Ron Lynn: A Matter of Perspective
Sept. 2, 2008
The question took Ron Lynn by surprise.
'If you died today, what would you put on your tombstone?'
John Ralston, the head coach of the USFL's Oakland Invaders, patiently waited for Lynn's answer.
Lynn considered what the other candidates for the defensive coordinator job might have thought: Why did you ask me that? Ask me about football. What a stupid question.
Not to Lynn.
There may not be a better one, he thought.
Lynn, Stanford's first-year assistant head coach and co-defensive coordinator, gave a good enough answer to land the job, beginning a 22-year pro career. He would spend 19 years in the NFL, including 11 as defensive coordinator with the San Diego Chargers, Cincinnati Bengals and Washington Redskins, from 1986-96.
Ralston, who led Stanford to Rose Bowl titles in 1971 and '72, wanted a coach with perspective. Passionate, but not obsessed. He found someone who felt the same way.
Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh saw for himself a man who could rise to the game's highest level and still remain devoted to his family - wife Cynthia, and sons Ryon, John, and Alec. It was one of Harbaugh's lasting impressions of Lynn from their days together on the Oakland Raiders staff in 2002-03.
'I just had a lot of respect for the way he conducted himself as a man,' Harbaugh said. 'Every morning at 7:15, he would call his kids. He'd be in there all morning working, and it was about the time they were finishing up breakfast and ready to go to school. I was always real impressed with that.'
In an age when many football coaches believe that sleep only gets in the way of a good gameplan, Lynn has shown there is another way.
He has certainly coached in those environments: under Jon Gruden and his 3:17 a.m. alarms, alongside Dom Capers and his 17-hour work days, and under Joe Gibbs, who'd been known to pull an all-nighter or two.
But while Lynn respects the lifestyle of a dedicated coach, he is unwilling to be consumed by the game.
'I don't have a problem with going in at 6 and going home at 1 or 2 in the morning, if that's what needs to be done,' he said. 'I just think there are more effective and efficient ways of doing things.'
As a 65-year-old on a staff without any other assistant over 40, Lynn knew he was bound to be scrutinized. He just may not have realized how much.
'We were kind of worried,' senior safety Bo McNally admits. 'The word we used was `crusty.' '
Instead, they got to see a coach who cared about the game as they did and, with two college-age sons, could relate to them on their level.
'He's really energetic and enthusiastic,' McNally said. 'And he's really really knowledgeable.'
Crusty? Generation gap? Those terms don't apply, especially in relation to his aggressive coaching philosophies.
Lynn preaches an attacking and blitzing style. Control the line of scrimmage and force opponents to pass, where they are more vulnerable to mistakes. He'll call the signals from the press box, with co-coordinator Andy Buh providing feedback from the sideline.
Yet Lynn's background is decidedly old school.
Lynn grew up in Struthers, Ohio, the home of the first iron-blast furnace built west of the Allegheny Mountains. His father, Patrick, was a Navy man who saw action in the Pacific during World War II, was ordered to Korea on Ron's first day of first grade, and spent his working life in a foundry.
One of Lynn's first jobs was also at Falcon Bronze, as a 'heater.'
'The worst job in the foundry,' said Lynn, who heated pieces of metal with a pair of tongs over a large furnace.
A chemistry major at Mount Union College in Alliance, Ohio, Lynn had aspirations to go to medical school, but put those aside for coaching.
From Ed Strauss at Struthers High School, Lynn learned how to conduct himself on and off the field. At Mount Union, Ken Wable taught him accountability and responsibility.
At Kent State, Lynn learned organization and motivation from hall of fame coach Don James, who assembled a 1974 staff that also included graduate assistants Nick Saban, Gary Pinkel and Capers, successful coaches all.
When they first met, in 1981, Harbaugh was a Palo Alto High quarterback being recruited by Lynn for California. They dueled for years in the NFL, with Harbaugh's teams going 0-7 against Lynn-coached defenses, and finally joined forces with the Raiders.
When it came time to fill the defensive coordinator's role, Harbaugh never forgot the man whom he could not only talk with about family, but be family. And, with 39 years of coaching experience, Lynn would be an ideal sounding board.
Lynn had been in private business for three years and wasn't necessarily looking to get back into coaching when Harbaugh called. But Lynn soon realized he missed much, the planning and analyzing, the energy of young athletes.
'I think he was probably looking for a little bit of stability,' Lynn said. 'I don't think he was looking for a guy who was going to take another step up the ladder. This is not my walk down the 18th fairway, but I'm probably never going to have another coaching job after here.'
For all these years, Lynn has never forgotten the 'tombstone' question, or given up trying to come up with a proper answer. In some ways, it continues to humble him.
'I'm not sure I know the answer today,' Lynn said. 'I'd like it to be that I was a good father and a good husband. And that I had a good influence with the people with whom I interacted.'
Such may be the epitaph of a passionate football man, who refused to be defined by the game he coached.