When someone passes away, its common practice to determine what that person's legacy is. That is very simple when it comes to Ralph C. Wilson JR. He brought the NFL to Buffalo and as long as he was alive, he made sure the NFL stayed in Buffalo.
In assessing his more than 50 years as the owner of the Buffalo Bills, there's more to it than that but the single most important part of that half century plus is that the Bills are still here in Western New York.
Baltimore moved to Indianapolis. Cleveland moved to Baltimore. St. Louis moved to Arizona. The LA Rams moved to St. Louis. Houston, an original AFL team like the Bills, moved to Tennessee. Oakland moved to LA and then back to Oakland. And yet, the Bills stayed in Buffalo.
Former Bills General Manager Bill Polian was one of many guests on WGR, sharing stories about working for Mr. Wilson. Polian said he knows for a fact Mr. Wilson could have moved the Bills to a more lucrative city but he gave his word the team wouldn't be sold or moved as long as he was around and Polian said Mr. Wilson was a man of his word.
Having said all of that, the story of Ralph C. Wilson JR and his legacy can't be completely written because of the uncertain future surrounding the franchise. As opposed to the Lions, Titans,Raiders, Giants and Chiefs who were left to the respective families when the owner passed away, there are no plans for the Bills to remain in the Wilson family. It would appear the franchise will ultimately be sold. We don't know when and obviously we don't know to whom so we will wait, wonder and hope for the best.
Trying to sum up Mr. Wilson's tenure atop the football team isn't easy. He had somewhat of a roller coaster relationship with the fans of his franchise.
Everything was great in the 1960's when the franchise won its only two championships but through the 1970's and into the 1980's, Wilson drew the ire of fans who accused him of being cheap as well as an absentee owner who didn't care.
That all began to change by the end of the decade as the Bills returned to the playoffs and headed into the most successful stretch in franchise history. The same owner who was reviled by many was now praised for having a strong management team, coaching staff and a wealth of talent on the roster.
Wilson spent a large amount of money handing out big contract extensions(for then any way) to the likes of Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith and Cornelius Bennett. Actually, the non stop spending and continued philosophy of extending contracts would eventually leave the Bills with an aging team and a salary cap mess as the new millennium began.
There are a few memories that came to mind when I saw the news that Mr. Wilson had passed away. I remember the first time I got a Christmas card from him, as many other media members did, along with a chocolate football. I thought that was so cool!
Many times over the years, we'd have to pause our post game interviews in the locker room with players because Mr. Wilson would pop in to shake the hand of the player and congratulate him on the game or try to pick his spirits up after a loss.
I remember how Mr. Wilson was ridiculed for being one of only two owners to vote down the proposed collective bargaining agreement with the players back in 2006. Then Commissioner Paul Tagliabue was about to retire and he was jamming the CBA through in one of his final acts. Ralph Wilson wasn't sold on some of the parts of the new CBA and advised his fellow owners to take time and review it more closely. But it fell on deaf ears. Eventually the owners realized he was right and voted 32-0 to reopen the CBA and seek a deal more to their liking.
But my favorite moment from Mr. Wilson came as a result of the "Just give it to him game" in New England in 1998. The Bills had two key calls go against them and it cost them the game. The league later apologized and admitted the calls were wrong. Mr. Wilson was very critical of the officiating and was fined $50,000 by Tagliabue. He said they were the worst calls he had witnessed in 60 years of watching professional football.
Keep in mind, Ralph Wilson was considered a very loyal "league soldier" and someone who always put the interests of the NFL ahead of his own team. While I'm sure he would be critical about ideas he didn't like behind closed doors, he would rarely do that in public. But Wilson was livid that he was fined and the Bills faxed out a copy of the statement the Bills owner fired off to the commissioner. He blasted Tagliabue for "pompous lectures" and added "the commissioner has never experienced the pain of blowing a crucial game due to officiating." Tagliabue was said to have been furious.
That was a big moment for the fans who felt their owner was going to bat for them and was doing something the fans couldn't do and that was to tell the commissioner how he felt and what he could do with the fine.
There is no Super Bowl banner hanging at the stadium, named for the owner. There were 37 non playoff seasons in Ralph Wilson's 54 years of ownership and the current 14 year playoff drought is the longest in franchise history. But I've always believed that having a team, even one that's losing is better than not having a team at all. For that we should thank Ralph Wilson and we can also hope his legacy will include having taken the steps to keep the team beyond his lifetime.