivera said the Panthers and several other teams still use variations of the 46, now referred to simply as “Bear.” But Rivera said Ryan remained modest about the innovative scheme.
“Buddy never takes credit for inventing it. He talks about learning it when he was coaching with Weeb Ewbank with the Jets and even more when he was with the Vikings (under Bud Grant),” Rivera said. “At no point in time was he ever sitting there trying to tell anybody, ‘I’m a genius.’ Buddy was never like that.”
The 1985 Bears rolled to a 15-1 regular-season record en route to a Super Bowl victory over New England. Ryan left after the season to become the Philadelphia Eagles’ head coach, a move his players saw coming.
“We all knew he was leaving. He said to us the night before the Super Bowl, ‘You have to understand one thing: This is probably the last practice this group of men will be together because things will change and people are moving on,’ ” Rivera said.
“So everybody kind of thought that was his message to us that ‘Guess what guys? I’ve got another job and I’m going to be taking it. So let’s win this one.’ ”
Ryan never won a playoff game in seven years as a head coach in Philadelphia and Arizona. But he remained one of the league’s most respected defensive architects, and kept an eye on the former Bears defenses he built.
Ryan was back in Chicago for a Bears event one year and bumped into Rivera, who played nine seasons with the team. Ryan praised Rivera for his performance and that of the Bears’ defense – a compliment Rivera still remembers fondly nearly 25 years later.
“He’d always come up and talk,” Rivera said. “I want to believe that he was proud of me.”