As commuter, Wilson keeps Bills moving up

John Steadman

January 24, 1992|By John Steadman

MINEAPOLIS — MINNEAPOLIS -- Absentee owners aren't supposed to be compatible to the health and welfare of successful sports franchises. Then there's Ralph Wilson, a stately man of wealth and prestige, who lives in Grosse Point Shores, Mich., and has been commuting for 32 years to lead cheers for the Buffalo Bills and also to care for their financial stability.

He has been paying the bills for the Bills, so to speak, since he let sports editor Edgar Hayes of the Detroit Times and Paul Neville, the late managing editor of the Buffalo Evening News, talk him into taking a ticket on Buffalo.

"I had my choice of going to Cincinnati, St. Louis, Louisville, Buffalo and one other place I have forgotten when the American Football League formed in 1960," he recalled. Hayes and Neville touted Buffalo, and the wisdom of their advice has been parlayed into a winning payoff.

Wilson's preference was to set up operations in Miami, where he had a winter residence, but the Orange Bowl Committee wouldn't allow the pros to play there, a decision that wasn't changed until six years later when the Dolphins became an AFL expansion club.

Buffalo is playing its second Super Bowl in as many years and Wilson, a deceptive 73, is in a reflective mood as he relates his experiences. He is a gem of a gentleman and, although extremely affluent, is endowed with a common touch and the engaging presence of a quality known as humility.

In all the time he has owned the Bills, he made only one visit to a team's locker room -- and quickly realized the error of his ways.

"It was the first year and we lost three pre-season games," Wilson said. "It was halftime and we were behind the New York Titans, 21-7.

"My friends told me how awful we looked and that I should go down to give the team a pep talk. Reluctantly, I did. I was Knute Rockne and Frank Leahy, so good I fired up myself. The final score was 51-7, which told you how effective that was. I learned a lesson."

Instead of now defending or even apologizing for the city of Buffalo, which used to be a national pin cushion for assaults, Wilson is putting on the brag -- about the people there, not himself. He cites figures that prove Buffalo, with the second smallest market in the league, has led all clubs in attendance.

"In Buffalo, individuals, not corporations, buy most of the tickets. That's why we had a crowd this year of over 80,000 and had only 35 no-shows. Even when things weren't going well, I never considered moving the team. Seattle once wooed me. Buffalo DTC supported the team so well it wouldn't have been fair to leave."

Wilson, a University of Virginia graduate, class of 1940, has been involved in pro football long enough to know the importance of an element called destiny, or rub of the green. Even lucky.

"In life and football, there's a lot of luck involved," he saidd. "It's a roll of the dice. In 1979, we drafted Tom Cousineau of Ohio State No. 1 in the country but couldn't sign him. He went to Canada, came back and still wouldn't sign.

"The Cleveland Browns then traded us their first and third picks. Our own first-round choice, Tony Hunter, played only two years. But the No. 1 we got from the Browns turned out to be Jim Kelly, the kind of a quarterback who comes along only once in 30 years."

Putting down Buffalo once almost became a national pastime, but no more. "I remember it was said my friend Al Davis [owner of the Raiders] would punish a player by threatening to trade him to Buffalo."

Wilson was once accused, wrongly, of being unwilling to spend adequate money on the team. And, to use his words, "I was known as a very big cheapskate. They called me 'Frugal Ralph.' "

But the record shows he once let O.J. Simpson renegotiate the highest contract in the league, giving him a $2 million bonus. This year, Wilson is $3 million over what he thought was a realistic budget for club salaries.

Wilson says he doesn't want to see NFL expansion come about until a labor agreement is settled but "in no way am I opposed to Baltimore."

For the Bills owner, who never visited Buffalo until he put a team there in 1960, it has become his football address for more than three decades. As an owner, he ought to be cloned and lent out to other cities, present and future. There's a style and grace that gives him a special identity.

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