The sports year in Western New York could have been sponsored by Global Van Lines. ¶ A string of well-known players, coaches and administrators left the area in 2013. Fans of Buffalo’s sports teams know why – it wasn’t a good year locally when it came to wins and losses, and many paid the price with their jobs. ¶ Let’s wave goodbye to Lindy Ruff, Chan Gailey, Darcy Regier, Darris Kilgour, Reggie Witherspoon, Thomas Vanek, Buddy Nix, Joe Mihalich, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ron Rolston, Marty Brown and Jason Pominville. They did their best and made contributions, but they’re gone for one reason or another. Those departures frame the annual look back at the sports year. ¶ Almost all sports teams go through up and down cycles over the long term, but it’s rare to have so many losing teams at the same time – particularly at the professional level. ¶ When midnight arrives Jan. 1, 2014, Western New York sports fans will look back on the previous 365 days and, for the most part, say, “Good riddance.” Here are the Top 10 stories:
1. The Sabres clean house
Buffalo’s NHL team got off to a terrible start this fall, and the fans were starting to rebel. It was no surprise, then, when general manager Regier and coach Rolston were shown the door.
But no one could have guessed who would walk in that same door. Pat LaFontaine arrived as president of hockey operations, and his hand-picked interim coach was, gasp, Ted Nolan, who hadn’t been behind the Sabres bench since 1997.
The move was a popular one around town, but it didn’t make much of an impact in the team’s play until the end of December. The Sabres picked up their play a few notches as the New Year approached.
2. Tragedy in Brocton
The stunning death of Damon Janes in September from injuries suffered in a high school football game obviously was more than a sports story. It had a huge impact on that community and surrounding area, and thus was a large area news story.
It’s also a difficult story to “rate” here. However, it was the first area death of a high school player since 1977. The tragedy also brought the area of player safety in scholastic sports to the attention of a national audience.
3. The Bills switch coaches
Chan Gailey couldn’t complain that he wasn’t given a full chance, as he spent three years leading the Bills. But Gailey couldn’t end the team’s long streak of years without a playoff appearance.
That led to the hiring of Doug Marrone. He had been just down the Thruway at Syracuse, where he turned the Orange from doormat to bowl team. Marrone was considered a top NFL coaching prospect, but it would take him time to change the fortunes of the franchise as the Bills again suffered through a losing season.
4. Lindy departs
NHL coaches have become more or less disposable in this day and age. The thinking is that players often tune them out after a few years, and they are replaced for a different voice.
Ruff was the exception. He stayed from his hiring in 1997 when he replaced, yes, Nolan, until his departure on Feb. 20. Ruff took a few months off and then landed the head coaching job with the Dallas Stars in the summer.
5. EJ is OK
It could be argued that the Bills are still looking for a replacement for Jim Kelly as the team’s quarterback. They’ve gone through a variety of candidates since Kelly retired after the 1996 season. Last year’s starter, Ryan Fitzpatrick, was released in the offseason.
When the NFL Draft came along, the Bills acted decisively on their convictions. They traded down to acquire an extra second-round draft pick and used their first-round pick on EJ Manuel of Florida State. It was the first time the Bills had ever used their first choice on a quarterback. Manuel won the starting job in training camp. It’s still too early to say that he will be the answer at the position, but even after an up-and-down 2013 it wouldn’t be fair to say he’s not the answer.
6. UB’s run to excellence
The University at Buffalo football team lost its first two games and was in overtime at home against Stony Brook. The Bulls didn’t look like a bowl team at that point.
Yet that’s what they turned out to be. UB beat Stony Brook to start a seven-game winning streak. Despite a late-season loss to Bowling Green that cost the Bulls a division title, they still made it to Boise, Idaho, for the second bowl game in school history. UB was led by linebacker Khalil Mack, who will be remembered as the best player in the university’s history.
7. A legendary name at UB
It was a surprise when Reggie Witherspoon was relieved of his duties as coach of the University at Buffalo basketball team. He had guided the Bulls in the previous 14 seasons, exiting with a 14-20 record.
Witherspoon’s replacement was a stunner: Bob Hurley, the former Duke guard who ranked as one of the greatest players in college basketball history. Hurley had never been a head coach on the college level before, but he instantly became one of the biggest names to ever coach a Big 4 team.
8. A scorer departs
Thomas Vanek had played in Buffalo in the Frozen Four while in college, and even then people knew he could score goals. The winger did exactly that when he was drafted by the Sabres, scoring 254 times for Buffalo.
But he was scheduled to be a free agent in the summer of 2014, and it was with some mutual sadness that the Sabres traded him to the Islanders on Oct. 27 for Matt Moulson and two high draft picks. Buffalo was the lowest-scoring team in the league through December, making Vanek’s absence more acute.
9. Change at Niagara
It looked as if Joe Mihalich was going to be a lifer as coach of the Purple Eagles. He won regularly there and played an entertaining style of basketball that was loved by the players.
No one was prepared for the news that Mihalich had left Niagara to go to Hofstra. He received a good-sized raise, of course, but it wasn’t as if he left for an Atlantic Coast Conference school. Several players left the Purple Eagles after Mihalich’s departure, leaving the cupboard somewhat bare for new coach Chris Casey.
10. A memorable exit
Darris Kilgour’s 11-year coaching tenure with the Bandits was generally successful, if sometimes stormy. His exit will always be remembered. When he was fired after the Bandits missed the playoffs, Kilgour said the team could “take my number out of the rafters,” referring to his retired uniform number from his playing days.
A replacement for Kilgour was just up the road. Troy Cordingley, a former Bandits assistant coach, was fired by the Toronto Rock despite winning coach of the year honors. He took over the Bandits’ head coaching spot in July.
• The Sabres cleaned house on the roster before the trading deadline in the spring, trading Pominville, Robyn Regehr and Jordan Leopold.
• Canisius and Niagara both qualified for the NCAA hockey tournament.
• Speaking of college athletics, Canisius and Niagara both played in postseason basketball tournaments. The Golden Griffins also reached the NCAA tournament in women’s lacrosse and baseball.
• The Bisons’ switch in affiliates from the Mets to the Blue Jays helped spin the turnstiles, as attendance jumped by more than 12 percent. The Herd finished with a 74-70 record.
• Randolph won its second straight state championship in high school football.
• The WNY Flash lost to Portland in the NWSL championship game in Rochester.