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100 Things Bills Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die
By Jeffrey J. Miller
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2012 Jeffrey J. Miller
All rights reserved.
Ralph J. Wilson Jr. gave the gift of professional football back to Western New York when he took a flyer on the renegade American Football League in 1959. Since that time, he has shared the same highs and lows as the fans who bleed red, white, and royal blue out of loyalty to their team. It is to Wilson's credit that the Bills are one of just two of the original eight AFL franchises that have never relocated out of their original territory (the other being the Denver Broncos). Since as far back as the 1960s, Wilson has endured rumors that he planned to sell the Bills or move the franchise to a more lucrative municipality, but through it all, the Bills have remained in the area and have thrilled, angered, excited, disappointed, and — most of all — captivated fans over the course of more than five decades.
Wilson was born in Columbus, Ohio, on October 17, 1918, but grew up in Detroit, Michigan, becoming an avid follower of the Detroit Tigers baseball team. He learned to appreciate football when the NFL's Portsmouth Spartans moved to the Motor City in 1934 and became the Detroit Lions.
Wilson enlisted in the Navy in 1941 and spent five years minesweeping in both the Mediterranean and the Pacific. In 1948, Wilson and his father, Ralph Sr., threw in with a group of Detroit-based businessmen to purchase shares in the Lions from their Chicago-based owner Fred Mandel.
"They were not going to sell a majority interest," Wilson said. "There was going to be 2 or 3 percent to 60 businessmen. My father and I — being residents here — went over. He used to take me to the games, or I'd go with somebody else when the Lions moved to Tiger Stadium. I had nothing to do with the management [and] was not on the board of directors of the Lions. I was just a big fan of the game, and in those days the Lions had a great team. They had Bobby Layne and Doak Walker."
As the game of professional football gained popularity throughout the 1950s, so did Wilson's desire to own a team of his own. "In those days, there were only 12 teams in pro football," Wilson observed. "When they went on national television, the sport became very popular because people all over the country where they didn't even have teams could see the games. Besides liking it very much, I could see that the game was becoming very popular, so I tried to buy a franchise — expansion or existing team, mostly an existing team. George Halas was the chairman of the expansion committee for the NFL, but they weren't looking to expand."
Wilson recalled the momentous day when he learned about a new football league being formed by a young man from Dallas, Texas. "I was up in Saratoga, New York, at the races, and I read in the New York Times that there was a young man named Lamar Hunt in Dallas who wanted to start a new league," Wilson recalled. "He went to the NFL and wanted an expansion team for Dallas, and they said no.
"In those days," he continued, "the Hunt family was one of the richest in the world. So Lamar said he'd start his own league. He was much younger than me — I was about 40, he was in his late twenties. He and Barron Hilton in Los Angeles and Bud Adams in Houston got together and they started the American Football League. They already had a franchise in Denver, and they hoped to have a franchise in Miami."
Wilson flew down to Florida to meet with the city of Miami's power brokers but came away disappointed. "We got a lot of opposition from the city council and the University of Miami. They didn't want the competition, and the city council said, 'We had a team down here [the AAFC Miami Seahawks] that went broke. We're gonna wait for the NFL. Maybe someday they will expand and come down here.' So I came home and forgot about it."
There were other cities out there hungry for football, and Hunt kept after Wilson in hopes that he would be interested in placing a team somewhere else. "A few days later, Lamar called me and said, 'Ralph, we need an eighth team ... to even out the league,'" said Wilson. Hunt suggested Wilson consider a few other cities, including St. Louis, Cincinnati, Louisville, and Buffalo.
After mulling it over, Wilson called a couple of friends whom he thought might be able to provide some sage counsel. "I called Nick Kerbawy, who had been the general manager of the Lions," said Wilson, "and he recommended Buffalo. He said there was a lot of fan interest over there, and they weren't taken in with the Browns and 49ers when the All-America [Football] Conference folded. I also called Edgar Hayes, who was the sports editor of the Detroit Times, and he said the same thing. Ed said, 'Listen, Ralph, let me set up a luncheon meeting with you and a man named Paul Neville, the editor of the Buffalo Evening News.' I said, 'Gee, don't bother with that — I'm really not interested. I don't know anybody over there.' He said, 'Just go over and have lunch with him.' I said, 'All right.' So he set up a lunch, and I flew over there.
