The first job Buffalo Bills General Manager Buddy Nix got in football was as a graduate assistant under legendary coach Paul "Bear" Bryant at the University of Alabama.
The year was 1961. Alabama went 11-0, outscored opponents 297-25, and won the national championship. Aside from the pay -- "You don't want to hear how little I got," Nix said -- it was about as fine a start in the football profession as a man could get.
Nix spent two years as an Alabama GA, then set out on a series of high school head coaching jobs.
"After I left Alabama, I was coaching in high school and they had a charity golf tournament," Nix recalls. "I won it. Coach Bryant was the speaker. He gave out the award, and it was like a golf bag or something. When he handed it to me, he said, 'You can't coach worth a damn if you can play golf like that.' And I put the clubs up and didn't play again for five years. That's how much what he thought meant."
Nix's devotion to the game has sustained him through a career that this week enters its 49th season. Why at age 70, would he embrace the challenge of rebuilding the Bills, a franchise wandering in the NFL desert for a decade? Immersing himself in the game is the story of his life.
>The Career Path
Nix has proved over the decades that he knows a good football player when he sees one. The Bills are counting on that ability to be the catalyst for their latest rebuilding effort.
"The only way I could be more of a football guy is live longer, because that's all I've ever done," Nix said.
Nix doesn't claim to be a disciple of Bryant. He wasn't a close associate of the legendary coach. But his job at Alabama got him off to a good start in the game.
"I think the big thing is I was able to be in meetings and be around a bunch of really good coaches who went on to be head coaches in Gene Stallings and Howard Schnellenberger and [Jerry] Claiborne and on and on," Nix said, referring to three Bryant assistants who are legends in their own right. "I tried to sponge up everything I could from those guys. Coach Bryant at that time didn't just influence everyone around him, he influenced every high school and college coach in the South and beyond. If you didn't do it the way he did it, you felt like you were wrong. And if you weren't as dedicated as he was then you felt like you were cheating people."
Nix worked his way up the coaching ranks in the 1970s. In 1971 he was defensive coordinator for the Livingston (Ala.) College team that won the NAIA national championship. He moved to Southern Mississippi, Auburn and then Louisiana State, where he served as an assistant under head coach Jerry Stovall. LSU made the Sugar Bowl in 1982 and nearly pulled a big upset, losing by 21-20 to a third-ranked Nebraska team that had averaged 41 points per game.
Nix parlayed the LSU job into the head-coaching position at Division I-AA Tennessee-Chattanooga. He spent nine years there, posting five winning seasons but managing an overall record of 44-54-1. (The Mocs have had only three winning seasons since he left in '92.)
"I was kind of to a point of being burned out in coaching," Nix said of his attitude after being fired. "I hate using that term because it wasn't long before I got revived. But after nine years at a I-AA school where you never get it to a point where it stays, you're always up and down. You play pretty good for a year or two, then you have a bad year. It's hard to maintain. And it takes a lot out of you, especially when you're training coaches. You get young coaches. You can't afford the top guys, so you train 'em and then somebody hires them off of you.
"I was kinda looking for something to give me a boost, a fresh start," Nix said. "I'd had chances to get in the NFL coaching-wise before, but I never wanted to move my family around like you have to do."
Nix was an acquaintance of Dwight Adams, then director of college scouting for the Bills under General Manager John Butler. Nix and Adams had coached in the same conferences and recruited the same players for many years. Butler knew Nix a bit from scouting. On Adams' recommendation, Butler hired Nix as the Bills' Southeastern scout.
"Buddy was a thorough scout," Adams said. "He investigated guys' backgrounds well. He knows what it takes because he had coached at good schools like Auburn and LSU."
"I always had a feeling that if you hadn't played or you hadn't coached you had a hard time scouting because you hadn't done it," Adams said. "And you had never had to teach a player how to do it. Buddy knows a player when he sees one."
The Bills had an impressive string of hits on their top draft choices with Butler overseeing the scouting operation. They had nine straight drafts during one stretch in which they hit their top pick, despite drafting at the bottom of the heap. (Those included Henry Jones, John Fina, Thomas Smith, Jeff Burris, Ruben Brown, Eric Moulds, Antowain Smith, Sam Cowart and Antoine Winfield.)
"I think we had some experienced people doing it," Nix said of the Bills' scouting operation. "There was a lot of continuity. You had folks that knew how to do it and kept it going. I think that's important, whether it's in coaching or scouting. I would say that was the biggest asset."
Nix followed Butler and Bills executive A.J. Smith to San Diego. Nix ran the college scouting operation, and the draft success continued. San Diego essentially hit six top picks in six years -- LaDainian Tomlinson, Quentin Jammer, Philip Rivers, Shawne Merriman, Luis Castillo and Antonio Cromartie. (Rivers technically was a trade acquisition.)
The Chargers have had as many misses as hits in the draft overall. But their big hits -- their ability to draft players who become stars -- have been greater than most organizations'.
