Game ball in Bills’ first win in Chicago goes to Ralph Wilson’s widow

CHICAGO — Mary Wilson, widow of the late owner of the Buffalo Bills, got the game ball.

The Bills on Sunday upset the Chicago Bears 23-20 in overtime at Soldier Field.

In 55 years of existence, it was the franchise’s first victory in Chicago and the first regular-season game that founding owner Ralph Wilson was not alive to see, either in person or on TV.

He died in March at age 95.

After the game, Bills president and CEO Russ Brandon handed the game ball to Mary Wilson.

“I met her outside,” an emotional Brandon said in the Bills locker room. “Obviously, it’s been an emotional time without Mr. Wilson. It was our first game without him.

“It was just outstanding to present Mary with the game ball, especially in a city like Chicago. The (owning) McCaskey family has been so unbelievable to the NFL and to the Wilson family. It was an emotional day all the way around.

“Mr. Wilson is in my thoughts every day. But this morning … He really weighed heavily on my thoughts. He loved opening day. He loved Sundays. I wish he was here to see this. But I know he did.”

The Bills are for sale and should have a new owner in place soon, as early as next month. Binding bids are due Monday.

Bon Jovi still part of Toronto group hoping to buy Buffalo Bills, sources say

Jon Bon Jovi remains part of the Toronto group hoping to buy the Buffalo Bills. He never left, he never got the boot.

Multiple sources over the weekend said the rock star has not been “chucked from” the group, as reported Friday night by the New York Post, nor has Bon Jovi left the group.

That said, Bon Jovi and his two Toronto support investors — MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum and the Rogers family (whose interests are represented by Edward Rogers, deputy chairman of Rogers Communications Inc.) — remain highly pessimistic they’ll be able to buy the team, something sources have been telling Sun Media since the beginning of August.

The Toronto group’s bid ceiling with Bon Jovi as controlling partner is up to about $1.2 billion, sources have said. That’s unlikely to be enough to buy the team.

Finalists must submit binding, definitive bids by Tuesday, Sept. 9, Sun Media reported late last month.

The trust of the late Ralph Wilson, who founded the Bills in 1960, is overseeing this private sale with the help of investment bank Morgan Stanley and law firm Proskauer Rose.

The Toronto group’s first, non-binding bid — which Sun Media now knows to have been an exact range of $800 million to $900 million — was deemed to be uncompetitively low by Morgan Stanley in late July.

In early August the group resubmitted a non-binding bid range of precisely $1.0 billion to $1.1 billion. Sun Media reported this on Aug. 21, a day after Forbes.com claimed the Toronto group had bid only $820 million and that all indicative bids were under $900 million.

The Wilson trust and its advisers have yet to receive adequate assurances from the Toronto group that it would keep the Bills in Western New York, long-term, and that remains an enormous issue with Bon Jovi’s bid. The principals know it too, especially after an unpromising face-to-face meeting with the sellers in Manhattan in mid-August.

Whether the group plans to follow through and submit a binding bid next week remained uncertain over the long weekend.

Sources involved in the Bills sale process would not be surprised if the group winds up disbanding before then, but one source said Bon Jovi has been working on this plan for a long time, and with only one week to go he probably won’t pull out now.

Sun Media reported exclusively nearly two weeks ago that Bon Jovi and his deep-pocketed partners based in Canada’s most populous city were reassessing whether even to continue in their pursuit of the NFL team.

The Post reported Friday that Bon Jovi had been “chucked” from the Toronto group. Sun Media followed up a few hours later saying it would be highly unlikely Bon Jovi had been forced out of his own group by his subordinate partners. Multiple sources for months have said that Bon Jovi has run, navigated and overseen every decision, at every step of the process, within the Toronto bid group.

The Post report also claimed that Edward Rogers — son of the late Ted Rogers, who founded the Canadian telecom giant that bears his surname — supposedly remained “very serious” about still bidding for the NFL team without Bon Jovi.

One source on the weekend, however, insisted that if the Toronto group fractured, there would be little likelihood that any of the three principals would team with another bidder at this late stage.

