Rex Ryan Interview: The NFL’s Most Outspoken Coach Sounds Off
In a new book, the infamous New York Jets coach reveals how you corral a team of testosterone-infused gladiators. He spoke to Marlow Stern about Tom Brady, Osama bin Laden, and foot fetishes.
Football coach Rex Ryan loves to blitz. But during the 2010 NFL season, it was his own New York Jets team that seemed to have the target on its back. Before the first seconds ticked off the game clock, the Jets had already been featured on HBO’s behind-the-scenes training camp program Hard Knocks, where they were branded as Animal House-style gladiators thanks to their regular pranks and foul language (much of which came courtesy of Ryan). To make matters worse, sideline reporter Ines Sainz accused several Jets players of harassment. A series of foot fetish videos posted by Deadspin allegedly featuring Ryan and his wife, Michelle, added to the circus.
But Ryan continued trash-talking his brash band of players all the way to the AFC Championship Game, where they came up one game short of the Super Bowl after a heartbreaking loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Ryans are a football institution. Rex’s father, Buddy Ryan, was a former NFL coach whose aggressive defenses—with the 1969 Super Bowl champion New York Jets and 1985 Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears—changed the face of the game. And Rex's twin brother, Rob Ryan, is the defensive coordinator of the Dallas Cowboys. Coach Ryan spoke to The Daily Beast about his new book, Play Like You Mean It, the death of Osama bin Laden, and those videos of feet.
First, I’ve got to ask: What was your first reaction to the news that we finally bagged Osama bin Laden?
Oh, it was awesome! Ten years ago was probably the worst day that I can ever remember in this country’s history, so the fact that we were able to get him finally was amazing. The funny thing is, I was watching Celebrity Apprentice and it finally came down to the end when they were voting people off, and this thing scrolls across and I’m like, “Wow. This has to be huge news.” I thought they were pulling the troops back home or something like that, but when he said, “We got him,” that was awesome.
It must hold special meaning for Jets fans, since the team mascot is essentially "Fireman Ed," and the fire hat is a symbol of the Jets.
One of my cousins is now a New York City fireman as well, and the fact that we got bin Laden is fantastic. I’m proud of the fact that the league chose us to play a home game on 9/11—against my brother. Usually, I have a lot of fun that week leading up to it, but I won’t this time at all. I know it’s going to be a very emotional game.
So why did you write Play Like You Mean It?
I’m a football fan first and foremost, but I’ve been given an incredible opportunity to be a football coach in the National Football League. So I wanted to give an inside look of what it’s like, and also talk about some leadership things, because I do believe we are a bit different than most. Here’s the type of passion I grew up with in my house: My Dad was 18 years old and he’s a master sergeant in the Korean War. One of his jobs is to make sure his guys are fighting the enemy. So he would go from foxhole to foxhole and, by any means, would get his men to fight. He’d literally have to slap the heck out of some to get them to fight, to the point where they’d rather fight the enemy than fight him. I’m not as tough as my Dad. I can’t imagine having to do that at his age.
How is your father doing? [He was diagnosed with cancer.]
He’s out of ICU now, so he seems to be progressing nicely. He’s had three bouts with cancer over his life, a lot of different things. But, like he says, “I’m a lot tougher than this. It’s going to take a lot more than this to put me into the ground.”
Speaking of leadership, I’ve always been intrigued by the Jets’ rivalry with the Patriots, and your contrasting leadership style with Bill Belichick’s more subdued style.
I’m a big believer in our team. I don’t put others down; I talk my team up. With Belichick, we are very opposite, but we have some things in common like the competitiveness; we both want to win in the worst way. Even though we’re completely opposite in our coaching styles, he’s true to himself and I’m true to myself. I hope I get half the amount of wins that he has. This guy might go down in history as the greatest football coach ever. But with that being said, my job is to beat him. And I expect to beat him.
You say some funny stuff about Tom Brady, how every guy basically hates him because he’s on top of the world.
I mean you look at his life: he’s been the NFL MVP for years, he’s got three Super Bowl championship rings, one of the most beautiful women in the world [Gisele Bundchen] is his wife. What a terrible life he has! Yeah, I hate him. Everybody hates him.
The Jets also have a playboy quarterback in Mark Sanchez. He even had that Baywatch-themed spread in GQ before he even threw an NFL pass. How have you made sure he doesn’t become a fallen party boy like Matt Leinart?
Oh, he’s definitely not a Matt Leinart. The thing that amazes me about Mark Sanchez as a football player is, Mark Sanchez has accomplished in two years as many road playoff victories as any quarterback in the history of the National Football League. That just speaks volumes of the kind of competitor he is. He doesn’t really fit in with the rest of the locker room. He’s a good-looking kid and the rest of us are a bunch of ugly guys, but he certainly fits in as a competitor and a passionate leader. This year, he’s going to be our captain on offense because he’s earned that.