"Paul Neville was a big football fan, as practically everybody in Buffalo is. He took me around downtown and showed me old War Memorial Stadium [at that time known as Civic Stadium]. It had a seating capacity of 30,000 to 35,000, which was certainly good enough for a new league. We had lunch and went back and forth, and I said, 'Listen, Paul, if I give you this franchise and place it in Buffalo, will your newspaper support me? I'll give you a team for three years, and we'll see what happens. Maybe the league will go bust, maybe I'll go bust!' He said, 'Oh yeah, we'll support you.' And I always kidded because after the three years was up, that was the last time they supported me."
That November, Wilson signed a lease with the city of Buffalo, and the Buffalo Bills were born. The league — like the many other American Football Leagues that came before it — was initially scoffed at by observers. There was even some doubt within their own ranks, for it was Wayne Valley, an executive with the Oakland Raiders franchise, who dubbed the group of owners "the Foolish Club."
"It was just a wild gamble, because bucking the NFL was a major task." Wilson observed. "It was like starting an automobile company and bucking General Motors."
Early on, Wilson was one of only three owners to maintain solid financial footing (along with Hunt and Adams). To his credit and the good fortune of the AFL, he recognized that the league's ultimate success depended on the success of each of the individual franchises. He backed up that understanding by loaning significant cash to two struggling franchises (Oakland and Boston) just to keep the overall venture afloat. In addition, he was instrumental in formulating AFL policies that ensured long-term success, such as gate and television revenue sharing. Often referred to today as "the conscience of the NFL," it was Wilson who lobbied most strenuously to have AFL games postponed on the Sunday after President John F. Kennedy's assassination. (The NFL chose to play.)
Wilson's mid-1960s Bills were an AFL powerhouse that delivered two league titles to Buffalo and established a physical style of play that forever endeared the team to the city and region. The franchise's success on the field has risen and fallen over the years, but the connection of the team to its home has remained strong.
Wilson has served on several league committees over the past half-century, but perhaps none were more important than his participation in the AFL-NFL merger negotiations. He has been an ardent promoter of the team's charitable endeavors and received the Seymour H. Knox III Humanitarian Award in 2003. Wilson and his wife, Mary, established the Ralph Wilson Medical Research Foundation in 1999 and have contributed millions to that worthy cause, which benefits, among other organizations, Buffalo's Roswell Park Cancer Institute.
For more than five decades, the hallmark of Wilson's ownership has been loyalty — not only to Western New York and the fans, but also to his employees. Numerous are the stories describing some humanitarian act on his part, creating jobs within the organization, or coming to the rescue of a former player in need. He knows everyone in the organization by name and even receives hugs from some of his employees when he arrives from out of town.
The Wilsons reside in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. He is one of only three major sports-franchise owners who has owned the same team for more than 50 years (George Halas of the Chicago Bears and Bud Adams of the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans are the others). Wilson's daughter, Christy Wilson Hoffman, has been involved with the team since 1991, serving as a merchandising consultant. Another daughter, the late Linda Bogdan, became the league's first female scout when she joined the organization in 1986. In 2006, she was named vice president and assistant director of college and pro scouting, the position she held at the time of her passing in 2010.
In 1989, Mr. Wilson's name was placed on the Wall of Fame in Rich Stadium (which was, of course, renamed in Wilson's honor in 2000). In 1992, he was inducted into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. He received the ultimate gridiron honor when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on August 8, 2009, going in with Bruce Smith, one of his team's all-time greats. Although there continues to be concern over the viability of small -market teams like Buffalo in the multibillion-dollar world of today's NFL, Ralph Wilson's ongoing efforts have provided the city with more than 50 years of pro football thrills and success that has fallen just shy of a Super Bowl championship.CHAPTER 2
Mary Levy is undeniably the most successful coach in the history of the Buffalo Bills. Not only does he hold the club record for most wins by a coach (112) and overall winning percentage (61.5), he also holds the record for most playoff appearances (eight) and division titles (six). He is also the only coach in NFL history to take his team to four straight Super Bowls.
