|Ralph Cookerly Wilson|
Ralph Wilson, who founded the Buffalo Bills as an original member of the American Football League in 1960 and saw them go to four Super Bowls as the only owner in the team’s history, died on Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at his home in Grosse Pointe Shores, Mich. He was 95.
The Bills’ president, Russ Brandon, announced the death at the annual National Football League owners’ meeting. Mr. Wilson had expressed the wish that when he died, the first announcement would be made by the N.F.L. commissioner to his fellow owners.
When word came of his death while the owners were meeting in Orlando, Fla., Commissioner Roger Goodell cleared the room of team executives so that only the owners themselves remained. Then he told them of Mr. Wilson’s death.
|Barron Hilton about age 50. He is now 87|
When Mr. Wilson obtained an A.F.L. franchise for $25,000 in 1960, he joined seven other founding A.F.L. team owners in a daunting challenge to the long-established N.F.L. They were nicknamed the Foolish Club. He was the last survivor of that “club” remaining in the N.F.L. Of the original eight, only Barron Hilton (Paris Hilton’s grandfather) , the founder of the Los Angeles Chargers (now the San Diego Chargers), survives.
Mr. Wilson,had said that his family would not run the Bills after his death and that the team would be sold.
The A.F.L. had a rocky financial start, but it ultimately thrived, and Mr. Wilson played a leading role in talks that led to its merger with the N.F.L. in 1970. His Bills won two A.F.L. championships and played in four consecutive Super Bowls in the early 1990s, but lost each time, to the Giants, the Washington Redskins and twice to the Dallas Cowboys.
Mr. Wilson was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009.
When Mr. Wilson, a Michigan businessman, applied for an A.F.L. franchise, he wanted to put a team in Miami but could not reach a deal for use of the Orange Bowl. He settled on Buffalo, and revived the name of the team that played there in the All-America Football Conference of the 1940s.
“I thought it was a big gamble to go into a new league and certainly a very big risk — like starting an automobile shop in our garage and bucking Ford and GM,” Mr. Wilson told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2009. “But I always like to take a risk, here or there. And I love the game so much that I thought it was worth a try.”
|Ralph Wilson Stadium, home of the Buffalo Bills|
His friends in Detroit were skeptical. “I was ridiculed, all around the area,” Mr. Wilson said. “They used to leave me at cocktail parties all alone, in the corner, with a scotch. We got lucky, though, and it worked.”
The team originally played at the War Memorial Stadium, built in the 1930s and known as the Rockpile. They moved into a new stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y., a Buffalo suburb, in 1973, and it has been known as Ralph Wilson Stadium since 1998.
One of the N.F.L.’s small-market teams, the Bills have recently been valued at upward of $790 million by Forbes magazine. In 2013 the team reached a $130 million deal with New York State to renovate the stadium to keep the team in Orchard Park for at least seven years. Under the terms of the deal, the state will pay $54 million, Erie County will pay $41 million and the Bills will pay $35 million.
Mr. Wilson had said that his family would not run the Bills after his death and that the team would be sold.Photo
Mr. Wilson, in 2007 with then Bills General Manager Marv Levy, left, led the Bills to A.F.L. championships in 1964 and ’65. CreditDavid Duprey/Associated Press
Ralph Cookerly Wilson Jr. was born on Oct. 17, 1918, in Columbus, Ohio, and grew up in the Detroit area, where his father owned an insurance company. He became a Detroit Lions fan. He received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia, attended the University of Michigan Law School and served in the Navy during World War II.
Mr. Wilson later expanded the family business into Ralph C. Wilson Industries with interests in insurance, television stations, highway construction, oil and gas drilling and automotive parts, and he owned a small stake in the Lions when he got his A.F.L. franchise.
|Congressman Jack Kemp playing for the Bills|
He made his presence felt behind the scenes during the league’s early years, lending $400,000 to the Oakland Raiders in 1962 to keep them afloat. His Bills, led by Jack Kemp at quarterback and coached by Lou Saban, won A.F.L. championships in 1964 and ’65.
Mr. Wilson was an A.F.L. representative in preliminary talks toward a merger with the N.F.L. in 1965, then served on the leagues’ joint committee that arranged the first Super Bowl, between the A.F.L.’s Kansas City Chiefs and the N.F.L.’s Green Bay Packers in January 1967.
The Bills made the playoffs only once in their first decade in the N.F.L., although they had one of football’s greatest running backs in O. J. Simpson. Mr. Wilson laid the groundwork for a reversal of their fortunes when he named Bill Polian as general manager and Marv Levy as coach in the mid-1980s. They built his four Super Bowl teams featuring quarterback Jim Kelly, running back Thurman Thomas and defensive end Bruce Smith, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, together with Mr. Wilson.
|Jim Kelly, Bills Quarterback|
Mr. Wilson had an unassuming manner. “No one wants to see the white-collar owner who’s the corporate type,” Mr. Kelly was quoted by The New York Times as saying. “He comes out and catches passes. He treats us just like one of his kids.”
Mr. Wilson sought to reprise the Bills’ success of the 1990s when he brought back Mr. Levy, this time as general manager, in 2006. But Mr. Levy, who had coached the Bills through the 1997 season, remained as general manager for only two seasons, and the Bills generally floundered in Mr. Wilson’s final years.
Reflecting on his years as the Bills’ owner, Mr. Wilson talked about the passing of the generations in a city that has lost much of its industrial base but remains fervent about the Bills, Buffalo’s only major pro sports team except for hockey’s Sabres.
“It’s the most passionate city in the country for pro football,” he told Jeff Miller for “Going Long,” a 2003 oral history of the A.F.L. “The old families went to the game at the Rockpile and took their little boys. Now those boys are grown up, and they have kids, and they come to the games. It’s sort of the fabric of the community.”
On a personal note, my friend Karen’s father, was the team physician and said that Mr Wilson was truly an ace of a guy. God Bless, Mr. Wilson.