Curiously, neither Smerlas nor Haslett prepared for the NFL in the kind of big-time, big-winning program scouts value so highly. Smerlas toiled last year for Boston College, which finished 0-11, the only winless major college in the country. Haslett played his football at Indiana University. To be more precise, at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, good ol' IUP. In Haslett's last three years the Big Indians—that's right, the Big Indians—suffered three straight non-winning records in the Pennsylvania Conference, while playing the likes of Slippery Rock and Lock Haven.
In training camp Smerlas and Haslett were Buffalo's pranksters-in-residence. They battled curfew with reckless abandon, and instituted the practice of hazing veterans. One day they used rolls of tape to barricade Defensive Back Marvin Switzer in his dormitory room. Switzer is no longer with the Bills. He was cut...or may still be locked in the dorm.
Like the other Buffalo rookies, Smerlas and Haslett don't bemoan the loss of Cousineau. In fact, the Bills' first-year players poked fun at Cousineau in an X-rated skit in their rookie show. "I get mad when people say I took Cousineau's place," says the fiery Haslett, who got into a fight on each of his first two days of practice with the Bills. " Cousineau never had a place. And if he comes back he still doesn't have one. I earned my spot. If he wants it, he'll have to take it away from me."
Meanwhile, across the border, Cousineau isn't dominating the Canadian Football League as expected. He didn't join the Alouettes until five days before their third regular-season game, but he was immediately inserted into the starting lineup. Cousineau faced a double handicap. Not only was he unfamiliar with the Canadian game—with its wider field, three downs and constant motion—but he also was playing the unfamiliar position of outside linebacker, Carl Crennel having retained his regular middle linebacker position. By his own admission, Cousineau's early performances were "embarrassing." Now he seems to have adjusted.
"When I was first here, other teams were running at me all the time," Cousineau says. "Nobody runs at me much anymore. I've played some damn fine games."
Buffalo officials blame their failure to sign Cousineau on his agent, Jimmy Walsh, who used to handle Joe Namath's NFL negotiations. Walsh has admitted that he and a group of investors, including Namath, are interested in purchasing part of the Alouettes. That disclosure prompted Bills owner Ralph Wilson to charge, " Walsh certainly took care of his own affairs. He steered Tom to Montreal for his own personal reasons."
Walsh and Alouette owner Sam Berger deny any connection between the agent's business interests and his client's decision. Privately, Walsh has told friends that the Buffalo offer—reportedly $1.2 million for five years—was very misleading in that it was loaded with performance clauses that would be virtually impossible for any rookie linebacker to meet.
Cousineau, who never personally negotiated with the Bills, says, "I'm the one who had to put his name on the contract. I wasn't coerced by Jimmy Walsh. The simple truth is that the lump sum in Montreal was greater and the payout was much better."
However, Cousineau's CFL contract reportedly includes a "happiness clause," which allows him to void the Montreal deal if he becomes disenchanted. This explains why Norm Pollom, the Bills' director of college scouting, has seen some Montreal games, and also why the Bills, who were humiliated by Cousineau's decision to go north, never knock Cousineau in print. As vice-president Stew Barber, who handled the Cousineau negotiations, says, "Look, we want the kid back. I don't want to say anything that might upset him."
Cousineau insists he is content. "I like Montreal," he says. "It's like a piece of Europe. I'm happy with the money I'm making, and I'm on a winning team. What more can you ask? There may never be a reason to go back."