Called former Oklahoma State football coach Bob Simmons the other day.
Wanted to talk about Rob Ryan.
“Crazy Rob?” Simmons asked.
He laughed long and loud, then said, “Oh, I'll talk about him. He was fantastic.”
Before the long-haired, straight-shooting Ryan was coordinating defenses and stalking sidelines in the NFL, he was running the defense at OSU. Simmons plucked him from the junior-college ranks in 1997, and even though Ryan stayed in Stillwater for only three seasons, his impact was significant.
What, you thought the Saints were the first defense that Ryan turned around?
New Orleans heads to Seattle today for an NFC divisional playoff game, and Ryan is a big reason why. A season ago, the Saints defense allowed a total of 7,042 yards, the most in NFL history.
That was 440.1 yards a game.
With largely the same personnel, the Saints are allowing only 305.7 yards a game this season.
It's a staggering change.
Ryan's scheme and attitude have done so much to revamp the Saints that NFL types are saying no coach has had a bigger impact on a team this season.
Those who were around Ryan during his OSU days aren't surprised. He's just doing now what he was doing then.
“When Rob came in, he just brought a totally different identity to Stillwater and our defense,” former Cowboy linebacker Kenyatta Wright said. “I loved it.”
Wright was a sophomore when Ryan arrived on campus. While Wright remembers the switch in system — Rob was a disciple of the ultra-aggressive, eight-man-fronted 46 scheme developed by his father and defensive mastermind Buddy — the biggest change that Ryan affected was the Cowboys' mentality.
He demanded a lot from his players. The bar was high. It was put up or shut up.
In a program known as Tailback U that had long relied on offense, Ryan made the defense accountable. They blitzed. They played man-to-man coverage.
And players responded to the demands placed on them.
In 1997, the Cowboys allowed only 19.4 points a game and went to the Alamo Bowl.
In 1998, they were second in the nation with 41 sacks.
In 1999, they ranked 10th in the nation in total defense.
“He really instilled confidence in you, made you feel like you could run through a brick wall,” former Cowboy defender Greg Richmond said.
Richmond was at standout at Douglass High School when Ryan arrived at OSU, and as soon as he met the coach, Richmond knew where he wanted to go.
“It was an easy decision after that,” he said. “I wanted to play for him.”
Richmond never did, though. He redshirted his first year at OSU, and after that season, Ryan left to be the linebackers coach for the Patriots.
“It really hurt me,” Richmond said of Ryan's departure. “I don't think I ever told him that.”
“It really hurt me when he left.”
But Richmond believes that the defense of his generation built on the toughness, aggression and accountability that Ryan instilled. And he suspects the generations after him did the same.
That's why Richmond and Wright still see shades of Ryan in the Cowboys today.
“It just passes on,” Richmond said.
Wright said of today's Cowboys, “They have that fight again, and that's what I'm proud about.”
For as much as the Cowboy faithful credit Boone Pickens, Mike Holder and Mike Gundy for the rise of OSU football, you can't forget the likes of Rob Ryan. He helped to change the attitude and upgrade the talent.
“We had played decent defense before then,” Simmons said, referring to his first two seasons at OSU, “but he was a guy that really rallied the troops.
“All the kids loved playing for him. He took chances.”
“Sometimes he took some chances that I didn't want him to take and we'd talk about it — ‘What the heck are you doin', man?'”
Simmons still asks Ryan that question as the two have remained close, but nowadays, the query relates to Ryan's long gray hair.
“What are you trying to do here?” Simmons will ask of the wavy locks. “What is this?”
Ryan was more of a mullet guy during his OSU days. But then as now, Crazy Rob could coach up a defense.
That has never been a question.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at (405) 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.