by James Fink
March 25, 2014Ralph C. Wilson Jr., the Detroit businessman who has owned the Buffalo Bills since the team’s inception in 1959, has died.
Wilson, 95, died Tuesday in his Grosse Pointe Shores, Mich. hometown following a series of illnesses. In recent years, because of ill health, Wilson’s public appearances have been limited.
"Our organization, our league, our community has lost a great man," said Russ Brandon, the Bills' president and CEO, in a statement released by the team.
DEATH OF RALPH WILSON AND FUTURE OF THE BUFFALO BILLS
• There may be a wealth of suitors for Bills
• Estate taxes may hold key to Bills' future after Wilson's death
• Bills believe business model can keep franchise viable in Western New York
• Key to team's future is monetizing its regional fan base
• The stadium game gets trickier and costlier
• Ex-NFL executives gauge the future of the Buffalo Bills
Wilson parlayed his $25,000 investment in a then-fledgling American Football League franchise into an enterprise had, arguably, had the largest grip on the Western New York region.
“Mr. Wilson may have owned the Bills, but they were Buffalo’s team,” said former Mayor Anthony Masiello. “Unless you live or lived here, you have no way of knowing the deep attachment Buffalonians have with the Bills.”
His death may now kick start a new wave of local anxiety about the fate of the Bills and their long-term future in Western New York. The Bills signed a 10-year lease extension for Ralph Wilson Stadium in December 2012.
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said he hopes enough checks and balances are in place to keep the Bills in Buffalo for “many generations to come.”
Wilson, who was born in Columbus, Ohio on Oct. 17, 1918, had other interests including those in the insurance, construction and media fields, but it was the Buffalo Bills that stood at the forefront of his holdings and was his signature business.
After growing up in Detroit, Wilson graduated from the University of Virginia and, later, attended the University of Michigan Law School. A World War II veteran, Wilson took over his father’s insurance business and expanded into the mining industry and later into several manufacturing firms in the Detroit area.
A longtime football fan, Wilson was in the 1950s, a minority owner of the Detroit Lions. Through a mutual friend, Wilson was introduced to Lamar Hunt, who at the time was planning to start a rival professional football league to the long-established National Football League.
Wilson agreed to join ranks with Hunt and had originally planned to begin a franchise in Miami but was rebuffed by city leaders. Mutual friends connected Wilson with Buffalo business and civic leader Patrick McGroder, who among others, convinced him that Buffalo would support the team. Buffalo had teams, at various times, in the former All-American Football Conference and in the 1920s, in the National Football League.
Wilson agreed to give the city a shot and with that the Buffalo Bills were born, playing their first home games at War Memorial Stadium. The team played its first game on Sept. 11, 1960 against the New York Titans, losing 27-3. The Bills finished their first season with a 5-8-1 record.
Just four years later, the Bills won their first of two successive American Football League championships. They lost the 1966 American Football League championship to the Kansas City Chiefs, who went on to play in the first Super Bowl.
Wilson was a guiding force in the AFL including helping to underwrite the then-financially ailing Oakland Raiders, lending team owner Al Davis $400,000 to keep them afloat. Wilson also offered financial assistance to then-Boston (now New England) Patriots owner Billy Sullivan.
When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963, it was Wilson who lobbied and convinced his fellow AFL owners to postpone all games set for Nov. 24. The AFL did cancel its games while the NFL did not.
Later in the 1960s, Wilson used his clout to help facilitate the merger between the AFL and the NFL, which took place in the 1970 season.
“Mr. Wilson was a class act, he was incredibly loyal to his players — more so than people realized,” said Ed Rutkowski, a former Bills player and later, Erie County Executive. “I feel fortunate to have played for him and known him.”
Facing the prospect of playing in an aging stadium, Wilson used the threat of moving the Bills to Seattle to get what is now Ralph Wilson Stadium constructed in Orchard Park. Earlier stadium proposals for downtown Buffalo and Lancaster were dropped for a number of reasons.
The 80,000-seat Rich Stadium opened in 1973. At the time, it was one of the largest in the NFL and was packed in its early years thanks to the presence of superstar running back O.J. Simpson.
Between 1970 and 1987, the Buffalo Bills only made the NFL playoffs three times. Fans grew restless and frustrated, with Wilson bearing the brunt of their anger. He was frequently booed in public appearances including a 1985 half time ceremony when McGroder was added to the Bills’ “Wall of Fame.”
The boos turned to cheers after Wilson agreed in 1986 to make Jim Kelly the highest paid player in the NFL as an enticement to sign with the team after the rival USFL folded. Then-General Manager Bill Polian, with Wilson’s blessing and pocketbook, drafted or traded for such players as Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith, Andre Reed, Kent Hull and Cornelius Bennett, forming the core of the squad that went to four straight Super Bowls between the 1990 and 1993 seasons. The Bills lost all four Super Bowls but remain the only NFL team to make it to four consecutive Super Bowls.
Since that era ended, the Bills have struggled - last making the playoffs in the 1999 season.
The original lease for the Orchard Park stadium expired in 1997 and in 1998, Wilson signed a 15-year lease. At the same time, Wilson pulled the Rich Products Corp. name from the stadium and replaced it with his own name. Wilson has repeatedly said he is not a fan of corporate names on stadiums.
“Mr. Wilson has been very loyal to this community,” said Poloncarz.
Long considered one of the NFL’s more outspoken owners, Wilson along with Mike Brown from the Cincinnati Bengals were the only two to oppose a collective bargaining agreement between the league and the National Football League Players Association a decade ago. During the 2011 brief lockout between the players and the league, many owners said Wilson was correct in opposing the earlier agreement.
To help make the Bills more financially viable and a regional franchise, Wilson signed off on plans that saw the team’s training camp moved from Fredonia to suburban Rochester and also play eight games in Toronto’s Rogers Centre between 2008 and the 2012 season. The Bills received $78 million from Rogers Communications Corp. for the games. That deal, however, was put on hold for 2014.
Wilson, along the late Bud Adams from the Tennessee Titans and the late George Halas of the Chicago Bears, are the only three people to have owned the same NFL franchise for more than 50 years.
Wilson was inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame in 1999. He donated $2.5 million to the hall to help underwrite the Pro Football Research and Preservation Center, which opened in August 2012 and was named after him.
The Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame inducted Wilson in 1992.
Football was not the only sport that Wilson invested in or had an ownership stake.
For a number of years, he owned thoroughbred horses, with his horses running in major North American and European races. His stable bred Santa Anita Derby winner Jim French and Arazi, a two-year-old, that won the 1991 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and European Horse of the Year.
Another of his horses, Outta Here, finished seventh in the 2003 Kentucky Derby.
Wilson is survived by his second wife, Mary, and two daughters, Christy Wilson Hofmann, who serves as a Bills consultant for merchandising and Edith Wilson, who is not involved with the team. A third daughter, Linda Bogdan, who died in 2009, was a team scout and was a corporate vice president with the Bills. She was the first female scout in the NFL.
A niece, Mary Owen, is the Bills’ vice president of strategic planning and considering a rising star in the NFL.