Wednesday, April 02, 2014


I only had a couple of opportunities to hear Ralph Wilson, the late owner of the Buffalo Bills, speak in person.

Usually Wilson didn't bother to fly in for news conferences back when I was covering the team at times in the 1980s. Sometimes he'd be here for a new coach or general manager, but not often. Still, I remember my reaction to those times when I stuck a microphone in his face and perhaps asked a question or two in a small group after the formal part of the session was over.

The first time more or less backed up what my preconception of him was when I saw clips of him on television. He just seemed uncomfortable in that situation. The person I thought of at the time, and it's probably unfair, was Richard Nixon. It's unfair because Nixon really was supposed to be good in those situations because it was his job as a politician. Wilson had an excuse. He was just a businessman.

But the second time, Wilson in a small group was much more friendly and engaging than I had ever seen before. I asked Vic Carucci, a writer for the Buffalo News at the time, about that, and he told me that Wilson could be quite a fine fellow with a good sense of humor in the right situation.

After Wilson died last week, I mentioned those thoughts to Milt Northrop, another veteran News writer. He told me that those were precisely the two sides of Ralph Wilson in his experience.

That strikes me as one of the interesting parts of the relationship between Wilson and Western New York, which lasted more than 50 years. The owner didn't show the warm side of his personality in public very often, forcing people to either judge him on those slightly clumsy public appearances or make judgments based on what happened on the field - which, if you've been paying attention lately, hasn't been very good for most of the past half-century.

Part of the problem probably was that he didn't like strong personalities leading the football operation. There were clashes with three such people who won here - Bill Polian, Chuck Knox and Lou Saban. The Bills certainly had a great many other personalities in key positions over the years who were quite forgettable. Teams lose for a reason, as I'm fond of saying, and the Bills' record can't be defended too easily.

Still, Wilson was caught in an odd situation. He was an out-of-town owner of a business based in Buffalo, a city that had a lot of them over the years. Those businesses put the city at the mercy of people without a strong Buffalo connection, and some of them went elsewhere when they had the chance.

Those moves hurt, but it's tough to root on Sunday afternoons for a manufacturing company. A football team, however, was different. Western New York loves its Bills, and has for much of the team's history. It put the area on the map across the country. Every week of the NFL season, Buffalo was competing with New York, Chicago, Miami, Boston, etc.

To his credit, Wilson realized that he was sitting in Detroit with the passions of this area in his pocket. He certainly could have moved the team to another city at certain points over the years, or sold it to someone who would move it elsewhere. Wilson didn't - in part because he had philosophical problems with that concept, and in part because he didn't want to break so many hearts here.

And finally, when he died, everyone seemed to realize that keeping the Bills in Buffalo from 1960 to 2014 was in the first sentence of his obituary. The fans were appreciative and thankful. The demonstration of warmth toward Wilson was a little surprising in its size, considering that it was often absent in the past, but it was still nice that it happened. It was as if everyone suddenly caught on to that second part of his personality.

At the end, Wilson finally received the respect he deserved from this area. Too bad he didn't get to see it; I'd bet he would have smiled broadly.

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