Ralph Wilson, Longtime Bills Owner, Dies at 95
FILE - This March 2, 2006, file photo shows Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson arriving for a meeting with NFL owners and commissioner Paul Tagliabue at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York. Bills owner Wilson Jr. has died at the age of 95. NFL.com says team president Russ Brandon announced his death at the league's annual meeting in Orlando, Fla., Tuesday, March 25, 2014. He was one of the original founders of the American Football League and owned the Bills for the last 54 years. (AP Photo/ Louis Lanzano, File)
Buffalo, n.y. — During his 95 years, Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson went from fan to “Foolish Club” member to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, enjoying every step along the way.
The NFL lost the person regarded as the league’s “conscience” on Tuesday, when Wilson died at his home around 1:40 p.m. Bills president Russ Brandon announced Wilson’s death at the NFL owners meetings in Orlando, Fla.
His death resonated among the owners — from old to new. Wilson played an integral role in establishing the modern game, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2009.
In 1959, Wilson founded the Bills in helping establish the upstart American Football League, whose owners were dubbed “The Foolish Club” for having the chutzpah to challenge the NFL. Some five years later, Wilson played an influential role in setting the framework of the two leagues’ merger.
“Ralph Wilson was a driving force in developing pro football into America’s most popular sport,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said. “Ralph always brought a principled and common-sense approach to issues.”
Patriots owner Robert Kraft released a statement saying how grateful he was for how Wilson welcomed him to the NFL, adding: “I will miss him.”
The last surviving member of the original AFL owners, Wilson died at his home in Grosse Pointe Shores, Mich., said Mary Mazur, spokeswoman for the Wayne County medical examiner’s office. He had been receiving home hospice care.
Wilson had been in failing health since having hip surgery in 2011. Though he spent much of his time at his home in suburban Detroit, he attended Hall of Fame induction weekends. He was a regular at Bills home games since founding the franchise, but had not been there since going to one game in 2010.
Wilson gave up daily oversight of the club on Jan. 1, 2013, when he relinquished the president’s title to Brandon.
Wilson earned a well-established reputation for loyalty to fans and the stands he took against franchise relocation.
Wilson’s Bills have never won a Super Bowl. They came close in the early 1990s, when the Marv Levy-coached and Jim Kelly-quarterbacked teams won four consecutive AFC championships, but lost each time.
The Bills have not made the playoffs since 1999 and their 14-year postseason drought ranks as the NFL’s longest active streak.
In 2010, with the Bills 0-5, Wilson began an interview with The Associated Press with an apology. “I want to apologize for this phone system,” Wilson said, with a familiar chuckle. “It’s almost as bad as my team.”
The future of the team is now in the hands of Brandon and Wilson’s second-in-command, Bills treasurer Jeffrey Littmann. For the meantime, the Bills are expected to be placed in a trust before eventually being sold.
Wilson expressed no interest of leaving the team to his family. He is survived by wife Mary, daughter Christy Wilson-Hofmann, who serves as a Bills consultant. There’s also niece Mary Owen, who serves on several NFL committees while working as the team’s executive vice president of strategic planning.
Kelly has expressed interest in buying the franchise and has previously said he’s assembled a group of investors.
Kelly’s health, however, has become an issue this week. He is expected to have surgery for a second time in a year following the recurrence of cancer that his wife described as aggressive and “starting to spread.”
Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula is also considered a candidate to purchase the Bills and keep them in Buffalo.
That doesn’t remove the possibility of outside interests making offers and relocating the team to larger markets such as Los Angeles or nearby Toronto.
The Bills’ future in Orchard Park is secure for the short term. The team negotiated a 10-year lease in December 2012 with the state and county to continue playing at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
It’s a $271 million deal, of which $130 million will be committed to upgrading an aging stadium that opened in 1973.
The agreement includes a provision that essentially locks in the Bills through the first seven seasons. The franchise would have to pay $400 million if it decides to leave before 2019. The team then has an option of buying out the remaining three years of the lease for $28 million.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo called the Bills an “economic engine for the region,” and credited Wilson’s commitment for keeping the franchise in Buffalo.
Under Wilson, the Bills produced 10 Hall of Famers, including himself and Smith. The others were Kelly, Levy, Thurman Thomas, O.J. Simpson, offensive linemen Billy Shaw and Joe DeLamielleure, receiver James Lofton and receiver Andre Reed, who will be inducted this year.
Born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1918, Wilson moved to Detroit three years later when his father, Ralph Wilson Sr., took a sales job at an auto dealership. The father turned to insurance and in the mid-1930s landed a deal with Chrysler Corp.
It was growing up in Detroit, where Wilson developed his passion for football, after attending his first Lions game at Tiger Stadium.
Among Wilson’s first moves upon taking over his father’s insurance business in 1959, was selling his minor share in the Lions and joining up with Lamar Hunt and Bud Adams to help found the AFL.
In 1964, Wilson traveled to the Winter Games at Innsbruck, Austria — where he slept on the floor of a reporter’s room because all the hotels were booked — to help broker the AFL’s landmark TV deal with NBC.
Wilson still carried influence with Goodell, who leaned on the Bills owner for advice, and among current NFL owners.
Shahid Khan reached out to Wilson for advice before completing his purchase of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2012.
“Given his legacy as a builder and visionary, I imagine Ralph was able to relate to my dream to one day join him as a team owner,” Khan said. “I’ll never forget his kindness and will always treasure the letter he wrote welcoming my family to the NFL.”
Wilson wore the “Foolish Club” badge with honor.
“What a damn fool I was,” he told the AP in 2009. “But I didn’t care. I just wanted to own a team.”
In 1998, Wilson received the “Order of the Leather Helmet” from the NFL Alumni Association for his contributions to professional football.
Wilson always maintained a healthy perspective in regards to what mattered when it came to football, including his place in the game.
When asked about the fragmented state of football in the mid-1990s, Wilson joked: “It’s such a great game, it’ll survive us.”
Funeral arrangements have not yet been determined.
AP Pro Football Writer Barry Wilner in Orlando, Fla., Associated Press writers Mike Householder in Detroit and Carolyn Thompson in Buffalo, AP Sports Writers Mark Long in Jacksonville, Fla., Paul Newberry in Atlanta, Larry Lage in Detroit, Dave Skretta in Kansas City, Tom Withers in Cleveland, Teresa Walker in Nashville and AP freelance writer Mark Ludwiczak contributed to this report.