Saturday, July 26, 2014

1965 Profiles: Ralph Wilson and Lou Saban

"The head of the Buffalo Bills operation is typical of the AFL owners; he has money, imagination and drive. And he's certain that he's got the best product on the American sports market."

-Sports All-Stars/1965 Pro Football

"It shouldn't take much calculating to decide whether to pay $5 or $50,000 for a seat at a football game. I had just such a choice a few years back and, contrary to what you might you expect of a sane man, I chose the higher priced seat. It wasn't that I was interested in the view, but the $50,000 entitled me to any seat in the house; I had finally become what I had long wanted to be- the sole owner of a pro football team.
To put all this into its proper perspective, let's go back to 1959, the year I made that momentous decision. At the time, I numbered myself among the Detroit Lions' most ardent fans. I had been rooting for them since the days of Dutch Clark and can recall having gone to games with my dad at Detroit University's field in the mid-1930's. (Looking back now, it seems that half the people who witnessed those struggles came to boo the Lions out of town.)
The idea of owning a pro football team first struck me in 1947 when a group of us Detroiters banded together to buy the Lions from Fred Mandel. The most any one person could own was four per cent. Nevertheless, I felt good about having some stock in the club I had rooted for so long.
With the advent of television, interest in the National Football League grew. No longer confined to the locales in which the loop operated, fan enthusiasm- via nationwide TV- suddenly became a factor to be reckoned with. From time to time, I inquired about buying an NFL franchise, but nobody was selling. And expansion, I was told by insiders, was out of the question.
One day in August 1959, I read that a Texan named Lamar Hunt was forming a new pro football league. My first reaction was: 'Wilson, this may be your big chance if you're ever going to become an owner.'
I didn't know Lamar personally, but I wrote and told him I'd be interested in a franchise for Miami, Florida where my family has a winter home. He replied that I'd better get moving quickly, as franchises had already been awarded to New York, Los Angeles, Denver, Dallas, Houston and Minneapolis.
Off I went to Miami- to be greeted with the same kind of enthusiasm a cold spell engenders down there. Everyone I talked to equaled the AFL with the defunct All-America Conference, the league that unsuccessfully fought the NFL for four years prior to 1950. I reported my chilly reception to Lamar and, for a time, considered forgetting about the AFL. Hunt then informed me that I could have my choice of a franchise in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Louisville, Buffalo or Kansas City. I wasn't very knowledgeable about any of those cities and I thought about sticking with my small share of the Lions, but I still couldn't get away from the idea of starting fresh in a new, well-financed league that had unlimited potential.
I finally decided to check with a Detroit newspaperman, Eddie Hayes, and Nick Kerbaway, who had been general manager of the Lions, to see it they had any information on the cities Lamar listed. Both of them recommended Buffalo, pointing out that the fans had supported their All-America Conference franchise very loyally.
I knew only one Buffalo resident personally, George Schaaf, a contractor who was my skipper on a minesweeper during the war. Frank Leahy, who was general manager of the AFL team going into Los Angeles, suggested I visit Paul Neville, managing editor of the Buffalo Evening News. With Schaaf as my guide, I met with Neville. It was to be an exploratory talk. A few hours later, I flew back to Detroit committed to placing a team in Buffalo.
At first blush, franchise ownership seemed fine. I had promised to back a team for three years. I knew it would cost money and I expected to lose a considerable amount until the league was on firmer footing. But what if the AFL didn't last and I would just be throwing money down the drain, so to speak, for three years? It was a sobering thought.
In the final analysis, I decided to go ahead because of my faith in the game of football. I was positive that our product was the best the American sports public could buy. And once we signed a nationwide television deal, I was confident that we would have the exposure we needed.
We didn't have a front office staff or a coach when the first AFL draft was held. As a result, I had to call upon friends around the country and send out agents from my insurance office to sign players. One agent, a fellow named Lou Curl, was sent to sign Birtho Arnold, a 310-pound Ohio State tackle. 'I'm with the Buffalo Bills,' said the 5-5, 135-pound Curl in his introduction. 'What in the world,' gasped the astonished Arnold, 'do you play?'
I, too, had a couple of memorable experiences trying to sign a couple of players. They fell into the if-I-knew-then-what-I-know-now category. The players were Larry Wilson, a halfback from Utah, and Len Rhode, a Utah State lineman. Both said they were interested in signing with Buffalo, but each wanted a $1,500 bonus. 'We don't hand out big bonus money like that for defensive backs or linemen,' I explained. So Wilson signed with St. Louis and became an NFL star, while Rhode signed with San Francisco and has been a solid performer there. When I think of what pro teams are now paying for boys with lesser college reputations than Wilson and Rhode, I have to laugh at myself. And that was only six years ago. What will be the situation six years from now?
