Bill Polian never needed to check the calendar to know when football season was approaching. For 35 years, when his workdays became longer and busier, he could feel the anticipation that came with training camp. Let's face it, he couldn't have survived in the NFL for that long unless the game was in his blood.
Last week, for the first time in memory, he was mildly confused when teams reported to camp. He was named the league's top executive six times, but his keen eye for talent and knack for building great teams were suddenly left on the sidelines. The Colts fired him as vice chairman last season after they finished 2-14.
What's a football guy to do?
Polian became an analyst with ESPN, where he can keep his mind sharp and his finger on the game. He spent three days in an air-conditioned studio in Bristol, Conn., rather than melting under the sun. Next week, he's scheduled to begin touring five training camps while working for Sirius radio.
"I'm not jumping out of my skin, but my body clock last week told me it was time to go back to work," Polian said Wednesday before the University at Buffalo's Kickoff Luncheon in Cheektowaga. "You just play the hand that's dealt to you. It was different. There's no question about that. You can't go for 35 years in succession and not be a little nonplussed."
Bill Polian, nonplussed? Now there's a first.
It was a different side to the man we knew back in the 1980s and early 1990s when he was turning the Bills into perennial Super Bowl contenders. He was self-assured and straightforward back in the day, if not short-tempered and stubborn. He had all the right answers while leading the Bills into their glory days.
To me, the decision to fire Polian after the Bills lost their third Super Bowl, when Ralph Wilson lost patience with his style, remains one of the biggest blunders in franchise history. Polian had his shortcomings, but, above all else, he knew how to win. He proved as much for years after leaving Buffalo.
Funny, but Buffalo never left him.
Polian turned expansion Carolina into contenders in short order. Indianapolis was the joke of the NFL before Polian guided them through a U-turn to the Super Bowl. The Colts won 10 games or more 11 times over his final 13 years. They won the Super Bowl five years ago, lost two years ago, and fell apart last season without Peyton Manning.
And for that, Polian and his son Chris, who had been general manager under him, were shown the door.
"It was just time," Polian said. "I did not reflect on it here because it was the first time it happened to me, but Bill Walsh soon after that told me, 'Ten years in one place is about enough.' I reflected on that when the run came to the end with the Colts. There was a lot of wisdom in that. After a while, you wear out your welcome in professional sports."
Polian's name will be added to the Bills' Wall of Fame later this season. There should be a place waiting for him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, a possibility he could not comprehend Wednesday. The young and fiery general manager, just 41 years old when the Bills hired him as personnel director, will celebrate his 70th birthday later this year.
Where did the time go?
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Cornelius Bennett trade, the three-team swap that sent Eric Dickerson to Indy and Gregg Bell to the Los Angeles Rams. It was one of the great deals in NFL history. Bennett, the second pick overall in 1987, became the dominant outside linebacker the Bills needed and one of their final big pieces.
Remember his first game? It came shortly after the 1987 players' strike in which the NFL turned to replacement players. Bennett had only a few practices with the Bills when they lined him up opposite Bruce Smith and had him rush the passer. John Elway had a miserable afternoon, and the Bills were on their way.
"Elway looked around and said, 'Who the heck is this guy?'"Polian said with a laugh. "He was yelling at the sideline. It was certainly an auspicious debut for Cornelius."
The Bills finished just 7-8 that season, but the signs were there. Polian had drafted Smith and Andre Reed. He lured Jim Kelly and Kent Hull from the USFL and hired Marv Levy in 1986. He claimed Steve Tasker off waivers from Houston and drafted Will Wolford, Shane Conlan, Howard Ballard and Thurman Thomas.
They made up the core of one of the NFL's most dominant teams through the greatest era in Buffalo sports history. Polian knew it was a special collection of players, but he didn't understand how tight they had become until Hull died last October. Their reunion in Mississippi might as well have been his Buffalo scrapbook.
"There are so many happy memories associated with that group," he said. "Part of it is the fact it was the first time for all of us. It was the first time for overwhelming success for Marv in the National Football League. It was my first chance to build a team. Bob [Ferguson] and John Butler, it was their first time to be executives.
"The players were young, vibrant and together for a long time. They grew up together. That was driven home to me poignantly at Kent's funeral when you see so many of the wives there supporting Kay. They remained close for all these years."
All these years later, Polian never lost his affinity for Buffalo. He lived in Hamburg and sent his sons to St. Francis High before they eventually joined him in the family business. Polian maintained several close relationships over the years. He often feels as if he never left. Buffalo, like football, was in his blood.
And that leads us to this:
In 1988, Polian was sitting at the end of the bar at Mudd McGrath's on a quiet afternoon and losing patience while waiting for a beer. McGrath, the longtime basketball referee and lifelong Buffalo guy, was telling a story to another patron until a frustrated Polian interrupted him.
"Bill," McGrath said, "you're the only general manager in the National Football League who could come into a corner bar in South Buffalo and nobody gives a [crap]."
"Mudd," Polian said with a smile, "that's why I love this place."