Wilson, a Detroit sportsman whose family owns a giant fleet of trucks used to transport new automobiles around the nation, at first planned to locate his new AFL franchise in Miami, but a snag over use of the Orange Bowl sent him looking elsewhere. Wilson scouted Buffalo and liked what he saw, not least because his tour escort was the dynamic executive editor of the Evening News, Paul Neville. A prototype of the clear-eyed, jut-jawed, tough-talking, cigar-chomping professional newspaperman, Neville has been doing his best to prod Buffalo into action since his arrival from South Bend years ago. Neville is a full-blown sports fan, complete with a Notre Dame diploma, a fierce Irish pride and a compulsion to get big-league status for his adopted city. Wilson agreed to stay for a minimum of three years, provided a lease could be arranged for the use of a crumbling concrete WPA project known as War Memorial Stadium. The lease was signed, and Wilson's Bills moved into their new home—an arena that looked as if whatever war it was a memorial to had been fought within its confines.
Buffalo being a hard-nosed town that measures the excellence of football on the basis of skull-cracking blocks and tackles—not cute, gazellelike runners and passers—Wilson wisely hired a pair of rugged coaches during the early years. Both Buster Ramsey and Lou Saban, the latter the man who brought the team their championships, were exponents of a bruising, fundamentalist brand of football based on simple offenses and gritty, unyielding defenses. Buffalo loved the Bills that way, and by 1964 they were showing a profit.
The AFL title went to the Bills in 1964 and 1965; Kansas City beat them in the 1966 championship game. From there the team's fortunes began a nose dive that has not yet ended. It was triggered when Saban resigned and was replaced by a closemouthed, thoughtful assistant named Joe Collier. His style, which differed so radically from that of the tough extroverts who preceded him, never caught on with the Bills' followers. Then Collier made a fatal mistake by trading backup Hero- Quarterback Daryle Lamonica to Oakland, where he immediately blossomed into an All-League superstar. Moreover, the Bills' regular quarterback, Jack Kemp, who had led them to their two titles, was injured and was lost to the team for the entire 1968 season.
"This town is 62%, Catholic," says Jack Horrigan, the Bills' public-relations man, "so you can imagine how popular a good-looking young quarterback from Notre Dame would be. Half the fans were convinced that Lamonica was better than Kemp and, of course, as soon as Jack would have a bad day, they'd start to scream for Daryle." Obviously bogged down behind the poised, established Kemp, Lamonica—unbeknown to his fans—was delighted to leave Buffalo. As a starter with a different team and relieved of several personal problems that had troubled him in Buffalo, he quickly-reached his potential.
Blighted by bad luck, an epidemic of injuries and advancing years in some key players, the Bills won only four games in 1967, and this season, of course, managed only one victory, a home-town upset over the despised New York Jets and their white-shoed, twinkle-toed quarterback, Joe Namath—the kind of player Buffalonians would struggle eight miles through a blizzard to see mussed up. Collier was fired early in the 1968 season, but his departure did little to revive the team. Nevertheless, Buffalo gamely continued to back the Bills.
"They say Buffalo won't support a loser," muses Horrigan. "That may or may not be true, but I think the fans have been quite loyal when the awful condition of the stadium is considered."
In truth the place is a nightmare in steel and concrete. Most of its 45,000 seats are either located in the two end zones or cunningly hidden behind rows of roof girders that give one the impression of watching the field through a picket fence. Moreover, it is situated in the heart of Buffalo's substantial ghetto, an area that was racked by riots in 1967. Parking is scarce and, once inside, one must be equipped with iron kidneys, because somebody forgot to build enough rest rooms. "You have to train to go to a Bills game," says Stan Roberts. "When you take guests, you feel stupid warning them to go to the bathroom before leaving."
A dearth of bathrooms and bad seats can be tolerated but not the prospect of no pro team at all. When the NFL and the AFL merge in 1970, each of the member cities must be able to provide a stadium with at least 50,000 seats. Faced with this demand, Ralph Wilson has made it clear that he cannot, and will not, operate in War Memorial Stadium. When he signed his last three-year lease with the city, he was assured that construction would begin on a new 55,000-to 65,000-seat stadium before 1969. Time is running out on that agreement, and Wilson is becoming more vocal in his demands. The county legislature is hung up on the question of where to erect the new domed stadium, which it has already approved.
"When he had a winning team, Ralph was a hero, but now that he's demanding action on a new stadium, the town thinks he's holding a gun to their heads," says Horrigan.
"I suppose a certain number of Buffalonians are angry at me because I've taken sides in an issue they feel should be debated locally," says Wilson himself, seated in an opulent, glass-walled office overlooking the Detroit River. He is a big, thick-shouldered man with a heavy, rather brooding face that conceals an easygoing manner graced with wit and candor. He leans back and gazes out the window on a bearing toward Buffalo, roughly 250 miles to the east across icebound, polluted Lake Erie. "I've warned the city that work must commence on a new stadium of some kind before the end of 1969 or else I'll be forced to move the team elsewhere. That position relates to an agreement the city made with me when I signed the last three-year lease for War Memorial Stadium."