Bon Jovi and his so-called Toronto group are among four known finalists hoping to buy the Bills. The other three are multi-billionaires: Buffalo Sabres owner and fracking specialist Terry Pegula, celebrity real-estate mogul Donald Trump and payroll-systems titan Tom Golisano.

 

 

Michigan and Notre Dame: natural enemies in one of college football’s most electric rivalries play for the last time on Saturday night

Mich

A recurring theme in the often bitter, more-off-than-on Michigan-Notre Dame college football rivalry is this.

When one school pulls the plug on the series, the jilted other stews. Then burns. Once soaked in bitterness it ridicules the other — even for decades on end.

And it’s happening again.

The only thing unique about the coming Michigan-Notre Dame series hiatus — which begins following Saturday’s primetime matchup at Notre Dame, Ind. (7:30 p.m. EDT, NBC) — is that for the first time the plug-puller isn’t Michigan.

It’s Notre Dame.

Two years ago, about an hour before the host Fighting Irish and Wolverines squared off at Notre Dame Stadium, ND athletic director Jack Swarbrick handed his Michigan counterpart, Dave Brandon, an envelope. Didn’t seem like a big deal to Brandon, so he just pocketed it.

The next day, on the three-hour drive back to Ann Arbor, Brandon opened the envelope to find a letter from Swarbrick, informing him that Notre Dame was exercising the out-trigger in their football contract, meaning only three more games were to be played — specifically, the night before’s 2012 game (won 13-6 by Notre Dame), last year’s 41-30 win by Michigan in Ann Arbor, and this Saturday night’s game.

The schools in 2007 had announced an extension to play through 2031 but Brandon discovered upon becoming Michigan’s AD in 2010 that the deal never was consummated in a signed document. For starters, in a contract dated May 16, 2011, the schools agreed on seven dates through 2017.

Only one of those games had been played when Swarbrick handed Brandon The Envelope.

“While this move is a necessary precaution as we begin the process of meeting our new (five-game annual) scheduling commitment to the ACC,” Swarbrick wrote in the letter to Brandon, a copy of which Sun Media has obtained, “please know that Notre Dame very much values its relationship with Michigan, and we look forward to working with you to ensure that our great football rivalry can continue.”

Brandon was miffed. First, to have been informed in that manner. Second, to not have been consulted about it. And third, to have been informed mere minutes before the 2012 game, which allowed Notre Dame to conclude the modern series with an extra home game, as relations were renewed at Notre Dame Stadium in 1978 after a 35-year series layoff.

Brandon did not hide his disappointment publicly in the days following The Envelope’s handoff.

“We value our annual rivalry with Notre Dame but will have to see what the future holds for any continuation of the series,” Brandon said at the time. “This cancellation presents new scheduling opportunities for our program and provides a chance to create some new rivalries.”

Brandon since then has gone further, saying the Notre Dame series won’t resume any time soon, if ever. He already has inked home-and-homes and one-off games against other national powers — such as Oklahoma, Arkansas and Florida — to fill the early-season voids created by the loss of the hotly contested, highly anticipated Notre Dame games.

For marquee non-conference opponents, Michigan is scheduled out now until the middle of next decade. That’s a direct result of the stewing and burning.

The return ridiculing began in May 2013, when Wolverine head coach Brady Hoke told a lunch crowd that Notre Dame was “chickening out” of the series, because the Fighting Irish aren’t interrupting their annual series with their other Big Ten conference rivals: Michigan State (just now a power) and ever-struggling Purdue.

Seconds after time ran out in Michigan’s primetime win over Notre Dame a year ago, The Chicken Dance blared over the Michigan Stadium PA — to the laughter, enjoyment and clap-clap-clap-claps of more than 100,000 Wolverine fans.

The irony of Michigan’s poutiness is as thick as the cornstalks in all those farm fields wedged between South Bend and Ann Arbor.

NaturalHere’s why, as I detailed in Natural Enemies, my history book on this series that first came out in 1994 and last was published by Taylor Trade in 2007.

Michigan was Notre Dame’s very first football opponent, in November 1887 — 16 years before the first Yankees-Bosox baseball game, five years before the Stanley Cup first was hoisted and four years before basketball was even invented.

