Rex Ryan, the head coach of the New York Jets, has been called a lot of things: boastful, brash, profane and even fat. But one thing you can't call him is ineffective.
In two years, he has twice coached the Jets to within one game of the Super Bowl, yet his ascent to NFL head coach was never a given. In his new book, Play Like You Mean It, Ryan writes about his journey to the top and how it all began with what he learned from his father, football coach and defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan.
"My dad taught me early in my coaching career that football is an easy game, made complicated by coaches," Ryan tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. "And so what we do ... with our defense, we'll actually have the entire defense in a meeting and we'll teach the entire defense to everybody."
On another team, the meetings may be divided by position. But Ryan believes that his method encourages each player to know what everybody else is doing, rather than just the coaches. And that split-second advantage makes a difference.
"Everybody is in the same room, and there's accountability because you all know each other's jobs," he says. "You teach the whole defense to everybody and it may sound complicated [but] it's not."
Learning The Tricks Of The Trade
In his book, Ryan writes about the benefits of treating different players differently according to their temperaments. He says some respond to profanities or insults, while others are likely to take such treatment personally.
"You gotta know what button to push on a guy," Ryan says. "Bart Scott is one of the toughest guys I've ever been around. He's a mean kid, and you can cuss Bart Scott up and down the field, and sometimes that's the best thing to do to Bart, because he can handle it. Every single person is different, and they're all motivated differently."
There have been incidents in Ryan's career when he's been fined for his words or actions, but he says he has come to terms with his mistakes.
"I've made plenty of mistakes in my life but I learned from them," he says. "And I'm also genuine and I'm honest. I may not be right, but I'm honest. ... You know, I've been wrong so many times in my life, but at least I'm gonna speak from the heart."
A Family Affair
With so much of the family in football — Ryan's brother is an assistant coach for the Dallas Cowboys — it can be hard to avoid lumping them together. Ryan writes in his book about an often-heard observation that while Ryans make good football coaches, they aren't head coach material. He says he was eager to put that rumor to rest.
"I was stepped over for a head coaching position several times, even in my own organization," Ryan says. "I was with the Baltimore Ravens for 10 years, and they chose somebody else. And I was right under their nose. But I used it to fuel my passion in all those type of things. I know I'm in the right place. I'm gonna show you."
The lessons Ryan took from his father, who had a reputation for being hard on players and coaches alike, only added to his coaching philosophy.
"I always thought my dad was fair on his players," he says. "But I also thought that he could have improved on getting the whole building on board. He was more isolated strictly on football — it was his coaches, it was his players and that was about it. I do just the opposite. I'm fortunate, starting from ownership that's behind us all the way, where my dad actually fought with the owner."
'It Wasn't A Straight Line, It Was Curvy'
Rex Ryan had to face his fair share of adversity, both off and on the football field, before making it to where he is today.
"I had to overcome the weight issues — I'm fat and whatever," he says. "And I think people look at a guy that's heavy and they say, well, he's lazy. I'm not lazy; I'll outwork anybody."
Growing up, Ryan says, he also had trouble in school. He didn't learn why until, as an adult, he was finally diagnosed with dyslexia.
"I was frustrated and, quite honestly, the only time I would stay in school is if there was floor hockey or softball," he says. "I had no idea until I was in my 40s that this was the problem that I had all my life. But I found a way and I actually have a master's degree and all that — so I found a way to get it done. It wasn't a straight line, it was curvy, but I found a way to get it done."
Ryan's passion for football makes him optimistic about the immediate future of the NFL, which is currently embroiled in a lockout with its players association.
"There's three certainties that I know," Ryan says. "I'm certain that the owners want there to be football. I'm certain that the players want to play football. And I'm certain that the fans want to see football. So I can't tell you when we're gonna play. But I just think we will."
Obstacles aside, Ryan says he feels fortunate to be coaching an NFL team today.
"I knew at a young age I wanted to coach football," he says. "I saw the way my dad would come home and how he loved his work. How he had a little pad of paper, that he would sit and we'd watch TV and he'd be writing in that pad. But he could not wait to go to work the next day. And that's how I feel every day. There's times, I pull up to our facilities and I'm like, 'Oh, my gosh, I'm the head coach of the New York Jets.' "