Very impressive credentials, to be sure, but anyone who has had the pleasure of meeting Levy in person is more likely to walk away thinking he has just met a professor rather than a football coach. That shouldn't come as a surprise, though, since Levy was a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Coe College and holds a master's degree in English history from Harvard. He is known to quote Winston Churchill, Dwight Eisenhower, or even Charles Dickens to inspire not only football players but those with whom he comes into contact in everyday life.
Levy's unlikely journey to pro football immortality began in Chicago, Illinois, where he was born Marvin Daniel Levy on August 3, 1925. The day after his graduation from South Shore High School in 1943, Levy, along with a bunch of school chums, enlisted in the Army Air Forces. Upon being discharged in 1946, he entered the University of Wyoming but quickly transferred to Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. At Coe, Levy lettered in football, track, and basketball while obtaining a degree in English literature. In 1950, Levy entered Harvard University to pursue his master's.
In 1951, Levy was hired as an English and history teacher at St. Louis Country Day School, and his position included the responsibilities of coaching the school's football and basketball teams. Two years later, he returned to Coe College as an assistant football coach under Dick Clausen, who had been Levy's head coach while he played there. When Clausen moved on to the University of New Mexico in 1954, he took much of his staff, Levy included. Levy was elevated to head coach at UNM in 1958 and over the next two seasons guided the Lobos to a 14–6 record, earning Skyline Conference Coach of the Year honors in both years. Off that success, Levy was hired in 1960 as the head coach at the University of California at Berkeley. Despite having a young, innovative assistant named Bill Walsh on his staff and also recruiting star quarterback Craig Morton, Levy's record over the next four seasons was a dismal 8–29–3.
In 1964, Levy moved on to the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, where he twice earned Southern Conference Coach of the Year honors and guided the Indians to a Southern Conference championship in 1966 during his five-year stint. The Tribe's 27–16 win against Navy in 1967, led by future Bills quarterback Dan Darragh, is considered one of the greatest upsets in college football history.
Levy found he missed the hustle and bustle of metropolitan living. He got his chance to return to big-city life when he was offered his first job at the professional level as a special teams coach under Jerry Williams, the new head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. "Special teams is a designation I detest," wrote Levy in his autobiography, Where Else Would You Rather Be?. "To me, there are no special teams; they are kicking teams." At the time, Levy was only the second such assistant to be hired by an NFL team. Only a month earlier, George Allen of the Los Angeles Rams made history when he hired a young Dick Vermeil as the first-ever special teams coach.
When Vermeil left the Rams in 1970, he recommended Levy as his replacement. Allen took Vermeil's advice and hired Levy in February 1970, but after a single season with the Rams, Allen and his staff were fired. When Allen took over the Washington Redskins in 1971, he called on Levy to coach his kicking teams. Levy had his first taste of football's ultimate game not with the Bills, but with the Redskins. Unfortunately, Washington fell to the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl VIII.
By this time, Levy's reputation was gaining traction throughout the pro football world, and teams saw him as a potential head coach. In 1973, he accepted an offer to become the head man of the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League. His five seasons up north proved very successful, including three Grey Cup appearances and two championships. He also won Coach of the Year honors in 1974.
Levy accepted his first NFL head coaching job in 1978 with the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs had finished with a 2–12 record the year before Levy arrived, and in the rebuilding phase that predominated Levy's first season, he installed a ball-control offense known as the Wing-T, which he had employed to great success while head coach at the University of New Mexico. (The Wing-T is a blend of the single-wing and standard T formation, employing the motion and power of the single-wing while having the quarterback taking the snap directly from center as in the T formation. The modern version of the Wing-T employs two wing backs and a single halfback and relies on having an option quarterback.) The decision to use the Wing-T drew criticism, but it did help the Chiefs to double their number of wins in Levy's first year. The Chiefs improved in each season under Levy's watch, but after going 3–6 in the strike-shortened 1982 season, Levy was fired.
Excerpted from 100 Things Bills Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die by Jeffrey J. Miller. Copyright © 2012 Jeffrey J. Miller. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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