As their fight song would later boast, the Wolverines were “champions of the West” (i.e, Midwest). They literally taught football to a group of eager ND students, whose idea of the sport to that point had been a hundred players to a side, struggling to kick or throw a ball over the other’s fence.

For the next 30 years Notre Dame aspired to be everything that mighty Michigan already was in Western college athletics, particularly football.

But like a pesky little brother who insists on hanging out with his older brother and his buds, Michigan kept telling Notre Dame to go away.

“Will Ann Arbor dare to meet Notre Dame this fall?” Notre Dame’s Scholastic student newspaper whined in 1889. “She crows loudly over (lowly) Albion, but keeps a discreet silence as to our eleven, and perhaps does not want to hear from ND.”

The truth was Michigan could not have cared less about ND, then a Catholic school for boys, teens and young men alike with no athletic prowess to speak of.

After the 1902 game Michigan charged Notre Dame players with slugging, and one with repeatedly swiping at the ball as Michigan’s centre snapped it. Michigan broke off relations again, for six years.

It was at the resumption game in 1908 that two Notre Dame students decided to write the school’s world famous fight song: The Notre Dame Victory March. Michigan’s marching band had blared its own famous fight song that day — one that band-music icon John Philip Sousa called the greatest of all college marches, The Victors — and the ND students thought their school ought to have its own.

In 1909 Notre Dame finally beat Michigan, in its ninth attempt. At halftime, newspaper writers and photographers had overheard a Notre Dame player plead with his teammates, “You’re all Irish and you’re not fighting worth a lick!” The next day the Detroit Free Press labelled victorious Notre Dame as the “Fighting Irishmen,” and a nickname was born.

The Wolverines scheduled a rematch for 1910, under Michigan eligibility rules. But when Notre Dame vowed to play a pair of athletic tramps whose eligibility, UM claimed, had long since lapsed, Michigan authorities cancelled the game — and the series for decades.

MIt wasn’t until 1940 that Michigan — specifically, long-time football paragon Fielding H. Yost — got over it. A mellowed Yost scheduled a home-and-home with Notre Dame for 1942-43, which the teams split.

In the interim, Yost had engaged in one of the sport’s bitterest (albeit mostly private) off-field coaching feuds, with Notre Dame’s legendary Knute Rockne.

Yost (left, in accompanying photo) charged that Rockne (right) sought competitive shelter at Notre Dame, where scheduling and intra-mural development rules were laxer than in the Big Ten. Yost also argued that Rockne’s devastating  shift offence was illegal, and successful only because friendly game officials Rockne lined up egregiously refused to rein it in.

Rockne counter-charged that Yost was a “hillbilly” whose West Virginia upbringing made him “very narrow on religion,” and whose athletic jealousy of Rockne’s and his Catholic school’s success blinded him as much as it outraged him.

Rockne lampooned Yost and his anti-Notre Dame stance at every opportunity.

Rockne died in a plane crash in 1931, but by then he had got Notre Dame Stadium built — a deliberate virtual copy of Michigan Stadium, which had been constructed three years earlier.

MThe schools’ icy feud resumed after World War II, this time carried out by Michigan coach and athletic director Fritz Crisler and his Notre Dame counterpart, Frank Leahy.

To Leahy, a devout Catholic (left in accompanying photo, snapped after the 1942 game), every lap run and touchdown scored by his maniacally prepared players was a sacrament to the Virgin Mary. That attitude aided him immensely in recruiting, as virtually every prep Catholic football star in America was urged to choose Notre Dame.

This offended Crisler (right) to his agnostic soul. In 1944 he resumed Yost’s old football boycott of Notre Dame, only unlike his predecessor Crisler never budged from it. He retired in 1968 as opposed to Notre Dame as ever.

Leahy’s brother Gene twice angrily wrote Crisler about it, charging that if the Michigan leader “had a spark of sportsmanship” in him he’d schedule Notre Dame, adding:

“YOU have not had the GUTS to play Notre Dame since 1943, when they humiliated your DREAM TEAM, and have resorted to every foul trick within your reach to discredit them ever since.”