"I think if you do better than 50 percent you're probably gonna be right around the middle of the pack," Nix said. "You have your good years. You have your lucky years. Nobody's gonna hit 'em all. But you've got to hit enough to build your team each year. You've got to do that."
"Every now and then you're going to miss on a first rounder," Nix said. "You shouldn't but you do. If that's the case, then you've got to hit on the middle guys. Most of the time you should get the top guys right. The ones on each end are easy to do."
Nix thinks the second- through sixth-rounders make the difference for the winning organizations. "It's the middle ones that make up the bulk of your team that decide whether you're good at what you're doing or not," he said.
San Diego has scored a lot of quality starters outside the first round. The list includes: Drew Brees, Vincent Jackson, Darren Sproles, Michael Turner, Nick Hardwick, Igor Olshansky, Shaun Phillips, Nate Kaeding, Mike Scifres and Marcus McNeill.
Nix calls Rivers, the Chargers' star quarterback, the most surefire draft pick he ever was involved in taking.
"Absolutely," he said. "I don't think there was any question that he was the guy. Nobody [with the Chargers] had any doubts about him. He had 50 starts and he played in a bowl game every year and he was the Most Valuable Player in every bowl game he ever played in."
Most of the Chargers' top picks filled needs, although it's worth noting the Chargers had needs everywhere the first few years of Nix's tenure. Castillo and Sproles were not necessarily need picks.
"Here's the way I feel," Nix said. "Obviously you want to fill the need. That's obvious. If you can, you do. But you don't fill the need at the expense of making sure it's a good player. You fill a need with a guy who can play and you upgrade your football team. If you can't then you go to the one that can."
That philosophy dictated Nix's decision with the ninth pick in April's draft, when Buffalo took running back C.J. Spiller.
"We felt like we needed to upgrade our offensive line," Nix said of the assessment after he was hired. "We started out looking for that. That was our main emphasis going into the draft. But by the time we got through doing our work, there was one or two guys we felt really strongly about coming in and helping us. And neither one of them were there."
Offensive tackles Russell Okung and Trent Williams were taken in the first six picks.
"So do we take a guy that everybody thinks we ought to take, a tackle, no matter whether he can play or not?" Nix said. "You can't let that bother you."
Nix thinks that a player's "football character" is a critical piece of the evaluation process. Two of the Bills' biggest busts the past decade -- Erik Flowers and Mike Williams -- were quality individuals, good citizens. But they lacked football character.
"I think that's what separates the so-so guy and the guys that make it," Nix said. "Everybody who comes into this league has got talent. They've got upside or they wouldn't be here. The ones that stay and play are the ones who got work habits. They want to be the best they can be. They want to do whatever they have to do to be the best they can be. The difference in this league and college is you have to do it every day. You have to come to work every day. If you don't, you don't get there."
Despite Nix's scouting track record, his promotion to general manager was met with widespread indifference, something he acknowledged in his opening news conference. "I can see a little disappointment on your face that one of the geniuses is not standing up here," he said.
In getting the GM job, Nix benefited from the fact Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. has an aversion to entrusting his operation to someone with whom he is not familiar. And he is not familiar with a lot of personnel men around the NFL.
Bills fans must hope that one of Wilson's nearest bystanders turns out to be a winning executive, as happened with the hiring of Bill Polian and Butler.
Nix isn't making any bold predictions for this season, but he clearly thinks the Bills are poised to be better than most observers think in 2010.
"I want you to know that our expectations are not that low," he said.
Asked what he feels best about heading into his first regular season in charge, Nix does not hesitate.
He believes he has found the right coach in Chan Gailey.
"The first thing is the coach we hired," Nix said. "I knew what we were getting and I think if anything he's better than that, even. I've got no reservations about saying that."
Nix sees the hiring of Gailey as similar to the drafting of a proven college star. It wasn't a pick made on potential.
The Bills have had problems with coaches who were not fully developed as head men. Everyone told Gregg Williams he had to be tough to compensate for laid-back predecessor Wade Phillips. Williams struggled to walk a line between being tough and wanting to be liked. Mike Mularkey needed to find his true voice, rather than emulating his previous boss, Bill Cowher. Neither Williams nor Mularkey got the luxury of growing into the job.
"I think about Coach Bryant, who everybody tried to emulate," Nix said. "Even to the point of dressing like him and talking like him. I think about guys like Jim Blevins and Charlie Pell and some of those guys that tried to talk with that low drawl. You could tell. You can't do that. You've got to be what you are."
"Chan has done it before at all levels," Nix said. "If a guy is kinda wishy-washy about his plan or his offensive style or whatever, your team is probably that way. Chan believes in what he's doing. He's the same every day, and he works as hard as anybody can."
"We'll be as good as we're capable of being," Nix said confidently. "That's a comforting thing. That's what makes you able to move on."