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On Sports

The Bills should finally honor coaching legend Lou Saban

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Rochester Business Journal
October 24, 2014

I was happy to see Van Miller, the longtime radio voice of the Buffalo Bills, have his name unveiled on the Ralph Wilson Stadium Wall of Fame during halftime of Sunday’s game against the Minnesota Vikings. The avuncular, charismatic broadcaster was a marvelous ambassador who contributed greatly to the popularity of the Bills and professional football in Western New York during his nearly four decades behind the mic. The honor was long overdue for the man who coined several catchy words and phrases, including my favorite Van-ism: “fandemonium.”

Now, it’s time to take care of another major historical oversight.

For way too long, Lou Saban’s name has been conspicuous by its absence. Not to demean any of the men already enshrined—most of them are deserving—but you can’t tell me that the second-greatest coach in team history doesn’t belong there too. Here was a man who helped guide the Bills to consecutive American Football League championships in the mid-1960s. Here was a man who, in his second tour of duty in Buffalo in the early 1970s, saved O.J. Simpson’s football career and made the Bills relevant again.

Sadly, Saban’s exclusion from this exclusive club has to do with a grudge Wilson held against him—a grudge that the founder and longtime Bills owner unfortunately took to his grave. Wilson, who died last March, never got over the fact that the nomadic Saban quit on him twice: first, following the 1965 title season, and then again 11 seasons later, five games into the 1976 campaign.

“Lou was a great football coach, but he had no sense of loyalty,” Wilson told me one time when I broached the subject of Saban and the Wall of Fame. “What example do you set for your players when you don’t fulfill your obligations when the going gets a little tough? The committee can put him on the wall after I’m gone.”

Saban, who died five years ago at age 87, was indeed known for his disappearing acts through the years, and not just with the Bills. In fact, few sports figures can boast a resume or travel log as cluttered as Saban’s. If he had a business card, it surely would have read: “Have Whistle, Will Travel.” It’s no mystery why he was called the Sultan of Sayonara and the Marco Polo of coaching. Since his first sports job as an undersized but hard-nosed linebacker for the Cleveland Browns in 1946, the peripatetic Saban had rarely stayed in any place long enough to allow his mail to catch up with him.

He coached football on virtually every level—high school, college, semipro and pro—and also served as president of the New York Yankees (George Steinbrenner had served as his assistant coach at Northwestern University), sold insurance and ran a horse-racing track. After his final season as a player in 1949, he held 30 different jobs in a 53-year span. His longest stay: five years as head football coach at a community college in Canton, N.Y. His shortest stay: 19 days as the athletic director at the University of Cincinnati. Some believe his wandering ways can be traced to his ethnic heritage. Saban was Croatian, and the Croats, throughout their history, have been persecuted and forced to live a nomadic existence in search of a homeland.

His dad, Nikola, was well traveled too. He immigrated to America in 1912 and worked several mining jobs throughout the United States before finally settling in Chicago. As a boy, Lou helped the family make ends meet by caddying for the brother of gangster Al Capone. At age 15, he joined the mining company where his father worked, helping dig the Windy City’s subways. Football became his passion, and when he was done playing at Indiana University and in the pros, he began his coaching odyssey at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

Saban was a shrewd judge of talent. “Some men enjoy rebuilding cars,” he once said. “I enjoy rebuilding football teams.” Twice, he rebuilt the Bills. He’s also credited with reviving the University of Miami program. His two most famous Hurricane recruits were quarterback Jim Kelly and running back Ottis Anderson, who, in a fateful twist, wound up winning MVP honors in the New York Giants’ upset of the Bills in Super Bowl XXV.

Saban’s record of 70 wins, 47 losses and four ties ranks second only to Marv Levy on the Bills’ all-time list. That mark, along with his two AFL titles, should have been enough to get his name affixed long ago to the façade of the stadium formerly known as Rich. But Ralph wouldn’t budge. I was hoping to see a reconciliation between them, similar to the hatchet-burying moment between Steinbrenner and New York Yankees legend Yogi Berra that ended Yogi’s years-long boycott of baseball games at the big ballpark in the Bronx. During a 2004 interview with Saban, I asked him about his exclusion from the Wall of Fame. “It would be quite an honor,” he said softly. “But I understand the reasons for my exclusion. I don’t lose sleep over it.”

Sadly, it didn’t happen. Nothing can be done about that now, but hopefully the selection committee, with permission from new owners Terry and Kim Pegula, can correct this omission. I am not a member of the committee, but if I were, I would campaign for Saban, along with the Bills’ first superstar, Cookie Gilchrist, former Buffalo News columnist Larry Felser and punter Brian Moorman. First, though, let’s take care of Saban. His is a name Bills fans should never forget.

Scott Pitoniak is a best-selling author, nationally honored columnist, daily radio show co-host and television correspondent. You can listen to him Monday-Friday 3-7 on 95.7 FM, AM 950 or www.espnrochester.com, and watch him on WROC-TV Sunday mornings at 10:30 on “Inside the Buffalo Blitz.”

10/24/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.



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