Full disclosure, those of us in this business have our favorites, people who, for one reason or another, we choose not to criticize in print or on the air.
You will never read a negative word from me about either Marv Levy or Kent Hull.
Clearly, they were with the Bills through the most successful stretch in the franchise’s last 55 years.
But that’s not why I had so much respect for them.
Levy, the Hall of Fame coach who led Buffalo to four straight Super Bowls, is an extraordinary human being who was able to relate to every player on the roster from the brightest to the most intellectually challenged, from the most highly skilled to the least-talented.
But that wasn’t all. He insisted on knowing the names of the media who covered his team and never forgot them.
Several times I appeared on his TV show, and at one of those, I introduced him to my wife. From that day forward, whenever we were one-on-one, Marv would add, “My best to Vicki?” It seems to be a small thing … except it isn’t. To me it spoke to his genuine sincerity as a person.
Hull, the late Pro Bowl center, in my mind was easily the media’s favorite Bills player in the 48 years I’ve covered the team. Kent never ducked the press, was ALWAYS willing to talk after a loss and his insightful answers were delivered with Southern phrasing that brought his quotes to life in a story.
Upon his retirement, after the 1996 season, those of us who benefited from his wisdom for 12 seasons with the Bills, took him to lunch. He was also given a mocked up lead sports page adorned with three pictures of him as a player and written tributes from 13 of us. A copy of that page hangs proudly in my home office.
For the record, the number of times the media has done that for any other Buffalo player would be … zero.
Another name on my “won’t criticize list” is Stew Barber, the former Bradford High, Penn State and Bills star. Stew’s credentials as a player were impeccable. An All-America offensive tackle for the Nittany Lions as a senior, he was also an AFL All-Star for five straight years.
However, in 1979, late Bills owner Ralph Wilson hired Barber to be Buffalo’s general manager. Stew’s job, basically, was to watch out for the boss’ money … a circumstance that put him at odds with coach Chuck Knox.
Barber, in the media, soon became the curmudgeon who wouldn’t finance the Bills stepping up to the next level, a perception likely planted by Knox.
The press eviscerated him … except for me.
Stew was good friends with one of my best buddies from Bradford, where I lived at the time. Thus, Barber treated me as such, once telling me, “You’re the only media person I talk to … on, or off, the record.”
In the cases of Levy, Hull and Barber, my disinclination to be critical of them was borne of my job and the personal interaction it created.
AND THAT brings me Terry Pegula, the embattled owner of the Bills and Sabres.
My 35-year relationship with him far precedes his purchase of two premier professional sports franchises AND the circumstances that produced the staggering wealth which permitted him to do so.
Our friendship dates to the mid-1980s when he owned East Resources in Allegany and we played racquetball together for several years in leagues at the Olean Racquet Club.
In that time, I learned one thing, Terry Pegula is a certified good guy.
If there was any doubt, it was dispensed about a dozen years ago when he hosted a party for his East Resources employees at Gargoyle Park. He bussed his Pittsburgh employees here to join their Allegany counterparts in an event that featured a night-long open bar, incredible food and entertainment from a country & western group that was part of his record company.
And, oh yeah, he also invited all of his former racquetball leaguemates.
What impressed me is that in talking to a half-dozen of his employees, every one of them declared Terry was the best boss they ever had … unchallenged.
Shortly thereafter, he sold his Marcellus Shale fracking rights to Royal Dutch Shell and instantly became a billionaire.
That evoked an almost Walter Mitty-like chain of events for Pegula, who first bought the Sabres in 2011 then, three years later, purchased the Bills and eventually also acquired lacrosse’s Buffalo Bandits and Rochester Knighthawks and minor hockey’s Rochester Americans.
Sadly, since then, that sweet story has turned sour.
In the nine full seasons under Pegula’s stewardship, the Sabres have missed the playoffs each year while having six coaches and four general managers, including the Tuesday hiring of Kevyn Adams, who has no experience as a GM or assistant.
However, much of the vitriol has been aimed at Terry’s wife Kim, CEO of Pegula Sports and Entertainment and president of both the Bills and Sabres.
Fortunately, the Bills have made the playoffs two of the last three seasons after a 17-year absence, but Kim has become a pinata for the media, which views her as unqualified for either job, let alone both.
The Pegulas have been blasted for the deteriorating infrastructure at KeyBank Center and their persistent hiring of unsuccessful coaches and management-level personnel.
They’ve been called among the worst owners in the National Hockey League and the popular perception is that they got lucky in the hiring of coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane, who have brought some success and stability to the Bills.
Seeing a friend enduring such brutal criticism in the media merely makes me sad though; in fairness, if it weren’t for our friendship, I’d likely be one of those taking the shots.
But my perspective is different … I’m fiercely loyal to my friends.
That old saying, “No good deed goes unpunished,” keeps rattling around in my head.
Yet I know full well, in buying the Bills and Sabres, the teams of which he was a lifelong fan, he felt he was doing absolutely the right thing for Western New York.
Now, with all of his businesses feeling the fallout from coronavirus – particularly the sports teams – I can’t help but wonder whether he thinks it was worth it.
(Chuck Pollock, a Times Herald senior sports columnist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)