When the professor was All Pro
Cleveland Browns’ Coach Blanton Collier used to complain that his star quarterback would overthink things. He wanted Frank Ryan to rely on his instincts and powerful arm to win NFL football games. But “Doc” Ryan liked to ponder probabilities — both on and off the field.
In an era when professional athletes often worked second jobs, Ryan did way more than drive a cab. He taught advanced mathematics at Case Institute of Technology. Many alumni fondly recall the tough Texan who might limp into class Monday mornings, then neatly fill the blackboard with equations. Sportswriters called him doctor, poking fun at his PhD, but Ryan took it in stride. He once answered a question about a windy game on the lakefront by discussing Bernoulli’s Principle.
A physics major at Rice Institute, Ryan continued his studies in the NFL. A trade brought him to Cleveland in 1962 and he was soon the starting quarterback.
As a player, he was sensational. Ryan led the league in touchdown passes in 1964 and 1966 and remains one of the NFL’s all-time leaders in yards per completion, at 14.7. Most notably, he was the last Brown’s quarterback to win an NFL championship, in 1964. Six months later, Rice awarded him his doctorate in mathematics.
Ryan joined the Case faculty as an assistant professor in 1967, the year he made his third Pro Bowl. He taught advanced math electives to juniors, seniors, and graduate students, who knew better than to ask about football. The Browns traded him in 1971, but he remained on the Case faculty through 1974.
Devoted to mathematics his entire career, Ryan retired as a vice president and professor of mathematics at Rice University. He lives with his wife, Joan, in Vermont.
Frank Ryan explains the situation to Coach Blanton Collier on the sidelines of a game. Photo courtesy of the Cleveland Browns.