July 04, 2016
One of my first big assignments when I got to Philadelphia was to cover Buddy Ryan and the unforgettable 1986 Eagles. My dogged pursuit of the truth earned me a Pulitzer Prize nomination that year and a quarter-century of regret.
The fact is, I totally misread what Ryan was doing here, an embarrassing fact that haunted me again last week when one of the most popular coaches in our city’s history passed away at 85.
Years before my arrival in the sports mecca, the professors at Columbia University hammered into me the idea that professional teams needed to be covered like City Hall. They demanded that I ask the tough questions and treat every answer with skepticism. Hero worship was dead, they said. Find the real story.
If I needed any further proof that Ryan was smarter than I was in the late 1980s, I got it last week when caller after caller on my WIP show gushed over how much they loved Buddy and his take-no-prisoners defense. The man is a legend because of who he was, not how many games he won.
In fact, Ryan never won a playoff game in his five seasons here, never accomplished anything close to the Super Bowl victory in Chicago that finally earned him a job as an NFL head coach. But even in this bottom-line city, his ultimate failure didn’t matter because he did so much to bond with the fans, to build interest in the Eagles.
How did he do it? He brought in the kinds of players that Philadelphia could love, and then armed them with an aggressive defensive style that served the base instincts of our fans.
The menace of Seth Joyner, the tenacity of Reggie White and Clyde Simmons, the vicious (sometimes illegal) efforts of Andre Waters . . . . they made every game an event. Ryan won fans – thousands and thousands of them, for generations to come.
He also earned fan approval by humiliating the Dallas Cowboys whenever possible, by placing bounties and requiring body bags, and by speaking openly about whatever was on his mind. Buddy made an impression so strong, it has outlived him.
After Ryan’s death last Tuesday, our show sent out a reporter to a local tavern, where he spoke mostly to fans who were not born when Ryan coached here. The young people all knew who he was, and many recalled how their dads had proudly recounted for them the exploits of those beloved teams.
Back then, I thoroughly missed this phenomenon, totally ignored Ryan’s impact on the psyche of the city. I was obsessed with holding him to his promises – so much so that he stopped talking to me midway through that 1986 season.
Many years later, I developed a long-overdue appreciation for the coach, and he appeared several times on my show to remind me of how dumb I had acted. At one point, I even admitted I kind of admired him now that I could see what he had accomplished. He said, with a typical twinkle in his eye, that he didn’t hate me quite as much.
The great irony of this story is that interest in the Eagles grew so much higher in Philadelphia because of Ryan that I profited greatly as a sports-radio talk show host, a job I continue to hold 27 years later largely because of the football passion he enhanced.
Along the way, I finally figured out what the coach was trying to teach me. Recognize the significance of fans, and be honest with them. Above all, understand what is important to them, and then serve that agenda.
Buddy Ryan died last week, but not really. Every sellout crowd, every loud cheer – and yes, every shattering boo – will forever be a part of his remarkable legacy in Philadelphia.
Nick Williams is within reach of every young baseball player’s dream – big league stadiums bustling with fans, chartered planes, fawning groupies and more money than he could ever spend. There’s only one problem: Apparently, he is not smart enough to see this. Apparently, he would rather be the next Dominic Brown.
By now, Williams has made a strong case for promotion to the Phillies, batting .290 with eight homers and 40 RBIs in Lehigh. With neither corner outfielder coming close to those numbers here, the Phils would be nuts not to want to see what the best prospect in the Cole Hamels trade can do at Citizens Bank Park.
Unfortunately, they can’t, because Williams simply won’t let them promote him. He was benched two weeks ago – and forced to sit next to Lehigh manager Dave Brundage – for not running out a pop-up that dropped, and then he repeated the misdeed last week on a grounder back to the mound, earning his second benching.
The man is one good week away from all of the perks listed above, and he somehow cannot bring himself to run hard for 90 feet four times a game? And then, to make matters much worse, Williams has been reinforcing this insanity with some remarkably stupid comments.
