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Head coach, New York Jets
New York, New York

By making himself into a lightning rod, a pugnacious coach shrewdly sets himself apart from the sideline stoics.

Pro football is cruel to its coaches: a season lasts just 16 games, many of which turn on a fumble lost or regained, or a long kick into the wind. For all but the very best and very worst teams, luck plays an enormous role in success or failure. Faced with this miserable state of affairs, coaches tend to control what they can (the players), exerting authority in countless petty ways. In their dealings with the media, they are nearly as obsessive, avoiding any commentary that might put them further out on the limb on which they find themselves. In a game meant to be played without fear, the men with the clipboards exude paranoia. A key to coaching longevity, it seems, is a sort of tight-lipped blandness, a don’t-rock-the-boat mentality that might make it easier to ride out a couple of unlucky seasons in a row.

Brave Thinkers 2011Rex Ryan has cut sharply against this conventional wisdom, producing a one-man carnival of garrulous humor, naked emotion, faith and enthusiasm, undisguised ambition, and an utter fearlessness of embarrassment or mistakes (he readily admits to them). Earlier this year, as the Jets prepared to play the New England Patriots in a game widely expected to reprise the 45–3 whipping the Patriots had given the Jets about a month earlier, Ryan announced, “This is about Bill Belichick versus Rex Ryan … That’s what it’s going to come down to,” noting that he’d been outcoached last time. The media whooped and laughed—Belichick is perhaps the best coach in history, and Ryan seemed to make the game about himself.

Ryan’s coaching did, in fact, play a large role in the Jets’ subsequent victory: beneath the bluster, he is one of the game’s best defensive tacticians. And by inviting personal criticism, he turned media attention away from his players’ performance in the previous matchup. This time, his team played with speed and confidence. The Patriots looked almost exhausted by the mandate not to get riled by or respond to the barbs thrown at them by Ryan and the Jets all week.

In the most corporate and humorless of the big-money sports, Ryan finds advantage in emotion, honesty, and a certain amount of trash talk. And in so doing, he’s become the biggest and most charismatic personality in the game—at least until he has a couple of unlucky seasons in a row.

Image: Al Pereira/New York Jets/Getty Images

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