Weight and see

Slimmer Ryan scales up bid to be head coach

August 17, 2007|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN REPORTER

Everybody thinks the Ravens' biggest loss on defense was Adalius Thomas.

But the Ravens know it was really defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, or at least a chunk of him.

Ryan has come to training camp sporting a new look after dropping 60 pounds in 19 months, most of it since the end of last season.

Now at 290 pounds, Ryan said the main reason for the change was to improve his health, although he acknowledged the weight loss can only help him in his pursuit to become an NFL head coach.

"There's not too many fat guys that are coaches. I don't see how weight can make you a better coach," Ryan said. "But I guess if you're the face of the franchise, then that is important as well."

Ryan, 44, who was named the 2006 NFL assistant coach of the year by Pro Football Weekly and the Pro Football Writers Association, directed the Ravens defense to the No. 1 ranking in the NFL last season and was a finalist for the San Diego Chargers' vacancy.

He is expected to be a top candidate when jobs open up at the end of this season, but coaching football is sometimes not an even playing field.

Weight discrimination seems to be a valid argument when a majority of head coaches look like they hopped off the cover of GQ magazine.

In the image-conscious NFL, only four of the 32 head coaches (Cleveland's Romeo Crennel, Philadelphia's Andy Reid, Seattle's Mike Holmgren and Dallas' Wade Phillips) would be considered extremely overweight.

"Everybody - owners, general managers and fans - all have an image in their minds of what a head coach looks like," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "And when you don't necessarily fall into those parameters ... yeah, it's something that is real. But I think people in the industry recognize Rex as being an outstanding coach. And once you spend time with him, that would belie any concerns or observations you might have."

Even in college football, it took years before hefty coaches such as Maryland's Ralph Friedgen and Notre Dame's Charlie Weis got their long-awaited chance to be head coaches.

Weis, a longtime offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots, told ESPN in 2002 that he had weight-reduction surgery to improve his chances of becoming an NFL head coach.

"I'm not going to deny what the motive was," said Weis, who later sued his doctor for medical malpractice. "Even though there are long-term health benefits, my thoughts were, if I wanted to be a head coach, I had to lose the weight."

The breaking point for Ryan came at the end of the miserable 6-10 season in 2005, when he ballooned to 350 pounds - the biggest he has ever been.

He started to lose some weight, but he still struggled with his eating habits though last year's training camp, when Ryan was spotted late at night carrying a pizza back to his room at the team hotel.

When an assistant coach asked Ryan about it, he said the food was for his son Seth, who had missed dinner.

The next morning, the coach asked Ryan's son about the pizza. "What pizza?" Seth replied.

Said outside linebackers coach Mike Pettine: "He's having a hard time living that story down."

It was about that point when Ryan spoke to the team nutritionist. He lowered his daily calorie intake from 7,000 to about 2,800 by reducing his portions.

When he walks into the team cafeteria, he is handed his own personalized food tray so he doesn't even see what is on the menu for everyone else.

After practice, Ryan exercises with other assistant coaches in their own version of cross-training.

"We run downhill and walk up the hills," Ryan said.

Ryan hasn't veered too often from his healthy path.

He'll occasionally sneak away with a cookie after dinner, and he'll cheat whenever they're serving his biggest vice - Mexican food.

"We all call it Rex-ican food," Pettine said.

Ryan's trimmer frame shocked many of the players.

They used to make a friendly bet with Ryan each year to see if he could get down to a specific weight. This year, they didn't wager anything, and he came back thinner than they ever remember seeing him.

"He's starting to make me feel bad," linebacker Bart Scott said. "His abs are starting to look better than mine."

Joking aside, the players don't expect to keep Ryan as a defensive coordinator for much longer.

"It's only a matter of time," Scott said. "We may be able to hold onto [him] one or two years. Somebody is going to try to break this thing up. People are going to get tired of us playing great defense."

Ryan's goal in football is clear-cut: to follow his father, Buddy, and become an NFL head coach.

His goal for dropping pounds is more vague. He would like to hit 250 pounds, but he is happy with his progress.

So even if his weight loss doesn't lead to a head coaching job, Ryan knows he'll gain more in the long run.

"I love my children and my family," said Ryan, who is married with two teenage sons. "I just want to be with them for a long, long time."

jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

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