Being an assistant football coach is a lot like throwing dice.
If the right numbers come up, you get a shot at a head coaching job. Otherwise, you either continue in anonymity or find another line of work.
Take the case of Buddy Ryan, the cocky character who will send his Philadelphia Eagles against the Chargers Sunday at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium. If it hadn't been for just the right sequence of events, Ryan might still be an assistant somewhere in the National Football League.
This is not to demean Ryan's coaching ability. He has eliminated any doubt about that by elevating the Eagles to Super Bowl contention.
The point is, though, that the ranks of assistant coaches are clogged with men who have never been in position to move up in grade.
True, some longtime assistants are content to stay where they are. A prime example is Ernie Zampese, former offensive coordinator of the Chargers and now in the same capacity with the Rams. Zampese loves doing what he does and wants no part of the pressure that goes with being a head coach.
But the vast majority of assistants long for the day when they can run the show, and it would be hard to find anyone who waited longer than Ryan. After starting his career with a three-year hitch (1957-'59) as athletic director and football coach at Gainesville (Tex.) High School, he spent 26 years as an assistant in high school, college and the pros before making it with the Eagles.
Ryan, now 55, was the defensive line coach of the New York Jets and Minnesota Vikings when they went to the Super Bowl. His defensive schemes had much to do with the Jets' monumental upset of the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III.
Still, Ryan was only an assistant defensive coach, and it was generally accepted that a man had to be a coordinator to earn serious consideration for a head coaching job.
A rare exception to this unwritten rule is Ryan's pet peeve, Mike Ditka of the Chicago Bears. Ditka was coaching the Dallas Cowboys' receivers and special teams when the late George Halas brought him back to the scene of his Hall of Fame playing days to coach the Bears in 1982.
Therein lies another story, because Ditka inherited Ryan as his defensive coordinator. More about that later.
When Ryan was the defensive line coach on Bud Grant's staff at Minnesota in 1976 and 1977, he worked under Neill Armstrong, the defensive coordinator. Ryan was more or less lost on what the public regarded as Grant's team, and his stature as a coach wasn't enhanced when the Bears' Walter Payton set the still-existing NFL record of 275 yards rushing against the Vikings on Nov. 20, 1977.
Actually, it was hard to figure how Ryan's swaggering, crusty style fit in with the stoic Grant in the first place.
In any case, Ryan finally got his big break at the end of the 1977 season. Jack Pardee, who had just coached the Bears into the playoffs for the first time since they won the championship in 1963, resigned to coach the Washington Redskins. Armstrong was named to succeed Pardee and brought Ryan along as his defensive coordinator.
Ryan at last had reached the plateau from which general managers like to look for their head coaches. Eight years later, after his defense played a key role in the Bears' Super Bowl victory, the Eagles made him their main man.
Not all top assistants are meant to be head coaches, and Armstrong wasn't. The same may be true of Jim Hanifan, Bill Johnson, Dick Nolan, Frank Gansz, Hank Bullough, Paul Wiggin, Tom Shanahan and ex-Charger Coach Al Saunders, all of whom have fallen back to assistant's roles after flings at the top in the NFL.
There also are several NFL assistants who didn't make it as head coaches at major colleges--Ted Tollner, Doug Scovil, Rick Venturi and Leon Burtnett. Tollner, the Chargers' quarterback coach, and Scovil, the Eagles' quarterback coach, spent four years each as head coaches at USC and San Diego State. Tollner also was offensive coordinator at SDSU for eight years.
Ryan calls Scovil "one great quarterback coach" and a man who deserves to be a head coach in the NFL some day. He is also high on the chances of Ted Plumb, the Eagles' assistant head coach and offensive coordinator.
There are countless other head coaching prospects among NFL assistants. A partial list also includes Ron Lynn of the Chargers, Fritz Shurmur (Rams), Floyd Peters (Vikings), Bob Schnelker (Vikings), Johnny Roland (Bears), Joe Bugel (Redskins), Marc Trestman (Browns), David Shula (Cowboys), Steve Sidwell (Saints), Wade Phillips (Broncos) and Vince Tobin, who succeeded Ryan with the Bears.
