When it comes to 2012, Buffalo's professional sports teams may as well throw the year into the scrap heap. On the field, it was mostly a waste of time. ¶ The Bills are simply lost, a laughingstock of the NFL wrapping up their 13th straight nonplayoff season. The Sabres missed the playoffs for the third time in five years. Even the Bandits (first losing season since 1999) and Bisons (seventh straight nonplayoff year) caught the malaise of their pro counterparts. ¶ You want winners? The good news is there were plenty to choose from in the high school and college ranks as well as some trips to the medal stand by Western New Yorkers at the London Olympics. But the biggest winners as the year drew to a close have to be Bills fans. They're now assured they will have a team for at least the next few years after last week's announcement the team has signed a memorandum of understanding for a 10-year lease extension at Ralph Wilson Stadium. ¶ There are plenty of nagging questions about the Bills' lease, especially since the team can get out of it after year seven for the relatively small sum of $28.4 million. And even if it goes to completion, the Ralph will be nearly 50 years old and far past its prime as an NFL venue. But at the very least, the extension buys the team – as well as New York State and Erie County – badly needed time to figure out a course for the future of the NFL in Buffalo.
Here's a look back at our choices for the top 10 events of 2012 in Buffalo sports. Some you'll remember fondly. Others? Well, as the old adage goes, wait till next year.
1. Bills sign lease extension
The prevailing theory was that the Bills were going to work out a one-year extension of their lease to play at the Ralph. So last week's announcement of a longer-term deal was a stunner on many levels. The state and county were able to negotiate an astonishing $400 million relocation penalty from the team after years 1-6, and again after years 8-10.
There will be $130 million spent on renovations at the stadium (with the state and county kicking in $95 million of that). That's less than the Bills originally hoped for but still a large chunk of money for a facility that opened in 1972 and is one of the oldest in the NFL. Also part of the announcement was the admission by the parties that they will start to explore the possibility of a new stadium, which would almost certainly be needed if the franchise is to remain here in the long term.
A downtown facility, perhaps combined with a new convention center, has been on the mind of fans and some local leaders for a while, but this was the first time the Bills and major political figures have publicly addressed it. The cost could be in the $600-$700 million range, perhaps even higher, and would largely be dependent on a new ownership group.
2. Bills sign Mario, lose again
The Bills were the talk of the NFL for a 44-hour period over three days in March as they were courting Houston Texans defensive end Mario Williams, a former No. 1 overall draft pick and the kind of player that basically never signs as a free agent in small-market Buffalo. But this was different, a full-court press followed wildly by fans and media who even staked out Tempo Restaurant downtown as Williams dined with Bills officials. When Williams signed on March 15, it was for a $100 million deal that made him the most expensive defensive player in NFL history and the most significant free-agent addition in franchise annals.
Williams and fellow free agent Mark Anderson were supposed to anchor a much-improved defense that would spearhead the end of the franchise's playoff drought. Williams struggled the first half of a season with a wrist injury before showing improvement after the problem was repaired. The defense on the whole, however, was a flop, giving up 50-plus points in a game twice and becoming the first NFL team since 1986 to get burned for 45-plus in four different games.
As the season draws to a close with the team 5-10 heading into Sunday's finale, the status of coach Chan Gailey and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick is tenuous at best.
3. Sabres miss playoffs again
For the fifth straight season, the Sabres didn't win a playoff series. That's because for the third time in those five years they didn't even make the Stanley Cup party. The Sabres' 39-32-11 record left them with 89 points, ninth in the Eastern Conference and three shy of the final playoff spot. Ryan Miller's infamous concussion (courtesy of Boston tough guy Milan Lucic) was the most notable of numerous injuries, but the season was ultimately stained by a record 12-game losing streak on the road that was finally ended with a late-January win in New Jersey.
The Sabres were actually in eighth place, but they went just 1-3-1 in their last five games, allowing the Capitals and Ottawa Senators to finish ahead of them. There's been no chance at redemption with the NHL locked out since mid-September and the 2012-13 season in jeopardy.
4. Olympic medals for WNYers
Three Western New Yorkers climbed the steps in London, led by the gold medal-winning performance of Fredonia's Jenn Suhr in the women's pole vault. Suhr cleared 4.75 meters (15 feet, 7 inches) and then waited for a final miss by Cuba's Yarisley Silva before winning the event.
In archery, Elma's Jake Kaminski helped the U.S. team capture a silver medal largely on the heels of his three perfect 10s that wrapped up a semifinal victory over defending champion South Korea. In rowing, Buffalo native Tom Terhaar coached the women's eights to a successful defense of its gold medal as the crew eased to victory by nearly 10 seconds.
5. Bona men, women go to NCAA
St. Bonaventure pulled off a first in Big 4 basketball history – the men's and women's teams both went to the NCAA Tournament in the same season. The women were a season-long story, becoming the first Big 4 team to be ranked and the first to advance to a Sweet 16 since the 1970 Final Four men's team. The 2012 Bona men upset Xavier in the Atlantic 10 final at Atlantic City, N.J., to go to the NCAAs for the first time since 2000.
