Polian reflects on glory days with Buffalo Bills
When former Buffalo Bills General Manger Bill Polian was in town Friday for the Van Miller Scholarship Golf Tournament at Shorewood Country Club, I had the privilege of sitting down with him for 15 minutes to discuss, amongst other things, his relationship with Miller, former Bills’ quarterback Jim Kelly, his career in the National Football League – especially his time in Buffalo – and what he thinks of the current Bills squad.
As a lifelong Bills fan, it was almost surreal sitting and talking with the main architect of the most successful teams the franchise has ever seen. However, Polian was a true professional and, without thinking twice, answered every question I asked.
I began the interview by asking him about his memories of Miller as the Bills’ broadcaster, and like so many other Bills fans across the country, there was one that stood out amongst all the other great calls Miller made in his long, distinguished career.
“‘Fandemonium’ is the one that obviously is the most famous, I think, certainly from my time with the Bills,” Polian said. “It kind of took on a life of its own, so it lives on in Western New York sports lore.”
From there, we discussed his time in the NFL and with the Bills.
“Our dream was to win the Super Bowl,” Polian mentioned of when he took over as the Bills’ general manager in December 1985. “We didn’t achieve that, but we did virtually everything else. And I guess I was young and dumb and believed it could happen. We were coming off two 2-14 seasons and it couldn’t get any worse. We had good people in the organization and I knew we had some good people on the team. The draft of 1985 added Andre Reed, Frank (Reich) and Bruce (Smith) and many others. And I had been in the (United States Football League), so we were able to pick up some USFL players that helped us like Kent Hull and Ray Bentley and many others.
“We believed it could happen,” Polian continued. “As I said in my opening press conference (in 1985), ‘Faith can move mountains, as the saying goes, so maybe faith can move a few Miami Dolphins on the goal line.’ And the best thing about Western New York is the fans said, ‘You know what, these guys are sincere.?They want to win, so we’ll support them.’ They believed and that was the most important thing.”
Despite helping put the pieces in place for the Indianapolis Colts to win Super Bowl XLI, it was his time in Buffalo that Polian will remember most.
“It’s hard to enumerate,” Polian said of his career. “Even though I had terrific success in Indianapolis, and I loved my time there, this was my happiest time here (in Buffalo), because I was young and everybody kind of grew up together. I’m still close to (former Bills’ head coach) Marv (Levy) and some of the coaches. It’s a big family and it’s never changed.”
Besides the wins and losses, successes and failures during his tenure in Buffalo, there are things other than football that Polian spoke fondly of.
“First of all, the friendships on and off the field,” he said. “It’s well known in this area that the team is still close. We’re still as close as we were when we were together. And when we get together for things like this or Jim (Kelly’s) golf tournament, or as we will in Canton (Ohio for the National Football Hall of Fame induction), which will be a big family reunion We rejoice when things happen good for people like Andre (Reed) and others who have gotten into the Hall of Fame, and we grieve with one another when something like Kent (Hull’s) untimely death take place.”
It was during that time in October 2011, that Polian noticed something else special about those associated with the Bills’ teams he helped put together.
“I think what was so poignant, and yet somewhat astounding to me, was to see how many wives came to Kent’s funeral,” Polian said. “Because they were all close to Kay and they wanted to comfort Kay in her time of need. That’s rare in professional sports in any era. So that’s the most important thing. And the friends we made off the field. We were here for a wedding last weekend and those friends have remained our friends over these many years.”
And earlier this year that sense of family was on display again as Bills’ owner Ralph C. Wilson passed away in late March and Kelly announced shortly thereafter that he had a reoccurrence of the cancer he thought doctors had helped him beat last year.
“It’s a hard go,” Polian said of Kelly’s battle with cancer. “He’s very beaten up by the treatment, as anyone would be, but he’s ‘Kelly strong,’ he’ll fight and I know he has the prayers of every Western New Yorker on his side. And that’s important and we’re just hoping that when those scans come back this time around, that there’s progress.”
During his time in Buffalo, the Bills held their training camp at Fredonia State and Polian was quick to mention the fond memories he had of his time in the area.
“It was a great time,” he said. “We drew great crowds, we loved coming here and everybody looked forward to it. It’s rare that you look forward to training camp, but we did. The people here treated us tremendously.”
Friday marked the first time Polian had been back to the Dunkirk-Fredonia area since he left the team and began working for the NFL in 1993, and he remarked that not much had changed.
“It’s pretty much the same, I think,” Polian said. “When you’re in training camp, you don’t get out very much, so I think I came over (to Shorewood Country Club) once to play golf in all the years we were here. And we used to go to the White Inn every once and a while just to break the training-camp routine. But other than that, you’re pretty much confined to the campus.”
On the field, the Bills have changed – and not for the better – since Polian left, and he has certainly taken notice.
“It’s been a long time,” Polian noted of the last time the Bills were successful. “And I’m sure (winning) would be a great help, but the most important thing is that the franchise gets a good owner that’s committed to winning, and hopefully committed to keeping it in Buffalo. And one who’s going to do it the right way. This is a great franchise with the greatest fans in America. This should be the Green Bay Packers. This should be the Pittsburgh Steelers. It should not be what it’s been for the last 14 years.”
However disconsolate Polian has been with the Bills’ recent past, he does like what he sees in the new regime at One Bills Drive.
“I really like Doug Marrone. I’ve known him for a long time,” Polian said. “We actually went to the same high school, believe it or not – many years apart – in the Bronx. But I’ve known him a long time and I think very highly of him.
“I think he’s got them headed in the right direction,” Polian continued. “A lot will depend on how the young quarterback develops. They’ve got a lot of young players and it’s hard to win consistently with young guys, but it looks like they’re taking steps in the right direction, and that’s a good thing. So, we’ll see.”
Like every Bills fan, Polian is aware that the team’s successes – and failures – will hinge on the play of second-year quarterback E.J. Manuel.
“Usually the biggest growth for a player comes between their first and second year, so if E.J. Manuel continues to grow, they should have a chance,” Polian said. “And I think the division is gettable. I don’t think the (New England Patriots) are what they were and I think the (New York Jets) are in many ways similar to the Bills and Miami has some issues on the offensive line that they have to get resolved. So, this may be the time when the division is as available as it’s ever been.”
Polian currently works at ESPN as a studio analyst discussing the NFL, but if anything was apparent Friday, it was the fact that he deeply, and sincerely, treasured his time in Western New York.
“There’s still strong ties (to the area),” Polian said. “And honestly, it was harder than I realized (to leave Buffalo). And even when I worked in the league office in 1993, we didn’t leave here. We stayed here, the boys graduated from high school, we kept our house, we kept our friends, and it wasn’t until we went to Carolina that we moved. So, in many ways, this is home.”