Ralph Wilson, owner of the Buffalo Bills, died yesterday at the age of 95. He was the only owner the team ever had, and, like seemingly everything else around these parts, Buffalo’s relationship with him was…complicated.
Wilson brought football to Buffalo when he decided he wanted to own a football team but the NFL wasn’t playing along, so he joined some other rich guys and launched the AFL. Somehow the new league got off the ground — even with Wilson having to loan some money to another of the owners, a guy named Al Davis, so he could get his franchise, which he dubbed “the Raiders”, off the ground — and eventually flourished to the point that the NFL just merged with the AFL, thus paving the way for the NFL as it exists today.
There would be no football in Buffalo today if not for the efforts of Ralph Wilson, and it’s entirely possible that without him, the NFL itself might not be what it is today. In the annals of football Ralph Wilson’s name might not loom so large as, say, a Paul Brown or a George Halas, but he’s no mere footnote, either.
But Wilson had his troublesome qualities as well, which were often balanced with the good. He could be difficult to work for, as evidenced by his tendency to buck heads with his own underlings. He wasn’t George Steinbrenner in this regard, but Wilson did burn more than a few bridges with good people (most famously former GM Bill Polian, who built the Bills of the early 90s and who then went on to a short stint with the expansion Carolina Panthers and then to the Indianapolis Colts, who Polian then built into one of the best teams of the 2000s). It’s generally been an article of faith that one major factor that’s kept the Bills from ever becoming a championship team was Wilson’s level of discomfort with people he didn’t know well, which kept him from ever really exploring other possibilities as far as people running the team. Thus Wilson rarely went looking outside his organization for bright, motivated people whose trajectories were on the way up.
Wilson also was one to rattle the “relocation” saber every so often, when the team’s stadium lease was coming up. He never outright said, as far as I can recall, that the team would have to move if he didn’t get his way, but the message was always pretty clear that the county-owned (and therefore taxpayer-funded) stadium would need some new stuff done to it every seven or eight years, if the team was to “remain viable in this market”. The whole NFL racket of shaking down municipalities for stadiums or stadium improvements is pretty nauseating, especially in light of the NFL’s non-profit status as it wallows in as much money as anybody has in this world. Ralph Wilson played this game to the hilt, but…he never did move the team, or even come close to doing so, and over the last twenty or thirty years, that hasn’t been the case around the NFL. Al Davis moved his Raiders twice. Georgia Frontiere moved the Rams, Art Modell moved the Browns, and of course, thirty years ago the Irsays brought in moving vans at midnight to haul the Colts away from Baltimore. It happens, but Ralph Wilson resisted the siren call of richer markets.
But on the other hand — and there’s always an “other hand” with Ralph Wilson — he also staunchly refused to publicly consider any kind of ownership succession plan that would guarantee the team’s future in Buffalo after his death. It’s become almost an article-of-faith around here that Wilson must have had some kind of “secret plan” ready to go for after his death, but…well, I guess we’ll find out now, won’t we? If he did, great. But if not…well, as radio play-by-play guy Van Miller used to say, “Fasten your seatbelts!”
Ralph Wilson never moved the team or even came close, but he did extort the county for as much money as he could. Ralph Wilson seemed cheap at times, never being mentioned at all as a guy who would spend top dollar to get the best executives or coaches, but he did shower money on a lot of players in attempts to make the team better. Ralph Wilson was one of the most important figures in the sporting history of this town, but he lived in Detroit. Like I said, it was complicated. Hey, that’s Buffalo. It’s never easy, for us.
Thanks for the football memories, Mr. Wilson. I hope you had one final trick up your sleeve, though.