Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Calling for Ralph

There was a surprise when the list of the Class of 2009 for the Pro Football Hall of Fame was announced. Ralph Wilson, the only owner the Buffalo Bills have ever had, was one of the six. He joined Bruce Smith as having Buffalo connections, and it's the first time the Bills have ever had two people go in during the same year.

While there's been happiness in Buffalo over Wilson's pick, particularly in the media, let me tell you a little secret: I have no idea what an owner has to do to be considered qualified for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I'm not sure anyone else does either.

Players? That's easier. As Bill Parcells says, it's not the Hall of Pretty Good. You should look at a player and say, "There's absolutely no doubt that he's a Hall of Famer." Smith certainly qualifies. He's at worst one of the -- what number should I use? -- three best defensive ends in pro football history, ranking with Deacon Jones and Reggie White. We get into trouble with players when they are on the borderline. We know Andre Reed was very, very good, but we'd trade him for Jerry Rice in a heartbeat. So should he be in? Hmmm.

But owners? Not so easy. Art Rooney was around forever and helped the NFL grow. Same thing with Wellington Mara, who got brownie points for suggesting a collective television contract for league members even though it cost his New York Giants millions. Lamar Hunt started the American Football League and led his franchise through the merger and into the modern age. Check, check and check.

Wilson doesn't categorize so quickly. The argument for him starts with longevity, especially around Western New York. He has kept the team here since 1960, which means Year 50 is coming up. Wilson could have moved the team elsewhere at several points, and made a ton of money in the process. Heck, he could do it now, and won't. Wilson has been a strong advocate of teams staying right where they are, voting against location transfers consistently over the years. Good for him.

Wilson had a lot of faith in pro football in the early days of the AFL, and put his money where his faith was when the Oakland Raiders needed a transfusion of cash to stay afloat in the 1960's. If the Raiders fold, the football landscape looks a whole lot different now, and it may not include Buffalo. Wilson was also a key behind-the-scenes force in the merger talks with the National Football League. Once that merger took place, the combined league hasn't looked back in terms of popularity.

Closer to home, the record is a bit more mixed. Wilson threatened to move to move the team to Seattle in the late 1960's/early 1970's unless a new stadium was built. It's hard to fault Wilson's judgment for thinking War Memorial Stadium was inadequate, but it's never too easy to make that sort of threat and remain beloved. Seymour Knox III became the point man for the Sabres' bid to build a replacement for Memorial Auditorium when others in the organization failed at it miserably. Knox showed the relocation card occasionally, but in a hesitant if not apologetic manner. Of course, Knox was a Buffalonian through and through. Wilson was always an outsider (in this case, from Detroit) like so many others who controlled Buffalo's economic fate from a distance, and thus never had that home-field advantage.

As for the team's football operations, Wilson has at times put them in the hands of strong-willed individuals. Those people have the habit of leaving. Lou Saban quit twice, once after two championships in the Sixties and once when a good team was sinking fast in the Seventies. Chuck Knox left to go to Seattle. Bill Polian, a future Hall of Famer himself, was fired despite a glittering record because Wilson felt like an outsider in his own organization. John Butler left after keeping the Bills in contention for part of the 1990's. Who is in charge now? And when was the last time the team made the playoffs?

Granted the last decade hasn't been the best of all worlds for the Bills. It's easy to wonder if Wilson's edict about not going past the salary cap with big signing bonuses has had an impact. It's never easy to swallow an NFL owner who cries out about relative poverty, even if there is more than a bit of truth in his statements. It's also easy to feel less than cuddly about someone who keeps talking in public about terrible economic conditions in Western New York, considering the lack of empty seats over the past several years.

Here we sit, then, waiting for the August celebration of Wilson in Canton. Wiser, more knowledgeable reporters than I am say he is worthy, and it's tough to argue with that. Still, I'd feel a little better about Wilson's jump to immortality if I knew where the bar was set.

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