“I’ve never ever cared about what people think about me,” the 22-year-old Williams said, responding last week to the negative reaction he has been getting on social media. “If their last name isn’t Williams or they don’t pay me, put food on my table and a roof over my head, then I could care less.”
I read that statement on my WIP radio show last Wednesday to Phillies manager Pete Mackanin, and he recoiled.
“I don’t like it,” Mackanin said. “. . . We’re trying to establish a culture of playing the game the right way.”
Five years ago, Dom Brown was Nick Williams, and we got a chance to interview the young outfielder during one of our spring-training shows. After 10 minutes of cocky, selfish, obnoxious banter, Brown walked out of the press box to a chorus of heads shaking.
“He’ll never make it,” my co-host, Al Morganti, said.
Brown is 28 now, and hitting .226 in AAA Buffalo.
Are you listening, Nick Williams?
One of the most perplexing mysteries in recent Philadelphia sports is the deep animosity fans feel for Fox play-by-play broadcaster Joe Buck. A down-the-middle announcer, Buck somehow has alienated viewers even more than his partner in the NFL booth, Troy Aikman.
How can a mild Midwesterner like him make more enemies here than an evil, vile ex-Cowboy?
I had an opportunity to pose that question to Buck last week on my WIP radio show, and the answer was intriguing. The son of legend Jack Buck said the contrast between an objective broadcast like his NFL games or his national baseball contests and the usual homer approach of local crews is the main cause of the venom.
He has a point. Eagles fans, he acknowledges, never miss a chance to heckle him when he does a game at Lincoln Financial Field, even more so than Aikman. Compared to, say, Merrill Reese, Buck comes across as anti-Eagle.
In baseball, Buck made no friends here in 2008, even though the Phillies won the World Series. The outcry then was to allow Harry Kalas to either join the regular national crew or provide an alternate broadcast. Of course, Fox had no interest in splintering the audience, or in diminishing the role of its regular broadcasters.
It is also worth noting that Buck has enemies in many other cities, too. Just last year, there was a petition campaign to get him removed from the booth because Kansas City fans thought he had a bias toward the New York Mets in the World Series.
After Buck’s appearance on my show last week – during which he displayed a winning wit and genuine warmth – the WIP phone lines were still flooded with dissenters. An Internet poll involving hundreds of voters showed that 63 percent of Philadelphia sports fans still hate him.
I don’t get it. In a national broadcast world riddled with tired acts like Chris Berman and Dick Stockton, Joe Buck shines. It’s time for us to acknowledge Buck’s excellent work.
Then we can turn our attention back where it belongs – to hating Troy Aikman.
And finally ...
• The further into Aaron Nola’s slump he goes, the more it seems likely that the Phillies miscalculated his potential as a No. 1 starter. The young pitcher got pummeled again over the weekend, and now he’s being given a “head-clearing” break until after the All-Star break. Next up to audition for the top spot in the rotation: Vince Velasquez.
• The Philadelphia police investigation into an alleged assault by Eagles wide receiver Nelson Agholor of a dancer at a Center City strip club is now in the hands of D.A. Seth Williams. Sound familiar? The same thing happened in the LeSean McCoy assault case last winter. Williams did nothing then. Will he do nothing again? Stay tuned.
• ESPN The Magazine offered a ludicrous defense last week of Sam Hinkie’s three-year tenure as Sixers GM. Here’s my rebuttal to their claim that Hinkie is a forward thinker who exploited the NBA system: 47-199. In three seasons, he was 152 games under .500. He did not win, on or off the court. End of story.
• All you need to know about the recent surge in salaries for NBA players is this: Evan Turner, a bust as the Sixers’ No. 2 draft pick in 2010, just signed a deal with Portland for four years and $70 million. It makes you wonder what he would have gotten if he had actually reached his potential, doesn’t it?
• The Sixers hired Jim O’Brien to join coach Brett Brown’s staff, and it will be interesting to see if Brown’s positive aura can rub off on one of the biggest grumps in Philadelphia sports history. A terrific basketball man, O’Brien has been foiled his entire career – including a stint as Sixers head coach – by his sour public demeanor. Smile this time, Jim. Just smile.