SBD/March 26, 2014/People and Pop Culture

Bills Owner Ralph Wilson Jr. Remembered For His Big Heart, Loyalty To Western New York

Wilson was a member of "The Foolish Club," the group that founded the AFL
Bills Founder & Owner RALPH WILSON JR. is being remembered as the most "influential sports figure Western New York ever has known" after dying yesterday at the age of 95, according to a front-page piece by Mark Gaughan of the BUFFALO NEWS. Wilson "brought major league sports to Buffalo in 1959, when he joined a group that became known as 'The Foolish Club,' eight businessmen led by Texas oilman LAMAR HUNT, who founded the American Football League." The "initial cost to Wilson was $25,000." Wilson lived "all of his adult life in the Detroit area," which made his "relationship with Western New York problematic." But he gradually came "to be widely esteemed for his loyalty to the region." That sense of loyalty "extended league-wide," as he was "regarded by associates as 'the conscience of the NFL,' someone who stood up for the tradition of the game." Wilson's role in "founding the AFL and helping it succeed was the big reason he was inducted" into the Pro Football HOF in '09. Wilson was "consumed with owning his team." It was "his passion, which is why he refused to consider selling it or giving up any control of it during his lifetime" (BUFFALO NEWS, 3/26). In Detroit, Dave Birkett notes Wilson was "a World War II veteran and a Lions shareholder" before the late WILLIAM CLAY FORD SR. purchased sole possession of the team in '63 (DETROIT FREE PRESS, 3/26). Wilson owned the Bills for 54 years, making him "the third-longest tenured owner in NFL history," behind the Bears' GEORGE HALAS (63 seasons) and the Steelers' ART ROONEY (55 seasons) (ESPN.com, 3/25). 

A LARGER INFLUENCE: NFL.com's Elliot Harrison noted Wilson "played a huge role" in keeping the AFL "afloat before it merged with the NFL." Though this was "just one part of Wilson's legacy," it helped "preserve the fabric of everything that is important to the NFL as we know it today." Without the "financial wherewithal of Wilson and Oilers/Titans owner BUD ADAMS, the upstart outfit spearheaded by ... Lamar Hunt likely would have been backed down by the already popular NFL." Wilson also "championed revenue sharing, an idea that started in the AFL and was adopted by NFL Commissioner PETE ROZELLE early in his tenure" (NFL.com, 3/25). In Buffalo, James Fink wrote Wilson was a "guiding force in the AFL including helping to underwrite the then-financially ailing Oakland Raiders, lending team owner AL DAVIS $400,000 to keep them afloat." Wilson also "offered financial assistance to then-Boston (now New England) Patriots owner BILLY SULLIVAN." When President JOHN F. KENNEDY was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963, Wilson "lobbied and convinced his fellow AFL owners to postpone all games set for Nov. 24" (BIZJOURNALS.com, 3/25). In N.Y., Richard Goldstein notes Wilson "made his presence felt behind the scenes" during the AFL's early years. He was a league rep in "preliminary talks toward a merger with the NFL in 1965, then served on the leagues' joint committee that arranged the first Super Bowl." When Wilson applied for an AFL franchise he "wanted to put a team in Miami but could not reach a deal for use of the Orange Bowl." He "settled on Buffalo, and revived the name of the team that played there in the All-America Conference of the 1940s" (N.Y. TIMES, 3/26).

A DIFFERENT GENERATION: SPORTS ON EARTH's Mike Tanier writes under the header, "The Last Maverick." A generation of NFL fans have come to think of Wilson "as a hidebound penny-pincher, the old guy slowing down the NFL's supermarket line." But Wilson was really the "last of pro football's greatest generation, the sole survivor from a group of Young Turks whose unwillingness to take no for an answer ... transformed a regionally popular sport into an American lifestyle" (SPORTSONEARTH.com, 3/26). THE MMQB's Peter King notes Wilson was "one of two owners to vote against the move of the Browns to Baltimore." He "never voted in favor of a franchise relocation." Meanwhile, Wilson in '06 was "one of two owners to vote against a labor deal he found too complex." He "wasn't one to pal around with his fellow owners at league meetings, but he believed strongly in what was good for one had to be good for all" (MMQB.SI.com, 3/26).

LOYAL TO A FAULT: ESPN.com's John Clayton wrote the Bills were "lucky to have Wilson as an owner." He "did everything possible to keep the team in Buffalo, even though he could have made more money if he had moved the team to another city" (ESPN.com, 3/25). In L.A., Sam Farmer writes Wilson had become "emblematic of small-market owners who stayed afloat -- and refused to move their franchises -- as the NFL enjoyed an explosion in popularity." ESPN analyst BILL POLIAN, who served as Bills GM from '86-'93, said, "When he had opportunities to move the team to much greener pastures, he said many times, 'The team will not leave Buffalo in my lifetime.' He was as good as his word." Jets Owner WOODY JOHNSON: "He went in when Buffalo was thriving and persevered when Buffalo started declining a little bit because most of the businesses moved out. He was very loyal to Buffalo and that part of the state" (L.A. TIMES, 3/26). A BUFFALO NEWS editorial states, "If ever there were a legend in Western New York, it was Ralph C. Wilson Jr." For 55 years, Wilson has "been woven into the fabric of this area, and he honored his pledge to keep the Bills here while he was alive" (BUFFALO NEWS, 3/26).

WILSON'S LEGACY: In Rochester, Sal Maiorana writes Wilson "leaves behind a legacy nearly unrivaled in professional sports franchise ownership." For "more than half a century he operated the Bills out of small-market Buffalo, and for portions of that time he did so even when the economic climate in the league, as well as the country, made it very difficult" (ROCHESTER DEMOCRAT & CHRONICLE, 3/26). Also in Rochester, Leo Roth writes, "A hole has been created that no new owner can fill. ... We lost a friend, a product of an era long past." Wilson was "loyal to his city when many of his NFL brethren were not loyal to their fans." He was "down to earth with a heart as big as a football field is long." Wilson's philanthropy "assisted countless people in Rochester and Buffalo and many other places and he did it without fanfare" (ROCHESTER DEMOCRAT & CHRONICLE, 3/26). In Buffalo, Jerry Sullivan writes he has "mixed feelings about Wilson," as it is "difficult to reconcile the Hall of Fame owner who gave Buffalo so many sporting thrills and spearheaded the AFL-NFL merger with the man whose small-minded decisions contributed to management dysfunction and a losing product on the field." Wilson’s legacy will "depend on whether the team remains in Buffalo long-term." Still, Bills fans "should be celebrating a Hall of Famer owner, a man who brought a team to Buffalo and kept it here, in good times and bad, for more than half a century" (BUFFALO NEWS, 3/26).
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