Crisler’s athletic-director successor, Don Canham, immediately reached out to Notre Dame, in his attempts to fill then massively undersold Michigan Stadium. Notre Dame enthusiastically agreed to resume football relations once the schools could work out the dates.

To that point in time, Michigan always had been the school that had ended the series, Notre Dame always the one asking to resume it.

Since the friendly resumption in 1978, some of college football’s most memorable modern moments have occurred in Michigan-Notre Dame games. (See sidebar.)

After the stirring 1994 game, and just before one of the occasional, mutual mini-breaks in the modern series, Tim Layden wrote in yet another Sports Illustrated coverstory on a Wolverine-Irish clash that “we will be lost these next two autumns — will we not? — as Notre Dame and Michigan interrupt this series … None of (these schools’ replacement) games will teach us what Notre Dame-Michigan has taught us over the years.”

Alas, the series never regained the momentum it had at that point — when both teams were national powers, beginning every year in the thick of the national-championship race, and almost always battling to some unlikely dramatic ending.

Only the latter has continued.

“It’s amazing how many games have gone down to the last play of the game,” former Michigan head coach Lloyd Carr told me in 2003. “The greatest thing about the Notre Dame-Michigan game is it’s played early, so neither team is going to play their best game of the year.

“But they’re never going to play any harder. So it’s led to some unbelievable games.”

Which brings us to the last game.

If Notre Dame wins, the modern series will have been a wash: each team will have won 15 times. (They tied 17-17 in 1992, after Holtz infamously let the last minute run out with ND in possession deep in its own end.)

If Michigan wins, the Wolverines will have added to their early-series dominance by going 16-14-1 since 1978, for an overall rivalry lead of 25-16-1.

Either way, heading into Saturday’s finale Notre Dame’s all-time winning percentage is 73.32% — tops in college football history.

Michigan’s is 73.27%, second by a hair.

Thus, fittingly, the victor of Saturday’s game not only will have bragging rights for years, maybe even decades, but can rightly claim to be the most successful team in the history of the sport.

Think the winner will rub it in to the loser? You better believe it.

 

Memorable modern moments …

M*    1980: Harry Oliver’s last-play, 51-yard field goal that eked over the cross bar after a brisk facing wind suddenly died, as announcers and Notre Dame Stadium went bananas.

*    1989: Raghib Ismail’s two kickoff-return TDs that propelled No. 1 Notre Dame to victory at No. 2 Michigan, Lou Holtz’s third win in a row over UM coach Bo Schembechler.

*    1991: Desmond Howard’s famous, flat-out diving catch for a touchdown on a long, fourth-and-inches throw, to seal Michigan’s first series win in five years.

*    1993: Holtz getting a victory ride at Michigan Stadium after his heavy-underdog Irish ripped up the No. 3 Wolverines.

M*    1994: Michigan’s counter to Harry Oliver: a 42-yard field goal from Remy Hamilton to steal victory, after a great touchdown pass from super-frosh Ron Powlus only 40 seconds earlier appeared to have wrapped up another stirring Notre Dame comeback.

*    2010 and 2011: Pass-and-run Wolverine marvel Denard Robinson rushing for a game-winning TD in the final seconds of the 2010 game, then a year later completing two passes covering the last 75 yards on the game’s final two scrimmage plays, to give Michigan the unlikeliest series win of all.

- – -

Modern-era photos snapped by my amazing brother, Jason Kryk

 

 

M

Report says Bon Jovi booted from Toronto bid group, but if he’s out it isn’t for that reason

A report out of New York late Friday night claimed rocker Jon Bon Jovi has been kicked out of the Toronto group trying to buy the Buffalo Bills.

While it might well be true the bid group has splintered, or that some or all of its three principals — Bon Jovi, MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum and Edward Rogers (representing his family) — have packed it in, it is highly unlikely that the latter two booted out Bon Jovi, as the New York Post alleges.

Multiple sources for months have told Sun Media that Bon Jovi has run, navigated and overseen every decision at every step of the process within the Toronto bid group — from the get-go. The Post’s report would be akin to Bon Jovi leaving the rock group he formed, and which bears his name, but someone reporting he got booted out of it. Uh, no.

