The would-be bosses waited and waited, ready for this larger-than-life presence to walk finally through the door.
Rex Ryan was on the New York Jets' list of head-coaching candidates when the team was looking to fill the job in 2009. After interviewing with the St. Louis Rams, Ryan was to meet with Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum and owner Woody Johnson. About 45 minutes after their scheduled appointment, Ryan still hadn't arrived.
"I'm just thinking like, 'Wow, if he can survive being 45 minutes late meeting our owner, then we've got a chance here,' " Tannenbaum would say later.
So in he walked, finally, disheveled and sweating. His breathing was heavy. This was the Jets' first impression, and somehow, it worked.
"That's Rex," Tannenbaum said.
Three years after the Jets overlooked Ryan's appearance — he's gruff, honest and overweight — he has guided the team to two consecutive AFC championship games. In an age of buttoned-up and uptight management in the NFL, when coaches are forced to mute their personalities and withhold information, Ryan and the Jets have done it a different way.
The Chiefs, who will play the Jets today at MetLife Stadium, are among the teams influenced by the Bill Belichick model. That means considerable thought being put into how information is released, if at all, and how it should be done. How coaches look and what players say. It has worked in New England. The philosophy has been far less successful elsewhere.
Ryan, meanwhile, is unlike most NFL coaches. He's colorful and brash, predicting in his introductory news conference that his Jets planned to win the Super Bowl in his first season. And, despite coaching in the era of secrecy, Ryan's Jets have been more successful than most teams with a different kind of agenda.
"You don't have to be like me. You don't have to be like Belichick or be like anybody else," Ryan said this past week. "You've just got to be yourself."
Three years ago, Ryan was willing to do almost anything to be a head coach. He had worked for the Baltimore Ravens since 1999, rising from position coach to defensive coordinator. This followed an impressive college coaching career, which included a brief stop as Bill Snyder's defensive coordinator at Kansas State. Ryan was successful most everywhere, and his defenses in Baltimore were among the NFL's best. But for years, Ryan had been passed over for head-coaching jobs.
"Maybe there was somebody else who looked the part more than I do, looked better in a suit and all that," he said. "Probably couldn't coach football as well as I could, but probably looked better and maybe had more of a media appeal than I did."
But Ryan kept interviewing. He had the pedigree — he and his twin brother, Cowboys coordinator Rob Ryan, are the sons of legendary NFL coach Buddy Ryan — and the resume. What he didn't have was the look. Rex Ryan is big, loud and occasionally unkempt. His weight perhaps prevents him from looking like the face of an NFL team, often a billion-dollar organization.
The years kept passing, and Ryan kept retreating back to Baltimore. What he wouldn't do was change how he talked, how he behaved, how he was.
"There's only 32 of these jobs out there," he said. "You'd do anything. If I had to walk to Alaska, I would've been more than happy to do that. Wherever it is, you take that type of job. But is it worth selling your soul for?"
Often these days, part of the deal for being a head coach is to play the part. It doesn't matter if a man likes to joke or be brash; if he wants to lead an NFL franchise, he has to fit certain criteria. Much of this stems from copying Belichick, who is famously coy with reporters and seems uninterested in discussing his team with anyone outside his most trusted circle.
The odd thing, Ryan said, is that Belichick isn't really like that.
"Belichick is pretty funny. He's got a good sense of humor," said Ryan, who occasionally takes public jabs at Belichick. "He just goes about his business a different way, and that's fine. But I think he's — what you see on camera and all that, might not be exactly who he is to his players."
The act works in New England because Belichick won three Super Bowls in the previous decade. It's difficult to question that kind of success. But then Belichick's prote(acu)ge(acu)s began getting jobs elsewhere, and many of them tried to emulate exactly what Belichick did in New England. Executives and owners found that attractive, because if that's how Belichick did it, that must be the key to winning championships.
The problem, Ryan said, is that without the big wins, it comes off as disingenuous. And players aren't always easily fooled.
"If you're not being yourself," Ryan said, "they're going to see right through it.... I think that's ridiculous. There's a lot of guys like that. They'll come in with these binders, like, 'This is how organized I am. This is this.' Well, the big thing is, you've got to get your players to play for you."
When the Jets began looking for a coach in 2009, Tannenbaum said, they put aside the 21st Century template of NFL coaching. They wanted a defensive-minded coach, but beyond that, Tannenbaum and Johnson were willing to have open minds.
So in walked Ryan, that burly and sweaty pile of tardiness, and he sat down and won the men over with a vision that was more interesting than how well his suit fit.
"He just sat down," Tannenbaum said, "and really spoke from the heart."
The Jets took a chance on him. Ryan finally had his opportunity. A year after finishing 4-12, leading to the firing of a Belichick pupil in Eric Mangini, Ryan's team reached the AFC title game despite finishing the regular season with four losses in its final five contests. A year later, the Jets were playing again for the conference championship.
This season has been occasionally rocky — the Jets are 7-5, and quarterback Mark Sanchez has been unreliable — and Ryan's career took a side road last year, when his wife, Michelle, was found to have posted foot-fetish videos on YouTube and other material on dating sites. Ryan hasn't publicly discussed it other than calling it a "personal matter."
But the Jets have continued winning, and among the 11 coaches who were hired in '09, Ryan is one of six to still have his job, and perhaps only he and Detroit's Jim Schwartz remain secure after three seasons. Chiefs coach Todd Haley, also hired in '09, is among those whose future is uncertain, though he has backed away this season from the all-business approach favored by GM Scott Pioli, who worked with Belichick in New England.
Ryan, for his part, said he makes no apologies for the way he coaches or speaks or looks. He said other coaches should follow his lead.
"You know, I don't have a whole lot of respect for it," he said of coaches who try to be something they're not. "I guess I'm different than a lot of guys. But so be it, you know?"