Buddy Ryan running horse farm, but remains available to coach

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.'"

Players call.

"Reggie White called last night," Ryan said.

Randall Cunningham called, Ryan said.

"He was almost crying one night," Ryan said.

Cunningham is the quarterback accused of stabbing Ryan in the back after Ryan benched him briefly during last year's playoff loss to the Washington Redskins. It was the third playoff loss in three appearances for Ryan's Eagles, and owner Norman Braman was beginning to remember the losses more than the accomplishment of reaching the playoffs. Cunningham sulked, and Braman agreed that Ryan had embarrassed his star.

"He was upset because I benched him," Ryan said. "I've benched better players than him before. I benched Richard Dent six games because he wouldn't play the trap. I gave Randall his break. He understood that. Whatever he said, it wasn't intentional."

The "players' coach" speaks highly of his horses, too. Eight are stabled at racetracks -- Cincinnati's River Downs, St. Louis's Fairmount Park and Arlington Park. The rest are on the farm, including five yearlings romping together in a field. Ryan is proud of their lineage. He has used connections well to breed to such sires as Bet Twice, Strike Gold, High Brite, Smile, Louisiana Slew and Sonny's Halo.

"They love to run these hills. They're like athletes, well-muscled. I let them run together. They play and bite each other. Makes them more competitive, I think," he said.

If he were selling the yearlings instead of racing, the marks would deter buyers. Ryan is in the high-risk end of the horse business. It is a hobby for him, not a living. Even if his horses run in the money, the purses for which they compete aren't as big as a head football coach's salary. Horses eat whether they win or lose, and they don't go on waivers as easily as players.

"They're pets," Joan said.

Five dogs greet visitors without being introduced formally. Two are strays. The Ryans want to start a herd of cattle, too, but marketing isn't their forte.

"That pit bull dislocated a shoulder. Cost me $200. Then, last deer season, it got shot in the leg. Cost me $300. I've got $500 in that dog, and I don't even want it," Ryan said.

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.

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