Rex Ryan: This Generation’s Version of Chuck Knox?

Chuck Knox, or “Ground Chuck” was a Bills head coach with a pedigree already in place when he was hired by the Buffalo Bills in January of 1978. He was a huge hire at the time. Biggest since Lou Saban. Older fans probably remember our beloved Mr. Wilson’s fatal flaw as an owner was his steadfast refusal to spend money on acquiring coaching talent. Fans paid a dear price for that philosophy over the years.

Venerable Bills fans survived decades of Hank Bulloughs, Kaye Stephensons, and Harvey Johnsons. As I’ve lamented in past articles, the history of the Bills is littered with the carcasses of head coaches left for dead after ruinous coaching experiences with the Bills.

Now, with new ownership off and running, the Bills are spending money on acquiring the best front office in the NFL in terms of experienced talent. After an exhaustive search (literally), the Pegulas landed arguably the biggest name the Bills ever hired at the position in Rex Ryan.

Some ancients like myself may remember (with a smile) that Knox coached the Bills back to the playoffs after a long drought during the mid-1970s. He was allegedly let go as the head coach of the Bills by Mr. Wilson after being low-balled for a decent salary extension.

imageIt was rumored that after Mr. Wilson made what Knox perceived as a puny offer, ‘Ground Chuck’ told Ralph that he had insulted them both and walked out the door. Knox apparently decided to bolt instead of tangling with a second owner in his career. He also allegedly left his position with the Rams because of a rift with owner Carroll Rosenbloom. Apparently it was a pattern for Knox to have cantankerous relationships with owners. Good for him for standing by his principles!

The comparison between Rex Ryan and Chuck Knox is interesting for many reasons. Both have/had extensive football acumen. However, the dots definitely stop connecting when comparing the two personalities. Chuck Knox was as serious as Rex Ryan is ebullient.

Yet despite the stark contrast in style, Knox and Ryan’s philosophies and schemes are/were remarkably similar. I’ll leave the x’s and o’s to the experts as far as the specifics, but their common emphasis on a building a strong running game with great defense is similar in both schemes.

However, Knox coached during an era when players did not make the kind of coin they do today. My recollection of Chuck Knox as a coach for the Bills was that he appeared demanding, autocratic, quietly aggressive, and defensive both in scheme and personality. On the outside looking in as a fan, he seemed to be a coach that players respected, but was tough to the bone.

Chuck Knox would be referred in today’s vernacular as a “hard ass”. As entertaining as Rex Ryan is as a larger-than-life personality, Knox was his alter ego. Knox displayed a no-nonsense demeanor that defined his legacy as a turnaround specialist.

Despite differences in personality, both coaches inherited messy situations. Rex is blessed to start out with a team that had a 9-7 record in the previous season. In each of Knox’s three gigs as head coach (Rams, Bills, Seahawks), he started with teams that were basement dwellers. Despite the challenge, Knox got his players to play at a very high level on both sides of the ball.

Take a moment to check out the Bills roster in 1980 and you can see similarities with today’s roster in terms of talent. For those that remember watching these guys, this was a deep and talented roster, especially on defense.

It was a Chuck Knox coached team that ended the legacy of the Miami Dolphin’s domination against the Bills during the entire decade of the 70s. This time around, Rex Ryan is charged with ending this millennium’s version of David and Goliath with the Patriots. Fortunately, he appears to despise them as much as Bills fans, so kudos to the Pegulas for getting that (still) big fish into the boat.

Check out this summary of the 1980 season for the Buffalo Bills. They were a team on the verge of great things, just like the Buffalo Bills are today. You can definitely see why older Bills fans might see similarities with the Bills of that era.

Also, if you really want to get a real handle on Chuck Knox, his biography on Wikipedia is a good read. He apparently was a rebellious personality who ridiculed ‘unofficial NFL rules’ of refusing to hire African American players to play QB, MLB, or C positions on teams at that time. Bravo to Chuck Knox!

If you examine the entire body of Knox’s career, there is a solid argument to be made that he is worthy of Hall of Fame consideration. The man was a turnaround specialist extraordinaire. He lacks Super Bowl rings, and that seems to have hurt his chances. Too bad, because if you watched the teams he turned around (Rams, Bills, Seahawks), all three were really bad when he was named head coach. I’m suggesting they were nearly Buffalo Sabres ‘bad’!

Unlike Rex Ryan, Knox was hardly the clown that Rex is with the public and media. Chuck Knox had a seriousness of purpose in the way he interacted with the media. He was also unlike Rex Ryan in that he had a great deal of expertise working with offensive linemen.

He was even an offensive line coach along the way. He created schemes and training for offensive lineman that are the back bone of what is still being used today in terms of training.

Other than Rex’s criteria for big and mean, his forte to date seems to be limited to the defensive side of the ball, whereas Knox seemed to have a greater grasp of the x’s and o’s on both sides of the ball. Hopefully Rex has learned from misadventures on offense that occurred while he coached the Jets.

Furthermore, early impressions of Greg Roman reassure me that he is a coach that Rex could leave alone and be more than fully competent to create an offensive juggernaut. Sometimes the best way to be most productive is to step back and let the experts do their job. Rex has mellowed some, and seems happy to surround himself with an excellent staff.

Taking this trip down memory lane remembering the ‘Ground Chuck’ era has been fun. Though there are some similarities as well as sharp differences between the head coaches and the teams from both eras, one thing remains clear. Rex Ryan is in good company when mentioned in the same sentence as Chuck Knox.

About Robyn Mundy

Robyn Mundy is Editor-in-Chief of the BillsMafia blog at She's a retired oncology nurse & psychotherapist who loves to write about her life-long passion for the Buffalo Bills, and occasionally something of clinical or social relevance. Robyn lives with her husband Gary and their dogs in the foothills of the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming. Robyn is also a proud founding sponsor. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynMundyWYO.

One Reply to “Rex Ryan: This Generation’s Version of Chuck Knox?”

  1. Not completely accurate. Knox did do a great job of turning the Rams around instantly, and he was 12-2 the first year. But the year before he was coach, the Rams were 6-7-1, which does not qualify in my mind as a “basement dweller.”