The one fear I have for the game of football is the outcome of the battle for college players. The damage won't be apparent immediately, but I'm afraid that down the road a few years, the sport will be the worse for these tremendous, long-term, no-cut contracts. And it has absolutely nothing to do with the ability of professional clubs in both leagues to pay skyrocketing salaries.
Until recently, a player had to make the squad. If a veteran let down, there was a hungry rookie pushing him for his job. Nowadays, a youngster with a big reputation comes in guaranteed of financial reward whether he produces or not. Sure, a large percentage of boys have sufficient pride to want to do their best anyway. But what happens when rosters are virtually inundated by players with no-cut contracts? Don't say it can't happen, because it can. And the day it does, pro football will have lost the spark that ignites the 60 minutes of hard-hitting action fans are accustomed to seeing.
As for the Bills, we've refused to jump off the bridge with no-cut pacts. (This attitude has cost us several players.) The few to whom we've given no-cuts have, fortunately for us, produced. Regardless, it's poor policy and football had better wake up to that fact in a hurry.
Throughout the past five AFL seasons, I've found that owning a pro team isn't all financial ledgers and won-lost columns. The toughest thing I've had to do involved the first man I hired for the Bills organization, Buster Ramsey. Buster was a really good friend and still is. He's one of the outstanding defensive minds around. But after the 1961 campaign, I decided to make a coaching change. I found it so difficult to do that even after I told Buster he was fired, I almost asked him to forget what I'd just said and stay on at the helm.
While it's logical that winning a league title- which Buffalo did last season- should be the most memorable moment for an owner, coach or player, it's not true in my case. To me, defeating San Diego for the championship was anticlimactic. The big thrill had come in the regular season finale against the Boston Patriots.
Going back to the first preseason contest ever played in the AFL, the Patriots always seemed to have the thumb on us, particularly when it counted most. We had tied them for the Eastern Division crown in 1963 but were outclassed, 26-8, in a playoff game. Now, after leading our division all season, we came down to the final clash with a scant half-game lead. Should we be beaten in this last encounter, our all-out efforts would go right out the window.
Believe me, the emotional pitch was staggering. I felt, too, for Lou Saban, whom I had first hired as personnel director, then as head coach, after he had been cut loose by Boston. The game, I'm told, was played in sub-zero weather, but I wasn't conscious of the cold; my heart was pumping blood at a rate calculated to keep anyone warm. At the final gun, we had our first divisional title by a 24-14 score. And six days later, we handed the powerful Chargers a 20-7 setback for all the marbles. Emotionally, however, I was still replaying the Boston game.
As an owner, I want to know what's going on with the club. I don't mean the day-to-day affairs with which a coach must concern himself. But when Lou is thinking of making a trade, I don't want to pick up a newspaper and find that so-and-so was already dealt off. And Lou, respectful of my feelings, keeps me posted- through the decisions are his to make.
I also like to know in advance just whom Lou and personnel director Harvey Johnson have in mind as possible draft choices. We have a running joke that I'm allowed one pick of my own each year. They usually like me to wait until one of the late rounds but, more often than not, my choices have earned places on our club. (I'd have to be a real slow study if I hadn't acquired some judgment of a man's ability after so many years of exposure.)
The real heroes of this piece, however, are the Buffalo fans. They were disappointed when their franchise folded with the old AAFC and had little to cheer about during our initial years of operation. In fact, they must have been crazy about the game to have stuck with us so long. And we've only just begun to pay them back."

-Ralph C. Wilson, Jr., Sports All-Stars/1965 Pro Football

Head Coach
"Although he won his first American Football League title with the Bills last year, Lou Saban in accustomed to victory. As a 200-pound linebacker and captain of the Cleveland Browns, he played on four championship teams.
He later coached at Case Institute, Northwestern, Western Illinois and the Boston Patriots before coming to the Bills as director of player personnel in 1961. The following year he succeeded Buster Ramsey as head coach.
He's known for his emphasis on line play and on a strong rushing game. He's also known for his courage and firmness, which was particularly was illustrated last season when he disciplined his bread-and-butter man, Cookie Gilchrist."

-Jack Zanger, Pro Football 1965

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