It would be no surprise if Bon Jovi has quit the group. If true, however, sources close to the Toronto group were unaware of it late Friday night. One source severely doubted the report.

Yet Sun Media reported exclusively last week that Bon Jovi and his deep-pocketed Toronto backers were reassessing whether even to continue in their pursuit of the NFL team.

Their bid has been on the rocks for weeks, and no one within the group is optimistic they’ll wind up buying the NFL team, according to two sources in the position to know.

The group cancelled a scheduled tour of Ralph Wilson Stadium a week ago Wednesday.

“They’re hanging on by the skin of their teeth,” one source said. “The bid’s on life support.”

It has nothing to do with the announced departure of CEO Tim Leiweke from Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, whose role in the bid has been overstated (most often by Leiweke himself).

But it has everything to do with (1) the group’s limited bidding power with Bon Jovi in the lead, and (2) lingering doubts about whether the trust would sell the club to a group that continues to refuse to commit to keeping the Bills in Western New York long-term.

The Post suggested Rogers and Tanenbaum would proceed themselves and submit a binding, definitive bid for the Bills.

One Sun Media source reached late Friday strongly doubted that. Another said that Tanenbaum might also pull out if it’s true that Bon Jovi has backed out, but that Rogers might try to remain alive as a similar, large-chunk background investor in another bid for the Bills.

Rogers had about a 35% stake in Bon Jovi’s group.

While Tanenbaum could front a bid for the Bills himself — he too already was into the Bon Jovi/Tanenbaum/Rogers group for about 35%, and the NFL’s principal-ownership threshold is 30% — he likely could not backfill 60% or 70% of a bid fronted by the Rogers family.

And whether Edward Rogers and his family could even front a bid raises questions, because of the complicated nature of how the family’s reported $7-billion fortune is run.

Edward — the deputy chairman of Rogers Communications Inc. — alone does not control that fortune. Nor does even he, his mother and his sisters together. Rather, a trust does — which includes not only those Rogers family members but others.

What’s more, one Sun Media source has insisted since early July that if Bon Jovi ever left the Toronto group, the issue of relocation would become even more acute if only Tanenbaum and Rogers were left. That’s because at least Bon Jovi was not from Toronto. Both Tanenbaum and Rogers, of course, are. And both were actively involved in plans, however preliminary, to relocate the Bills to Toronto at first opportunity — until their bid group changed course in June.

There are three other known finalist bidders for the Bills: multi-billionaires Terry Pegula, Donald Trump and Tom Golisano.

Sun Media reported last Friday that definitive, binding bids are due Sept. 9. And in order to get on the agenda for owners to approve a presumptive new owner at their October meeting, the NFL’s finance committee would have to review and approve the sale at its next meeting, which Sun Media has reported to be on Sept. 17.

Buffalo Bills offensive attack reeks, and it had better improve — fast

BILLS

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – The Buffalo Bills offence reeks like a late-summer bog, but you can’t say it doesn’t try to be balanced.

Of seven dreadful first-half drives against Tampa Bay on Saturday, four skidded to an early halt by punt, three by turnover.

That’s balance, as odd-numbered splits go.

At halftime the Bills jogged off the field to a chorus of boos at refurbished Ralph Wilson Stadium, trailing the Buccaneers 24-0.

At that point the first-team Buffalo offence still hadn’t scored a preseason touchdown, in 18 drives over three-and-a-half games.

In football you’re either getting better or getting worse, and the offensive attack of second-year Bills head coach Doug Marrone is regressing.

“Obviously that’s not good enough,” Marrone said of his offence’s day. “We cannot not execute well. If we were getting beat out there physically, then I’d say, ‘Hey guys, we’ve got to get some players in here.’

“But we’ve just got to execute. We’re not executing well.”

Yes, it was just a preseason game, which the Bucs won 27-14.

And, yes, the Bills refrained from employing plays they think will work best against a Lovie Smith-style defence. (Smith is the new head coach of these Bucs but his former team, the Bears, still employ his defensive system, and the Bills open the regular season in Chicago on Sept. 7.)

But this is the third full weekend of the NFL preseason, when most teams leave their starters in for the entire first half. It’s as close to a legit litmus test as there is in August.

