The year was 1995. Gas cost a tad more than a buck a gallon. “Toy Story” made a boffo cinematic debut. Bill Clinton occupied the White House. A bomb set off by suburban Buffalo native Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people in Oklahoma City. eBay went live for the first time. O.J. Simpson was acquitted of double-murder. The Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame opened in Cleveland. Jerry Garcia, Mickey Mantle and Jonas Salk died. And the Buffalo Bills defeated the Miami Dolphins, 37-22, in a wildcard playoff game that was significant for two reasons–it marked the last time the Bills won in the post-season and the last time Hall of Fame coach Don Shula patrolled an NFL sideline.
That game really was the last hurrah of the Bills Super Bowl era. Fueled by Thurman Thomas’ 158-yard rushing performance, Buffalo led 27-0 early in the fourth quarter at then Rich Stadium. Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino staged a furious comeback, finishing with 33 completions in 64 attempts for 422 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions, but it was too little, too late.
The next week, for all intents and purposes, the Bills’ glory years came to an ignominious end. With all-time sack leader Bruce Smith unable to play because of a 104-degree fever, an aged Buffalo team was crushed, 40-21, by the Pittsburgh Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium. The next season, Jim Kelly’s career would conclude with him being carted off the field in a wildcard loss to Jacksonville, and the year after that, Marv Levy would coach his last game, and Smith, Thomas and Andre Reed would suit up for Buffalo a final time.
So, this is the next famine the Bills need to address as they travel this road back to respectability. They need to win a playoff game this weekend. To put things into perspective, Buffalo has not won a post-season game in 23-year-old Josh Allen’s lifetime. (The Bills quarterback was born roughly five months after that victory against the Dolphins.)
In addition to a Bills playoff victory in 2020, I would like to see our local professional and college teams make the playoffs and win championships–and that includes the Buffalo Sabres, who haven’t competed in a post-season since 2011. Here are a few other things I hope happen in the world of sports in the coming year:
- Steve Tasker earns induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Gunners who race down the field to make field-position altering tackles have been devalued in this era of diminishing kickoff returns, but they were a huge weapon in the 1980s and ‘90s, and no one was better at it than Tasker. Late Bills special teams coach Bruce DeHaven once showed me a highlight tape of Tasker making plays that determined the outcome of a dozen games. Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick said the guy they worried about most during those Bills glory years was Tasker. He was a game-changer, the best there ever was at what he did, and I think that merits a bust in Canton, Ohio.
- A postseason appearance by the Los Angeles Angels so America can finally appreciate the greatness of Mike Trout. It’s impossible to imagine Babe Ruth or Michael Jordan or Tom Brady toiling in anonymity. Well, that’s what is happening right now with Trout. Perhaps with the addition of manager Joe Maddon and third baseman Anthony Rendon, the Angels finally will make the playoffs, and Trout will have a national television stage on which to shine.
- The hiring of Jeff Van Gundy to coach the New York Knicks again. I sensed from talking to Van Gundy during an October visit to Nazareth College, his alma mater, that the fire to coach still burns. His work as an analyst has kept him plugged in to the NBA. He probably wouldn’t be able to replicate the success he enjoyed in his first go-around as Knicks coach, which featured six playoff appearances, including one trip to the NBA Finals, in six full seasons. But he eventually would turn them into winners. Of course, this would only work if dysfunctional owner James Dolan gave him complete control. Admittedly that’s a big if.
- More Olympic gold medals for Simone Biles. She’s already established herself as the greatest gymnast of all-time. And she may have a chance to challenge swimmer Michael Phelps as greatest Olympian of all-time. Beyond that, she has used her celebrity to bring about positive change and become an advocate for victims of sexual abuse in sports and beyond.
- More competitive tournaments for Tiger Woods. Yeah, I know he’s a polarizing figure, but he moves the needle, commands our interest, makes golf relevant. He doesn’t necessarily have to win any more majors. Just needs to be in the hunt on Sundays.
- An amicable agreement between major and minor league baseball that would prevent the elimination of 40 minor league franchises, including ones in Batavia, Auburn and Binghamton. This contraction threat is a bad idea. Sure, it might save money in the short run, but will hurt in the long-run because minor-league teams in small markets introduce young people to the game and help build lifelong relationships.
- A bounce-back by Syracuse University’s football and basketball programs. Dino Babers needs to show that his team’s 10-3 record in 2018 was not a fluke, and Jim Boeheim needs to show that he still has it after 44 years as head hoops coach.
- A 28th World Series title by the New York Yankees. I know I’m showing my bias here, but I’ve been following the team since 1961, so old habits die hard. After paying a king’s ransom to sign pitcher Garrit Cole, there’s no room for excuses. Anything shy of a title will be considered a failure.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.