Jets’ Ryan started at HU

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Ties explored in ESPN column

By Dave Kavanaugh

New Mexico Highlands University’s football program got a plug — kind of, sort of — in a national sports column this week.

Rex Ryan, the not-so-soft-spoken head coach of the New York Jets, is the subject of a piece by ESPN’s Gene Wojciechowski. The column focuses on Ryan’s humble start as defensive coordinator for NMHU under George Martinez in the late 1980s.

Among those interviewed by Wojciechoswski are Martinez and onetime NMHU linebacker Mike Ulibarri, now head coach at West Las Vegas.

In 1989, Ryan’s main claim to fame was his football lineage. His father Buddy Ryan was something of an NFL icon and the mastermind of a 4-6 defensive scheme that took pro football by storm in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Martinez hired Rex Ryan — whose only previous experience had been as defensive ends coach with Eastern Kentucky — to run the Cowboys’ defense and serve as assistant head coach.

Ryan stayed on board only one year before taking a similar post at NCAA Division I Morehead State from 1990 to ‘93.

In ‘94, he got his first NFL gig as a linebackers and defensive line coach with Arizona Cardinals under his dad. After brief stints with D-I schools Cincinnati, Oklahoma and Kansas State, Ryan returned to the NFL and worked with the Baltimore Ravens for nine years, eventually becoming defensive coordinator and assistant head coach — similar to his role at Highlands nearly two decades earlier.

Ryan’s prowess in building the Ravens’ vaunted defense, credited with leading the team to a Super Bowl victory in 2000 and an AFC title in ‘08, led to a head coaching job with the Jets in ‘09. The Jets finished 9-7 in Ryan’s first year, then 11-5 this past season.

New York opened this year’s playoff run by getting past Indianapolis and then stunning New England 28-21 this past weekend to advance to an AFC championship game in Pittsburgh.

During his tenure with the Jets, Ryan has garnered considerable attention for bold, brash public statements — guaranteeing victories and taking jabs at Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and other opponents. Critics have assailed Ryan for making himself the center of attention with such comments, even as some say that Ryan knows what he is doing — shifting the pressure from his players to himself and rallying them for battle.

In the ESPN.com article, which appeared Tuesday, columnist Wojciechowski notes that Ryan had much of the same approach as far back as his Highlands days.

The article quotes Martinez as calling Ryan, his father and brother Rob (Dallas’ new defensive chief in waiting) as “geniuses” with “unbelievable” rapport with their players.

Also in the article, Ulibarri hails Rex Ryan as his mentor, a man invested emotionally in his teams’ fortunes.

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Interestingly — kind of, sort of — there is another loose NMHU connection to this year’s NFL playoffs.

Danny Woodhead, a running back for the Jets’ archrival New England Patriots, was a record-breaking star for Chadron State College a few years ago. Chadron, of course, is one of Highlands’ rivals in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference.

On Sept. 30, 2006, Woodhead — then a junior — had a particularly big day at the Cowboys’ expense, rushing for 273 yards and four touchdowns as the Eagles doubled up NMHU 40-20 at Perkins Stadium. He also caught three passes for 44 yards.

Woodhead did that kind of thing to a lot of opponents. He ran for 324 yards against Wayne State, also in ‘06, to set a school record.

He finished with 2,756 rush yards in that season — averaging 8.0 yards per carry — and 7,962 for his career, and both are Eagles records.

Woodhead’s 91-yard run from scrimmage vs. NMHU in 2005 is the second-longest ever by a CSC back.