PHILADELPHIA -- It was Buddy Ryan's last waltz.
The man who failed to deliver on a five-year promise to bring the Philadelphia Eagles to pro football's "Big Dance" -- the Super Bowl -- was fired yesterday as the team's head coach and replaced by assistant Rich Kotite.
The change was engineered by team owner Norman Braman three days after the Eagles were defeated by the Washington Redskins, 20-6, and eliminated in the first round of the National Football League playoffs for the third straight season.
"It was time to stop being the bridesmaid and become a bride," Braman said.
The Ryan era, filled with bluster, controversy and sweeping change, ended officially yesterday. Unofficially, Ryan's fate was sealed by the playoff loss to the Redskins and the controversy that followed the three-play benching of the team's star, quarterback Randall Cunningham.
Braman and Ryan met at 9:30 a.m. yesterday, and the coach learned that his five-year contract would not be renewed.
"He [Braman] didn't think we'd go on to the next level, whatever that is," Ryan said. "I've been fired before. But for losing -- not for winning."
During the last three seasons, the Eagles won a total of 31 games, but their failure to win a playoff game frustrated the owner. Still, Ryan was unbowed. He stressed that the club made vast improvement during his five-year tenure when he transformed the Eagles into a bullying, belligerent team that matched his coaching personality.
"I got a great opportunity," Ryan said. "I think I did a great job. In this business, you don't feel sorry for Buddy Ryan."
He made no apologies for his often abrasive style.
"You've got to be yourself, otherwise people see through you, you're a phony," said Ryan, who probably will become a leading candidate to take over as coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Buccaneers owner Hugh F. Culverhouse said yesterday it was "too early in our process to make any comments about the viability of any particular candidate."
Braman said he was not always thrilled with Ryan's coaching style or with the Eagles' "bad boy" image. And he said that in future years, he wants to see the Eagles play with more "discipline and precision." But Braman stressed that Ryan's firing had nothing to do with their mismatched personalities.
"I've said all along that my difficulties with Buddy Ryan have been overblown," the owner said. "I've had two difficulties with Buddy Ryan in the last five years. I wish I could say that about my relationship with my wife."
Ryan's firing took the spotlight away from Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson, who was named NFL Coach of the Year yesterday by The Associated Press.
"Well, I guess he got me one last time," said Johnson, who has had a running feud with Ryan for two years. "That's something. I'm shocked. I'm sure he will be in the profession somewhere.
"Buddy had a different style of coaching. He tended to try to get under the other coach's skin. That happened in my case."
After Ryan's firing was announced, several Eagles veterans came to Veterans Stadium and voiced their outrage.
"The owner is stupid. Have you got that on the record," said tight end Keith Jackson, who added he would prefer to play elsewhere. "You usually reward people who take a team to the playoffs three years in a row."
Defensive tackle Jerome Brown called the firing "kind of stupid."
"We'd do things for Buddy we wouldn't do for other coaches," said Brown, who played against the Redskins despite a torn rotator cuff. "I'd sell my body out for him."
Reggie White said the firing could split the team.
"There are a lot of guys on this team who are disgruntled, upset," White said. "What happened causes you to lose faith in the organization."
But Braman moved quickly to name a successor from Ryan's coaching staff. During the late morning and early afternoon, Braman and team president Harry Gamble interviewed Kotite, the 48-year-old offensive coordinator, and Jeff Fisher, the 32-year-old defensive coordinator. Ultimately, they said it was a matter of selecting "the best man" to reach the next step -- a playoff victory and potential Super Bowl berth. Kotite was then rewarded with a three-year contract and Fisher was named to the new coaching staff.
"We have the nucleus of a fine football team," Braman said. "We didn't feel like we wanted to start from scratch. We didn't want to waste that one or two years to take that quantum leap forward."
Kotite appeared overwhelmed by the appointment, calling it "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity." A year ago, Kotite was out of work. After seven seasons as an assistant coach for the New York Jets, he was let go in the purge that followed the firing of head coach Joe Walton after the 1989 season. In February, Ryan hired Kotite to serve as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. After meeting initial resistance from Cunningham, Kotite forged a strong relationship with his pupil. After Saturday's playoff loss, Cunningham openly lobbied for Kotite to be named head coach in the event Ryan was fired.