The women earned a No. 5 seed as an at-large team after their 18-game winning streak was snapped by a loss in the Atlantic 10 final. The Bonnies beat Florida Gulf Coast in overtime, the first NCAA triumph for a Big 4 women's team. They then advanced to Sweet 16 with a 66-63 win over Marist. The run ended in the regional semifinal with a 79-35 loss to top-seeded Notre Dame, leaving the Bona women with a 31-4 record that was a Big 4 mark for victories. The men were led by future NBA first-round pick Andrew Nicholson and won the first A-10 Tournament title in school history. They lost to Florida State in the NCAA tournament, ending their season at 20-12.
6. Bisons sign with Blue Jays
Four years of mostly mediocre baseball, three of which ended in losing records, prompted the Bisons to dump the New York Mets as their parent club after a 67-76 season ended on Labor Day. A couple of weeks later, the Herd did what many had expected for more than a year – sign a two-year Player Development Contract with the Toronto Blue Jays. Marty Brown, who managed Buffalo's 2004 championship team that was affiliated with the Cleveland Indians, was assigned from Toronto's old Triple-A team in Las Vegas to manage the Bisons in 2013, when they will display a new logo and new uniforms. The signature moment of an otherwise drab 2012 Bisons season was a 2-0 win Aug. 18 over Pawtucket in a game played in Boston's historic Fenway Park.
7. 11-0 for Canisius football
After many years of domination by St. Francis and St. Joe's in the Msgr. Martin Association, Canisius posted its first perfect season since 1976 and piled up a huge bushel of awards. The Crusaders were No. 1 among large schools in The Buffalo News Poll for the first time, and posted marquee wins over Walsh Jesuit of Ohio and Section V Class AA champion Aquinas en route to the first perfect season by an MMA large school since 1998. Senior two-way lineman Ryan Hunter and junior running back Qadree Ollison shared The News Player of the Year award, while Rich Robbins was named the Buffalo Bills/NFL Coach of the Year.
8. Jim Baron back in the Big 4
The former St. Bonaventure coach was fired at Rhode Island after a 7-24 season and Canisius was looking for an upgrade from Tom Parrotta, who was fired after a 5-25 campaign that marked his sixth straight losing season. So the school quickly moved to make what some people thought was an unusual hire in Baron – a 58-year-old who is a former coaching hero and alum at its archrival. But Baron built NCAA teams from the ashes at St. Francis and Bona and had five 20-win seasons at Rhody too. He brought his son, Billy, along and the Griffs started a season 6-1 for the first time since 1974 and won their opening two conference games for the first time since 1997. A Dec. 19 win at Temple was the program's most significant in nonconference play since 1994 and Canisius has legitimate hopes of its first NCAA bid since 1996 and just its second since 1957.
9. UB extends Jeff Quinn's contract
Not many college football coaches get a new contract with a 9-27 record after three seasons but Quinn got an extension last month from new athletics director Danny White, largely on hope for the future. After a 1-7 start, UB won three straight games for the first time since 2008 before a season-ending loss at Bowling Green, ending up 4-8. But the Bulls will have 17 returning starters next season and are likely to have an easier schedule in the Mid-American Conference, so White opted for continuity rather than change. Next season starts with games at Ohio State and Baylor.
10.Triple-A All Star game here
In the 1988 inaugural season at then-Pilot Field, Buffalo was the site of a great experiment in minor league baseball when it hosted the first matchup of Triple-A All-Stars. The game was televised on ESPN and was an immediate success. The 25th version returned to Buffalo in July and more than 35,000 fans were on hand for what has become a two-day event: More than 17,000 saw Bisons slugger Valentino Pascucci thrill the crowd by winning the Triple-A Home Run Derby, and a sellout crowd of 18,025 two nights later saw the Pacific Coast League's 3-0 win over the International League.
Former Williamsville South star Joe Licata takes over as UB quarterback, directs three wins; Randolph wins state football title, Sweet Home and Orchard Park lose in finals; Athletics Director Warde Manuel leaves UB for UConn, Danny White hired from Mississippi; Longtime Williamsville South basketball coach Al Monaco fired amid controversy; Heartbreak for Randolph girls and OTC Middle College boys in state basketball championship games; St. Bona grad and former Pittsburgh Steeler Jack Butler inducted into Pro Football Hall of Fame; Niagara men's hockey team cracks national polls with red-hot goalie Carsen Chubek; reliever Steve Geltz makes MLB debut with Los Angeles Angels, becomes first former UB player in bigs since Joe Hesketh; Bandits suffer first losing season since 1999, get eliminated in first round of National Lacrosse League playoffs; Women's hockey among sports dropped by Niagara University; WNY Flash women's soccer team wins championship of third league in three years.