Ryan, running horse farm, doesn't miss NFL grind

August 11, 1991|By Don Pierson | Don Pierson,Chicago Tribune

LAWRENCEBURG, Ky. -- Tucked among less prosperous spreads in the heart of horse country, Ryan Farm sticks out like another surprising Buddy Ryan quote.

Ryan and his wife, Joan, found the 176 acres 17 years ago and transformed a junky, hilly site into the best-looking place in the neighborhood. There are many richer horse farms in the area, but not on this back road, where the Ryans' big brick home sits overlooking black-fenced paddocks that characterize the spectacular Lexington-Frankfurt scenery.

Except for the NFC Pro Bowl shirt Ryan is wearing from his 1985 appearance when he coached for the Chicago Bears, there are few reminders that this is the home of a football man. Without a team this time of year, Ryan should at least look lost. He insists that he isn't.

"People keep asking if I miss it. They think I'm up here moaning. Shoot, I don't miss that football a bit. Too many things to do," Ryan said.

A daughter-in-law is painting a fence. Every off-season -- June for a football coach -- the Ryans would work the farm. Sons Jim Jr. and twins Rob and Rex were paid $1,000 a month when they were in college.

"I never gave them a day off," Ryan said. "One summer, they said, 'Dad, we'll work for nothing if you just give us a day off.' "

Together, they moved the original house and turned it into the manager's place. They got rid of worn-out buildings and machinery. It was like rebuilding a football team from scratch.

"See that shed?" Ryan said. "Put it up during the 1982 strike. Every year, we sunk our playoff money into it."

The Ryans have visitors this day, John and Judy Willard, horse experts who live in a neighboring town. Ryan has a list of what he feeds his 29 horses to show to Judy Willard, a professor at Morehead State whose doctorate is in horse nutrition. John manages Offutt-Cole horse farm, a virtual 24-hour-a-day job that leaves little time for following football. Still, John wonders whether Ryan won't miss the spotlight.

"I've got 1,000 things to do," Ryan said. "I make a list every night and never check off a thing."

People call. A television station did a short piece on Ryan after the Philadelphia Eagles -- Buddy's Eagles -- opened their exhibition season against the Buffalo Bills in London.

"A writer from Delaware called," Ryan said. "I told him: 'Let those new guys sell your papers for you. I did it long enough.'"

Ryan was fired after his contract expired, so there are no paychecks coming in. He turned 57 soon after he was fired, but neither his age nor his job insecurity seem to bother him.

"Mike Lynn wanted me to coach the New York team in the World League," Ryan said. "Said they paid the coaches $100,000. I told him: 'I'm a major league coach, not a minor league coach. What kind of players do they get for $20,000? Then Lynn told [Vikings coach] Jerry Burns, 'That Ryan is going to need a job some day.'"

One will come, he expects.

"It will have to be a good one before I'll take it. I had planned to retire at 55. I won't take just any job," he said.

Would he wait for an expansion team in 1994?

"No. I've been through that rebuilding," he said.

Ryan watched the first quarter of the Eagles-Bills game in the American Bowl.

"Boring. I went out and mended fences," he said.

"You know, I can look at a football player and tell right away whether he can play. I call tell you how good he will be. I can't do that with horses. I can't tell if they'll be any good. But I'm sure there are people who can," Ryan said.

Some people can tell things about football teams, too.

"I thought we were two players away from the Super Bowl," Ryan said. "If they don't get off to a good start this year, it will be tough. Of course, they start with Green Bay and Phoenix. It'll be hard for them not to get off to a good start."

The horses are out to pasture now, and maybe Ryan is, too. But on this day, he still looked more like a football coach without a team than a horseman with a farm.

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