There never was any question who was the greatest influence in Ralph Wilson’s life. It was his father, Ralph C. Wilson Sr.
“My father had a great personality,” the Bills’ owner said. “He could sell ice to Eskimos. He was the world’s greatest storyteller, without using profanity. He never told a dirty story or listened to one in his life. He and I were more like brothers than father and son.”
The elder Wilson sold everything from encyclopedias to jewelry to automobiles early in his adult life. A sales job at a Detroit auto dealership prompted him to move there with his wife and 3-year-old Ralph Jr., from their home in Columbus, Ohio.
After turning his selling skills from autos to insurance, Ralph Sr. achieved his career breakthrough in the early 1930s when he sold the first group hospitalization and benefits policy to the Chrysler Corp. At the time it was the largest group life and health insurance policy in America.
“It involved not only all of the administrative people, but all of the production workers in the company; it was a major case,” Wilson said. “He worked for three years to try to get in to see Walter Chrysler, who made the final decisions in those days. And when he finally did, he sold Walter Chrysler. Then he went across the street and telephoned my mother that he had made the sale.”
That was the birth of the Wilson empire. Wilson and his son later expanded into the trucking business. The Wilson enterprise was one of the main haulers of cars for Pontiac.
“It was very profitable because you had regulation and nobody could come in and cut your rates like they can today,” Wilson said. “I wouldn’t be in football if it weren’t for General Motors.”
Wilson’s mother, Edith Cole Wilson, was the first woman in Michigan to have a license to drive.
The elder Wilson’s death was the greatest blow in Wilson Jr.’s life, one he never completely got over. Even in the last 20 years of his life, when Wilson referred to his father, he would do it by saying, “My father, who passed away on June 1st of 1970…”
Landing in Buffalo
It was August 1959. Ralph Wilson was in Saratoga to watch horse races when he picked up a copy of the New York Times and read that Texas oilman Lamar Hunt was starting a new professional football league.
When Wilson saw that the AFL wanted to put a team in Miami, where he owned a winter home, he ran to the nearest phone to call Hunt. The next day Wilson flew to Dallas and for a $25,000 fee, he was awarded the franchise.
But the city of Miami would not give Wilson a lease to play in the Orange Bowl, then Miami’s only football stadium, because city officials feared a repeat of their All-America Conference entry in 1949 that went bankrupt. When the Miami stadium deal fell through Wilson figured his bid was dead. But a couple of days later, Hunt called him back and said the league had seven firm teams and needed an eighth. Wilson could have his pick of a team in Buffalo, Cincinnati, Louisville, St. Louis or Atlanta.
Wilson got on the phone with Ed Hayes, the sports editor of the Detroit Times, and Nick Kerbawy, an executive with the Lions. Both advised him that Buffalo was a great football town. Wilson then was put in touch with Paul Neville, then managing editor of The Buffalo Evening News. Neville gave Wilson a tour of the city and of War Memorial Stadium.
“I didn’t have any second cousins or uncles in Buffalo,” Wilson said. “I didn’t know anybody there. But Paul Neville showed me around town, took me to War Memorial Stadium and gave me a real sales talk. Finally I told him, ‘I’ll give it a go for three years if you’ll give me your support for three years.’ We shook hands, and that was it.”
The Drop and The Catch
One of the unluckiest twists of Bills fate led Wilson to one of the happiest developments of his life – his relationship with Mary McLean, who became his wife in 1999.
Mary McLean and one of Wilson’s daughters, Linda Bogdan, were acquaintances at the West Side Tennis Club in Manhattan. Ralph had seen Mary playing there late in 1989 and was intrigued.
On Jan. 6, 1990, Wilson and Linda were sitting in the owners box in Cleveland watching the Bills play the Browns in a divisional-round playoff game. In one of the more memorable endings in team history, Bills back Ronnie Harmon dropped what would have been the winning touchdown pass in the final minute. The Bills lost a thriller, 34-30. At the end of the game, with the season having come to a sudden and disappointing end, Wilson decided he could use a vacation. He turned to Linda and suggested she arrange to have him take some tennis lessons from Mary.
“If Harmon catches that ball and they go to the Super Bowl, Ralph would have been so tied up with football that we probably never would have met,” Mary Wilson said.
Instead, Ralph Wilson went down to the West Indies, where Mary was instructing during that winter. The two hit it off.
“Ronnie Harmon did me one helluva favor dropping that pass,” Ralph Wilson said with a huge laugh in a 2002 interview. “I don’t think the fans of Buffalo would go along with that. But that’s the way I see it.”
The AFL’s big break
The AFL’s first television contract, with ABC, paid about $100,000 per team.
In the fall of 1963, NBC, which did not televise pro football, was lured into talks with the AFL by Sonny Werblin, then owner of the New York Jets.
Werblin was close friends with NBC President Bob Sarnoff. While at the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, Wilson received a long-distance phone call from Billy Sullivan, then owner of the Boston Patriots.
“I’ve got great news for you,” Sullivan said. “NBC has just offered us $600,000 per team.”
“Billy that’s not enough,” Wilson replied. “We won’t be competitive with the NFL.”
“You’re crazy, Wilson. We were getting $100,000 and now we’re getting $600,000. And you say that isn’t enough?”
“No because the NFL is getting a million per team. And eventually they’re going to outbid us for players.”
After further negotiations, NBC wound up paying $900,000 to each AFL team. That put the AFL on roughly equal footing with the NFL.
“When the NFL found that out, they knew they had their hands full,” Wilson said.
Wilson and the Super teams
Ralph Wilson deserves his share of the credit for assembling the Bills’ Super Bowl era teams, according to the man who built the team that went to four straight Super Bowls.
“Marv gets a lot of credit and deservedly so, and the players get a lot of credit, and I get credit,” said Bill Polian, now an analyst for ESPN. “But make no mistake, Ralph Wilson is the guy who drove the train.”
Polian points to pivotal moments for the Bills in the ’80s:
“Everyone knows the story of Jim Kelly leaving for the USFL,” he said. “As the USFL was progressing and as Donald Trump got Kelly’s rights, and they tried to build a franchise overnight with Trump in New York, I said to Ralph, ‘Look, we can trade Kelly’s rights, and I think we can get a good amount in return for him. We can get significant draft choices.’
“He said, ‘Who’d play quarterback?’ I said, ‘We’d have two options,’ ” Polian recalled. “ ‘We could draft Player A and develop him with one of the picks – a first-round pick – we’d get in the trade for Kelly. Or we could trade for Player B’ – who I don’t want to name, but a good player – ‘who’d be nowhere near as costly and he’d be pretty good for us.’
“He said, ‘Are these guys as good as Kelly?’ I said, ‘No. But Kelly’s gonna cost a fortune to sign. He’d likely be the largest contract in the league right now, and this franchise isn’t exactly rolling in dough.’
“He said, “No. I want to win a championship, and we’re going to sign Jim Kelly.’
“Another story,” Polian said. “We were evaluating Thurman Thomas. We went to Ralph and said, ‘Look, the doctors say there’s a problem with his knee. The doctor feels it may not be as bad as some people think. This is a gamble, and it’s big money but we all really like this guy and think he could be a steal.’ He said, ‘Go ahead, everything in life is a gamble.’
“And if he had said, “Let’s not risk it,’ we all would have said fine and totally understood and gone onto Plan B.”