This one bodes horribly for a team coming off three consecutive 6-10 seasons, and which has not made the playoffs this century.

If the Buffalo offence does not improve — markedly, and fast — even 6-10 might be unattainable in 2014. And you wonder why the natives are restless.

“When you play poorly you should get booed. There’s no doubt about it,” Marrone said. “I don’t have any problem with that. It’s directed to me and it starts with me.”

The most hopeful Bills fan could not watch that travesty of a first half on Saturday and fail to conclude there’s a lot more wrong than right with this offence.

A big chunk of it falls on second-year quarterback EJ Manuel (my photo of him, above), who on this day appeared lost. Behind him, Buffalo scrounged only 82 yards of total offence on eight drives in those opening two quarters (when you throw in the last-minute clock run-out). That’s pathetic.

Manuel accounted for only 57 yards through the air before halftime. In that time he completed only half of his 18 passes, 10 of which were dumpoffs to tight ends or running backs.

Why is he checking down so much? Is he Checkdown Charlie II? Perhaps. But with dynamic rookie wideout Sammy Watkins out with sore ribs, most NFL quarterbacks on Saturday probably also would have concluded their most reliable pass-catching options in this offence, with the exception of former Buccaneers wideout Mike Williams, are at running back (C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson) and tight end (Scott Chandler).

So, of course, in this game Chandler slipped on a curl on the sixth play of the game, resulting in an easy interception for Tampa Bay safety Dashon Goldson. And Spiller fumbled two drives later to scotch Buffalo’s only first-half foray into Bucs territory.

Even though Manuel and the Bills offence sparkled on consecutive touchdown drives to start the third quarter, understand that that came against Tampa Bay’s second- and third-stringers. Manuel, Marrone and the Bills will wring all the positives they can from that, as they should.

No one else should.

It’s not all on Manuel. He’s as new to the NFL as is his offensive coordinator, Nathaniel Hackett. So this must be asked: Are Hackett and the Bills offensive coaches putting Manuel in the best position to succeed?

Sometimes Hackett’s attack appears much too college-like. Too many read-option based plays, when Manuel isn’t an effective read-option quarterback at all; that’s why Florida State did not use it much when he starred there.

And there was this. On Buffalo’s scoring drive to open the third quarter, Hackett called a rollout, college-style run for Manuel near the Bucs goal line. Tampa Bay’s backup defenders easily tracked him down for a seven-yard loss — a waste of a red-zone play.

Manuel bailed out Hackett with a nice pass in the end zone to Williams on third-and-goal from the 14.

To his credit, Marrone called out Hackett and his staff afterward.

“Our coaches, I told them that we need to do a better job offensively.”

Veteran Bills running back Fred Jackson did not appear too concerned.

“It was a preseason game, and we can’t overreact to that,” said Jackson, who gathered the entire offence in a circle on the sideline late in the second quarter to holler encouragement.

“A lot of stuff outside this locker room is going to be said, and we can’t continue to focus on that. We know we’re a better offensive unit than what we put out there.”

They’d better be. Right away.

 

Alan Branch latest Bills defensive tackle arrested

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – The Buffalo Bills are cornering the market on defensive tackles in trouble with the law.

With Marcell Dareus still dealing with his two separate road arrests in May, Alan Branch was a no-show at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Saturday against the Tampa Bay Bucs.

Bills head coach Doug Marrone said Branch, an eight-year NFL veteran, had been arrested. Marrone did not say why.

“It was reported to me that he was arrested,” Marrone said. “I’m going to meet with him tomorrow. I found out somewhere around noon midday.

“That’s all I know for a fact. I can’t say anything else.”

Tim Graham of the Buffalo News later reported that Branch was arrested for drunk driving.

Branch chose not to participate in any of the Bills’ voluntary training or practice sessions in April, May and June — then showed up out of shape for camp in July.

He signed a new three-year, $9.3-million contract with the Bills earlier this year, with $3.1 million guaranteed.

Branch didn’t play until late in the game a week ago in Pittsburgh, perhaps a signal the he might get cut by next weekend when rosters trim down to 53.