There was that strange Deadspin story that made national headlines about Sanchez’s fling with a 17-year-old girl. Did you give him any guidance?
Nah, not really. You know, things happen and all that kinda stuff. But Mark is an excellent person. I’m not familiar with all the facts and whatever, but he’s an excellent young man and I’m proud that he’s part of the Jets.
One of the big things in your book that’s riled a lot of Giants fans is your statement that the Jets are “big brother” to the Giants, and their star defensive end Justin Tuck took offense, saying how he has a Super Bowl ring and you don’t. But the contrast between Jets and Giants fans has always been interesting, since the Jets fans are more blue collar, and the Giants fans more white collar.
Well, I appreciate Justin Tuck as a player. He was almost unblockable in their performance in the Super Bowl. But I do have a Super Bowl ring with the Ravens where we had 11 guys who were unblockable. But that’s what you get with the National Football League. You get diehard fans. I was given an incredible opportunity by Woody Johnson with the Jets, and we want to be better than every team in this league. I recognize the proud history of the New York Giants, and when I took this job over, I said we were going to be the one who will be the better franchise over the next 10 years. And I believe we will be.
Has the media perception that the Giants are the New York Post front page team and the Jets the back page team motivated you to put the Jets on HBO’s Hard Knocks, or keep making front page headlines with your outspokenness?
Honestly, we have four playoff wins over the two years I’ve been here. We’ve had better years than the Giants since I’ve been here. No one can argue that. What I will say is that my focus is becoming a world champion. We’re not satisfied. We want to win Super Bowls, and until that occurs, we’ll want to win our next Super Bowl.
Last year was, as you call it, “a wild ride.” But it started off with a speed bump when sideline reporter Ines Sainz accused several Jets players of making obscene comments to her. What happened?
I’ve got a great deal of respect for her. She never once claimed that anybody in our organization did anything inappropriate to her. I used the word “distraction” and I wish I could take that back, because it’s just something that we were going through. We played our first game at home, which was a huge defeat to the Ravens. But things happen. We never make excuses. Our team will never make excuses.
Your father coached Dave Duerson on the Chicago Bears and researchers recently found that he had developed a disease from brain trauma that’s also been found in many other deceased NFL players. And you’re known as Mr. Blitz…
The league is definitely committed to protecting the players. They’ve instituted several rule changes to try and eliminate the concussions and things like that. There’s all these tests that they run and things [for concussions] so they won’t just ask “How many fingers?” and send the player back in anymore. Anything that has to do with the players’ safety I think is great.
One subject that doesn’t really get addressed in your book is the foot fetish video controversy, where videos allegedly starring you and your wife, Michelle, went viral, and Patriots star Wes Welker poking fun at you for it in a press conference.
I saw [Wes Welker] at the Pro Bowl and he apologized to my wife and I. That’s fine. That’s in the past. We accepted his apology, and that’s in the past, so we’ll just move on.
I read that you addressed the team when the story came out. What did you tell your troops?
Well, first off, that’s a personal matter, and it’s a personal matter now.
OK. Everybody’s talking about the NFL lockout right now, and people are confused about what’s going on, and who’s to blame in this situation. What’s your perspective?
There’s three things that I truly believe in, and I think any fan can count on, is that the owners want there to be football, the players want there to be football, and the fans want to see football. And there’s no doubt about that. With those three things being said, I think we’re definitely going to have football.
Who’s to blame for this lockout then?
[Laughs] I have no idea. All I do is coach football and when they tell us that we’re playing again, we’ll dust off the schedules and have at it.
My favorite Rex Ryan-isms from HBO’s Hard Knocks were when you closed every meeting with “Let’s get a snack!” and calling your players “slap-dicks.” Where do those come from?
I have no idea! Sometimes they’re definitely unscripted, that’s for sure. “Let's get a snack” is actually a trademark of mine, if you will. I end every speech the night before a game with, “Now, let’s go get a snack.” The first game I ever coached, I looked around, and I just said, “Now, let’s go eat a snack!” And so now the players wait for it and are like, “Rex, you never said it.” So now I say it all the time.
It made headlines when you had your lap-band surgery last year. How is that going?
It’s actually going well. I’m down like 70 pounds or something like that from where I was. Some might say that’s like a deck chair off the Titanic, but that’s still a lot. And I would recommend the surgery; I have low blood pressure, my cholesterol is great. I would definitely recommend it to people who were morbidly obese like I was.
There are heavy rumors that the Jets are interested in free agent wide receiver Randy Moss, or Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha.
[Laughs] Number one, I can’t talk about other players and things like that, but I can tell you this: we’re going to have an excellent football team, and if I can quote Bart Scott [Jets linebacker], “I can’t wait.”
Marlow Stern works for The Daily Beast and has a master's from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He has served in the editorial department of Blender magazine, as an editor at Amplifier magazine, and, since 2007, editor of Manhattan Movie Magazine.