Phillips, son of Bum Phillips, former coach of the Houston Oilers and New Orleans Saints, was Ryan's defensive coordinator in Philadelphia for three years before taking the same job in Denver this season. Ryan sometimes took the defensive play-calling away from Phillips but said between workouts at Torrey Pines High School this week that there were no hard feelings about it.
"That's bull that was started by you guys," Ryan told reporters. "My relationship with Wade is great."
Ryan is less enthusiastic about his feelings toward Ditka, with whom he has feuded ever since they were thrown together in Chicago. When Armstrong was fired, Ryan's defensive players wrote Halas a letter urging that Ryan be kept as defensive coordinator. Halas complied, so Ryan was there when Ditka arrived.
Some people think the Ryan-Ditka thing is only so much hype, but Ryan scotched that idea.
Asked about it, Ryan said, "I never worked for Mike Ditka, so I . . . don't know what he's got to do with anything anyway."
Ditka hasn't taken any shots at Ryan lately. Perhaps he feels no words are necessary after a recent 27-13 Bear victory that gave him a 4-0 record against Ryan since the two became rivals in 1986.
Nevertheless, the animosity between these men of great egos may be the bitterest of any in the NFL.
When they were employed under the same roof--Ryan's statement that he never worked for Ditka not withstanding--they operated under an uneasy truce.
Ryan made a particularly acidic remark about Ditka in 1984 when bonus checks were distributed to players and coaches on the plane to Washington for a playoff game.
The Bears had led the league in defense en route to a 10-6 record and their first of five consecutive NFC Central titles. Ryan was seated next to safety Gary Fencik, and when he saw the amount on his check, he said, "Well, this is what I get for saving the (bleep's) job."
Addressing this in his autobiography, Ditka wrote, "A man should have enough courage to say it to my face. If he had, very simply, I would have whipped his butt. If he saved my job, I'm glad he did. I appreciate it."
The most heated Ryan-Ditka confrontation occurred during the only game the Bears lost in their Super Bowl season of 1985. The Miami Dolphins beat them, 38-24, and Ditka blamed it at least in part on Ryan's defensive scheme.
Ditka devoted a full chapter in his book to Ryan, and he led it with the following:
"I had only one real blowup with Buddy Ryan. This was at halftime of the Miami game, our only 1985 loss. It was a big one, no question about it. The Dolphins had three wide receivers in the game, and Buddy was telling me a linebacker was the best guy to cover one of them. I said to him, 'Get somebody out there that can cover him.'
"We had a pretty good shouting match on the sideline right before the half. The players saw it. When we got into the locker room, I said, 'We can do it any way you want to do it. We can go right out back and get it on or you can shape your butt up.' "
Later in the chapter, Ditka wrote, "I lived with Ryan because there is no way I'll ever be stupid enough to stand up in a boat . . . and start rocking it. Leave well enough alone, and let's go."
Interestingly, the Eagles haven't had much of a defense since Ryan took over. Their offense has carried them, largely because of the presence of Randall Cunningham at quarterback.
At first, Ryan's gruff nature alienated some of the Eagle veterans. He still has a rather shaky relationship with safety Wes Hopkins, who was more than a little upset when Ryan announced upon his arrival that the Eagles weren't close to being a good football team. They had gone 7-9 the year before under Marion Campbell.
Now Ryan's players love him--most of them, anyway. His biggest step in winning them over was backing them during the 1987 strike. He publicly deplored the three replacement games and ridiculed the men who played in them.
Still, Cunningham would be happier if Ryan would let him do more passing. Ryan prefers the run, Cunningham would rather pass, and Plumb is caught in the middle.
The key to it all, of course, is that the Eagles are 6-2 and only a game out of first in the NFC East.
"It's amazing," Ryan said, "but every player in the NFL wants to play for the Eagles,"
This may or may not be true, but certainly Ryan is in his glory.
"It took the right situation to get me here," he said. "I had other opportunities, but I didn't just want to be a head coach. I handle personnel, who comes and who goes, everything connected with football except contracts, which I don't want any part of anyway.
"If I didn't have all this, I'd still be coaching in Chicago or somewhere. There's no use having the job if you don't have a chance to get it done."