Buddy Ryan definitely made his mark on Arizona
I’m not a native Arizonan.
My family moved from New York in 1979, and being a sports geek, I quickly became a fan of the local teams, which at that time, were the Phoenix Suns and Arizona State Sun Devils.
I longed for a football team in the Valley. Phoenicians got a little taste of pro football when the Arizona Wranglers/Outlaws of the USFL operated from 1983 to 1985, when the league folded (thanks, Drumpf). But it was a summer league, and watching a team play in triple-digit temperatures in cavernous Sun Devil Stadium with 16,000 of your closest friends didn’t smack of “professional.”
In 1988, the St. Louis Cardinals moved to Arizona, becoming the state’s second major-league sports franchise. Obviously, the team’s arrival put the Cardinals, a long-struggling franchise that had called two cities home prior to relocation, on the NFL map.
But it really wasn’t until six years later that people around the league took notice of the Cardinals, thanks to their coaching hire.
Arizona nabbed legendary defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan as their new head coach. Ryan had made headlines weeks earlier for punching (or attempting to punch) Houston Oilers defensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride on the sidelines of the regular-season finale against the New York Jets. The most interesting notes about the incident — the Oilers won the game 24-0 and Ryan worked for Houston!
Upon his arrival, Ryan famously announced “you’ve got a winner in town.”
He was brash. He was outspoken and confident. He didn’t give the media much, and referred to his players by their jersey number instead of their name. He was Arizona’s first “notorious” pro head coach.
Anticipation for the 1994 season was off the charts. In their first six seasons in the desert, the Cardinals went a woeful 32-64. Other than having a franchise in the NFL, there wasn’t much for local fans to get excited about. Ryan changed that.
My father and I were season-ticket holders back in those days. After the Cardinals’ inaugural season in Tempe, home game experiences were routinely losses followed by heckling from visiting fans. It wasn’t easy being a Cardinals fan.
The first game of the 1994 season was in Anaheim against the Los Angeles Rams. Ryan, who was also appointed the team’s general manager, had brought in big-name defensive stars Seth Joyner and Clyde Simmons from Philadelphia.
As season ticket holders, my father and I felt compelled to travel to that game. After all, it was the beginning of a new era. No longer would the Cardinals get sand kicked in their face. Ryan would ensure things would be different.
We flew to Los Angeles, and much to our surprise, the flight was packed with Cardinal fans who were as jacked up about this “new era” as we were. Thousands of red-clad supporters invaded “The Big A” that Sunday afternoon. There was a palpable buzz about the team. It was surreal.
The buzz was short-lived. The Cardinals offense struggled mightily. They turned the ball over three times, Ricky Proehl had a huge dropped pass and the Cardinals went down to defeat 14-12 in a game that in many ways was a harbinger of what to expect for the next 15 weeks — a formidable defense slowed down by an inept offense.
Despite finishing 25th in the league (out of 28 teams) in total offense and 27th in scoring offense, the ’94 Cardinals managed to finish 8-8, the best record they had posted since moving to Arizona.
The next year, things didn’t go as well. The Cardinals limped to a 4-12 record, including an embarrassing 37-13 beatdown at the hands of the Dallas Cowboys on Monday Night Football on Christmas. Ryan, in frustration, left the sidelines before the game clock had expired. He was fired the next day.
It was a failed experiment. Ryan finished 12-20 in his two years in Arizona. He never coached again. The ending wasn’t indicative of Ryan’s coaching career, rather an unfortunate footnote on a 31-year résumé that included two Super Bowl championships.
Ryan passed away Tuesday at the age of 85.
It’s safe to say his tenure with the organization is not remembered fondly by longtime Cardinals fans. But his bravado and reputation put Arizona in the league’s spotlight for the first time, and certainly not the last. Thanks, Buddy.