Vice-President and Head Coach
"I've never had the luxury of taking on a club that has had success. It's a challenge to build a club ..."
"A glance at Lou Saban's career in coaching reflects his fascination with building football teams. He has done it in Buffalo twice.
Originally appointed skipper of the Bills in 1962, Saban took the young American Football League franchise to the top in just two seasons. With Saban at the controls, Buffalo dominated the AFL in 1964 and 1965.
Lou left to accept a college coaching job in 1966, and after one more successful season (a mark of 9-5-1 in 1966) the Bills drifted into a quagmire of losses. From 1967-71, Buffalo won only 13 games and wrote its major headlines by making O.J. Simpson and Walt Patulski the NFL's top draft choices in 1969 and 1972 respectively.
In the two short years since his return, Saban has taken the Bills from NFL doormat to the doorstep of the postseason playoffs. Despite a deluge of crippling injuries, the Bills won four games in 1972. The about-face was even more abrupt last fall when Saban orchestrated a 9-5 record. The Bills narrowly missed making the AFC's final four, losing a playoff berth on the season's final Sunday.
'Having Saban back,' Buffalo Evening News reporter Larry Felser has written, 'is one of the reasons that going to football games is fun once again for Buffalo fans.'
Saban has experienced spectacular success with the Bills. While Buffalo's cumulative record in the 14 years of the franchise is under .500, Lou's personal mark is 51-32-4, a winning percentage of .609. Only one of his clubs finished with a less than break-even season and his 1964 AFL champions reeled off 13 triumphs, still the Bills' best effort ever.
Born in Brookfield, Illinois, Saban was a single-wing quarterback at the University of Indiana under Bo McMillan. Captain of the Hoosiers, he was the team's MVP in 1942. His collegiate playing career was cut short by World War II. Saban served in the Army for four years, much of it as a Chinese language interpreter in the China-Burma theatre.
Returning from service, Saban caught on as a free agent with the fledgling Cleveland Browns of the infant All-American Football Conference. He played linebacker for Paul Brown's powerhouse teams of the late '40s, appearing in four consecutive Conference championship games and earning a berth on league all-star teams in both 1948 and 1949.
Captain of the Browns' undefeated (14-0) 1948 squad, Saban intercepted 13 passes in his four-year playing career. In addition to linebacker, he was also Otto Graham's backup at quarterback although, 'thankfully,' as Lou puts it, 'Otto was able to play most of the time.' Injuries to both shoulders forced Saban to retire following the 1949 season.
First stop on a coaching career that now spans 25 years was Case Institute in Cleveland, where Saban directed the football program for three seasons (1950-52). He moved to the University of Washington as an assistant in 1953 and to Northwestern in the same capacity a year later. Named head coach of the Wildcats in 1955, Saban left Evanston after one season and spent the next year in private business.
Western Illinois University beckoned in 1957 and Saban accepted the assignment of rebuilding the Leathernecks' football fortunes. He did it in dramatic fashion, taking Western from a 5-4 record in his rookie season to an unbeaten 9-0 mark in 1959.
His success at Western Illinois attracted the attention of the Boston Patriots, who selected Saban as the first coach of the new American Football League club. The Patriots won five games in their initial season and were 2-3 after five weeks of the 1961 campaign when Saban was replaced by Mike Holovak.
Ralph Wilson promptly hired Lou as the Bills' Director of Player Personnel, and a year later (1962) gave him the Buffalo coaching job. The move paid off with AFL titles in 1964 and 1965, back-to-back AFL Coach of the Year citations for Saban, and a flood of Buffalo victories.
A yearn to return to college coaching took Saban to Maryland in 1966, but a year later he was back in professional football as general manager-head coach of the Denver Broncos. The Broncos' stock rose steadily on the field and off under Saban's imaginative leadership. His effort was instrumental in a $1.8 million stadium renovation and his judgement of player personnel laid the foundation for the Broncos' recent successes.
Saban's triumphant return to Buffalo quickened the pulses of victory-hungry Bills fans. 'The Buffalo Bills,' one writer put it, 'are pinning their hopes on the second coming of their very own messiah.'"
-Buffalo Bills 1974 Yearbook